The Telluride Regional Airport is a beautiful place, even if you’re not departing or arriving by air. At 9,078 ft., the highest airport in North America sits on a mesa with high peaks on three sides and Utah’s La Sal Mountains as a distant backdrop to the west. Flying into this tiny airport can be frightening – it’s hard not to worry that you might sideswipe a mountain, or careen off the end of the short runway.
The airport is home to Gliding Telluride, offering winter, summer and fall glider tours around Telluride in a self-propelled Stemme S-10 Motorglider operated by Telluride Town Councilmember Robert “Glider Bob” Saunders.
Glider Bob has piloted gliders since the mid-1970s; these days, he takes up roughly 400 passengers a year, offering visitors and residents alike the opportunity to spend an afternoon touring the Telluride region from on high.
My assignment on a bluebird day last summer was to take in the sights, and grab a few pictures along the way.
After telling the staff at the airport terminal I was scheduled for a flight with Glider Bob, I walked out to the runway, toward the minimalist glossy white glider off in the distance, parked alongside other aircraft next to the terminal. I was met, with a friendly handshake, by Glider Bob, who was tinkering with his two-passenger aircraft as I approached.
I got my first surprise upon asking about the whereabouts of the tow plane I’d assumed would haul us to cruising altitude.
“This is what’ll get us up there,” he said, pulling back a section of the glider’s glossy white metal nosecone to expose a neatly folded propeller inside, powered by a center-mounted engine turning jet-black propeller fins.
Although “we can get to about 18,000 feet with the prop,” Glider Bob prefers lower altitudes, so he can get in close to the looming mountain peaks. We’d only go up to 12,000 feet or so, he said, before shutting the engine off.
With that, he pulled open the single-piece Plexiglas canopy to expose the cockpit, and showed me how to plant both hands on the aircraft, pull myself into a sitting position on the wing, then turn and slide my legs down into the cabin, navigating foot pedals and a joystick and settling in.
Strapping myself into my four-point seatbelt harness, my seat, pedals and joystick identical to those on Bob’s side, I now worried I’d be expected to help out with takeoff and landing, and maybe even master a few of the instruments on the control panel in front of me. The cabin of the aircraft, with its assortment of dials and switches for gauging and controlling our flight, looked like something out of Star Trek. Once again, Glider Bob set my fears at rest, explaining the general layout of the control panel and how the glider supports itself in flight.
“With the engine off, gravity pulls the aircraft down,” he said, “but the wings create lift, giving us flight.”
The glider loses one foot of altitude for every 50 feet it travels forward, he explained, and so, to maintain a 12,000-ft. altitude, he flies through columns of rising hot air, pushing the craft up – much like winds push a sailboat – to higher altitude, so it can repeat its controlled, slow descent.
Glider Bob prefers flying in the fall and winter months, when the network of white trails snaking down the mountain thrills his passengers, who are mostly here for the skiing. Soaring high above the steeply descending trails, he said, clients marvel that the skiers look like ants, carving their way down the slopes to congregate at the bottom of the chairlifts.
But on this perfect summer day, “with this weather, we can’t complain,” he said, and hopped into the fuselage to study the azure blue sky and minimal cloud cover above. The gradually shifting clouds indicated slowly rising temperatures, he said, scanning the skies to ascertain the accuracy of the day’s weather forecast. Monsoonal rains and humidity from the night before blanketed the distant valleys in a thin fog, but the emerging morning glow signaled good weather to come.
Happy with what he saw, Glider Bob now turned to the task of preparing for takeoff, twisting and turning dials on the control panel that caused small lights and electronic indicator screens to turn on. Strange humming and vibrating sounds emitted from various parts of the aircraft as he radioed in our flight plan to other aircraft and the airport advisory official. Awaiting a response, he fired the engine, causing the propeller to shoot violently out of its nosecone and start spinning vigorously, its whirr and the engine’s ruckus making the cabin buzz. With OKs from pilots and airport personnel, Glider Bob released the brakes. The aircraft jerked forward, slowly rolling away from the parking zone to the runway.
Centered on the runway and with hundreds of yards of tarmac ahead of us, Bob turned to me and asked, “You ready?”
Amidst the clatter, all I could say was, “Let’s do this!” He revved the engine to takeoff speed, causing even more noise and vibrations, and then released the brakes for takeoff.
Now we were passing the dotted white lines on the tarmac with increasing speed, leaving the airport in the blink of an eye, and, before I even realized it, tilting the aircraft nose upward to begin the flight.
I am never comfortable during takeoff in a commercial jet, but the feeling of the glider’s wheels leaving the tarmac was more like the smooth feeling of skiing on fresh powder – so subtle, you don’t realize you’re moving that fast.
“Do you ever get sick of this job?” I asked, as the airport shrank below us.
“No,” he said, with the grin of a man who has struck a balance in combining his passion and his work.
At first, I tried snapping pictures of the distant peaks and sprawling valleys, writing the occasional note of what Bob said, about, say, how the ice ages carved out Telluride’s box canyon. But soon, I decided it was better to settle in and enjoy my out-of-this-world experience as fully as possible.
As we climbed, details of Mt. Wilson emerged that I’d never imagined, even though I had studied the peak on my daily hikes around Telluride, which offer views of the mighty mountain. But I had never noticed the few stubborn remaining specks of grayish snow, which withstood even the midsummer sunlight. Clouds created dark blotches across the face of the mountain, making it hard to know where the shadows ended and tree line began.
I now focused my attention on the glider itself, as Glider Bob turned it towards the ski area, taking advantage of pockets of rising hot air that resulted in an occasional whoosh of wind. As the aptly named See Forever trail unspooled below us, I had a rare chance to view the entire ski area and Bear Creek at the same time. Hikers on See Forever waved as we soared by. “That’s one of my favorite parts,” said Bob. “When people wave at you from the ski resort, Ajax or Sneffels, they always look so happy to see the glider.”
He then turned the aircraft slightly south, placing Palmyra Peak – one of Telluride’s signature hike-to ski runs – in the center of the windshield, the opposite of the “if you focus on it, you will hit it” skiing philosophy.
In March 2013, I hiked Palmyra Peak to ski Senior’s, the uppermost trail at the resort. With three-quarters of the ski season under my belt, I was confident I could handle the massive peak.
The ensuing one-and-three-quarter-hour hike-and-ski proved otherwise. On that wintry day, the double-black trail, with its exposed rock beneath thin snow cover, threatened my concentration with sheer fright at every steep turn; one misstep or poorly executed turn on the way down could have led to a serious injury, or worse. Adrenaline pumped through my hands, which kept a deathlike grip on my ski poles.
But now, seeing the summer sun-soaked peak up close, from the angle of the glider, I reflected on the disparity between my experience with it in the winter versus now, and came to understand its true nature. Icy snow had given way to lush greenery; that stability-threatening exposed rock was just loose rocks. Palmyra Peak, it appeared, was no different from most of the peaks I climbed happily, in the spring and summer weeks before the flight. Seeing Palmyra up close was akin to seeing Toto expose the mighty Wizard of Oz for what he really was: a paper tiger with a penchant for illusion.
We next glided past Bridal Veil Falls, hovering far above the power plant precariously perched above the falls. The old mill and Black Bear Pass, one of the most dangerous passes in Colorado, were invariably dotted with slow-moving cars and dirt bikes. Tiny bright dots lined one of the rock walls north of the falls. I thought they were tiny spots of neon-colored spray paint, but Bob said they were hikers on the Via Ferrata (“Iron Road,” in Italian), a popular hiking trail that overlooks much of Bridal Veil and Telluride. With hundreds of feet of nothing but Rocky Mountain air below your feet, the ten-minute “Main Event” portion of the Via Ferrata is a series of iron rungs bolted across the middle of a sheer cliff face. I’ve completed the Main Event several backbreaking times, each one more thrilling than the last, my weight supported by nothing but the rungs (and safely attached to a support cable), with nothing but my sweaty palms and quivering feet prodding for the next rung.
I knew the Main Event was challenging, but it wasn’t until I was gliding around next to it that I realized it’s insane. One hiker, in a bright orange jacket, stood out against the brown cliff, with the height of a clock tower beneath him as he fought for the next rung, adrenaline surging as he traversed the unforgiving wall.
‘That was me,” I thought to myself, as I remembered trembling silently across the Main Event, everything focused on keeping my composure and completing my task. I remembered now how I’d once accidentally pushed a rock loose while grasping for the next rung, and saw it disappear down into the canyon in the blink of an eye; with a sweaty grip on the iron rung, I’d closed my eyes and slowly inhaled, desperately believing that the strength and integrity of my climbing gear would prevent my experiencing a similar fall.
But in Bob’s glider, hovering at 12,000 ft., looking down on the miniscule hiker swinging along the Main Event on the canyon wall, invariably quivering like I had, I quietly thanked the cosmos for good luck and safe returns from each of my Via Ferrata hikes, and wished the hiker well.
My reverie ended as Glider Bob turned us to face Telluride.
When I stand on main street in town, my gaze fixed on the distant mountains, the town makes me think of a model-train town in the Wild West. But up in the air, and actually among the mountaintops, I was transfixed by how starkly Telluride’s orderly bustling grid contrasted with the surrounding steep, jagged slopes on three sides. I imagined Telluride in its early days, the only organized society for dozens of miles, stubbornly opposing the harsh reality of the natural world at its borders.
With its constant summer monsoons and its unrelenting winter snowstorms, I reflected on how unforgiving the terrain was, and just how tough its early inhabitants must have been.And now, my flight nearly over, I felt a connection with the mining families of a bygone era, who eked by and prayed for favorable weather to make their living on the distant hills, long before the town transformed itself into the posh destination for outdoor enthusiasts and festival-goers it is today.
I snapped out of my reverie as the tiny airport and runway came into view, Glider Bob carefully maneuvering through the occasional spot of turbulence. After negotiating the glider to a smooth landing on the runway, he chuckled at the look of amazement on my face.
“You’ll want to do this again, I take it?” he said.
“Absolutely,” I said, coming back down to earth, still enthralled by the heaven from which I had descended.
No wonder he always looks relaxed, I thought to myself as I exited the aircraft. I would be too, if I visited that special place 400 times a year.
Headquartered at the Telluride Regional Airport, Glider Bob offers tours during the autumn, winter and summer months. He charges $130 for half-hour rides, and $180 for a full hour. For reservations, call Glider Bob at 970/708-0862. Glider Bob recommends calling a day or two ahead, as the weather frequently changes. For more information, visit www.glidetelluride.com.