Thursday, December 18, 2014

Garrett Fisher: High-flying photographer captures Colorado's 14ers from cockpit of his Piper PA-11

Each time his 1949 Piper PA-11 closed in on one of Colorado's iconic fourteeners, Garrett Fisher scanned the frozen vistas for an escape route.

If the engine were to cut out over the Sangre de Cristo range - which he flew on a subzero day huddled in two ski jackets and two pair of ski pants - he'd have his choice of emergency landings in snowbound farm fields to the east and west.

But if disaster came over the jagged ridges and jutting rock outcrops of the Elks or San Juans, options would be more limited.

"The issue is first surviving the landing. Then you're in crazy, rocky terrain with snow up to your chest, and the issue is: How do you get out?"

Such are the concerns of a high-flying peak bagger.

Fisher, 33, says he's fascinated by the beauty of Colorado's frozen peaks, and to document his vision, he undertook a bold photography project: capturing Colorado's 58 peaks of 14,000 feet or more from the cockpit of an antique plane.

Getting his shots took about 45 days over eight months and meant "flying by the seat of his pants with a map, no heat and no radio," as he says in jacket copy for a self-published book that resulted from the venture, "Above the Summit: An Antique Airplane Conquers Colorado's Fourteeners."

Organized by mountain range, the book contains 111 images along with detailed maps, an index of where to find each peak, and data on image orientation. It's available at and at Fisher's website,

While there's nothing new about aerial photography of fourteeners - they're routinely photographed by federal agencies and conservation groups, among others - this project is focused on their aesthetic value.

There's also the wrinkle of navigating high-mountain winds in a single-engine, two-passenger plane packing no more than 100 horsepower.

"It's the bare-minimum legal instrumentation, including compass, a few engine gauges and airspeed and altimeter," Fisher said.

Restored by Fisher's grandfather in 1996, it's also the plane he learned to fly at a family-owned, grass landing strip in upstate New York, he said.

A financial consultant, Fisher was living in Breckenridge when he decided to take a run at photographing the fourteeners.

He began by flying toward the mountains and testing air currents to get a sense for how the plane would hold up to high altitude winds, and he hewed to a rule of thumb for safety: Fly no lower than the peak he's attempting to photograph.

From the cockpit of his Piper, Fisher said an updraft felt as if he were being pushed from under his seat vertically into the sky.

He kept his window open so that the Plexiglass didn't interfere with his camera, leaving him vulnerable to a "90 mph breeze down the back of my neck."

"Each flight was an adventure," he said. "Every single one of them had something different that was scary or a challenge had to be overcome. That's mountain flying. It's filled with unexpected outcomes. Each time I flew I got a little less terrified."

Because Fisher would be using the photographs for profit (he hasn't made any money yet, he says), he first had to get a commercial pilot's license.

Under FAA rules, pilots are free to fly near fourteeners so long as it's done safely, he said.

The project did involve violating voluntary airspace designations meant to preserve peace at Wilderness Areas, though Fisher said he left a soundless footprint.

Fisher, who's now living with his wife, Anne, in North Carolina's Outer Banks, says he's got other books of aerial photography in the offing, including plans to return to Colorado to photograph its most famous peaks during the summer.

Why start with winter time?

"Kind of 'why wouldn't you' is my thought," he said.

"I like clear air. And the air here in winter is absolutely the clearest air I've ever seen."

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