Flying the 14ers
September 23, 2015
EAGLE — Garrett Fisher flies his own plane and takes pictures of the Rocky Mountains, from New Mexico to Montana, photographing mountains, glaciers and other topography, because topography is photogenic and flying is fun.
Yup, he knows how lucky he is.
Fisher is back in the air, taking thousands of photographs for more photo books. He has published several and has plans for several more.
We are our mountains
Most places have features that define them for people who aren't from there, and some who are. New York City has the Manhattan skyline. In Alaska, it's raw wilderness, Fisher said.
In general, visitors identify Colorado with snow-capped peaks, and specifically 14ers — our many mountain peaks of 14,000 feet or more.
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"What drives people to climb them and tourists to slam on their brakes and gawk at them, or for me to circle them in an airplane is rooted in the same thing — the enigmatic mystique of a pile of rocks that defined the conventions by which we live," Fisher said.
Like most pilots, Fisher tends to be romantic about flying, something he portrays in his books.
Few in this world will stand atop a 14er, Fisher said. Most of us view them from a distance or after getting off a ski lift. Distance reduces them to less than they are and makes them "ordinary," another mountain with snow on it, Fisher said.
They are not.
"An airplane joins a 14er in its domain: the high reaches of the atmosphere, looking at the highest mountains in the Continental United States as an equal," Fisher said.
Big guy, small plane
Fisher is a big guy flying a small plane, a 67-year old Piper PA-11. The Piper weighs 766 pounds empty. Put him and a passenger in it, and the 100 horsepower has to lift around 450 pounds of human beings, plus whatever gear they're hauling.
It's a tandem seat aircraft, one seat in the front and one in back — no heater and no electronics. There's an on/off switch for fuel, a couple gages, pedals and a stick. It's so Old School he has to hand crank it to start it. The choke is manual, of course. He added a radio in May.
Occasionally he has to give a gage a love tap to get it to work properly.
It's slightly faster than a car, but Fisher doesn't seem to be in any particular hurry.
Just hangin' out
To get the shots he wants, Fisher basically opens the door and hangs over the edge. Fisher likens it to "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride."
"I have more flying experience in the last year than I've had in the last 19 years combined," he said.
That's 300 hours since April. He's serious about his book projects.
When he finished photographing all the Colorado and Wyoming glaciers, he winged off to Montana.
"Yes, I am nuts," he said.
When he was done, he had photographed every Rocky Mountain glacier.
Upcoming Colorado books include: "14ers from the Air Round 2," "Colorado Glaciers," and a general "Colorado from the Air." These are not titles, they're concepts, Fisher said.
After all those hours in the air this summer, he has plenty of material.
His grandfather counseled against this sort of behavior, Fisher said, but exhibited a bunch of it. His grandfather was 76 when he got his helicopter license. Fisher was a teenager when his grandfather taught him to fly that Piper.
It may seem a little nuts, and maybe it is, but a touch of insanity isn't the only thing Fisher got from his grandfather and father. He also inherited that plane. His grandfather restored it years ago. Fisher's father got it from his father, and Fisher inherited it from him.
His grandfather didn't really use it any longer because when he got his helicopter license. He bought a Bell chopper — like one of those helicopters in the "MASH" TV show and movie.
Fisher would fly all over upstate New York and land at gas stations and coffee shops to have a cup of coffee with his buddies. People were so awed that they'd stop while he was there to ask him about it all, and then buy stuff from the station. Gas station owners started carrying aviation fuel so he'd land there and create a tourist attraction.
Fisher took his first flight in a Piper J-3 Cub when he was 2 years old. At age 8, his grandfather started giving him flying lessons, and he earned his pilot's license at age 17.
He's enthusiastically thrifty and often finds himself in a tent sleeping next to the airplane at small town airports all over America.
When he's not doing this sort of thing, he's an entrepreneur and economic innovator, founder of the Institute for Economic Innovation, based in Frisco. He has been featured in Wired magazine and Ted Talks.
Staff writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.