Veteran glacier pilot David Lee does not like what he sees out the windshield of his Cessna 185. He and his passengers—a team of German climbers anxious to start their attempt on Mount McKinley’s summit—are headed toward the base camp at 7,200 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier, a two-mile-wide river of snow-covered ice on the southern slope of the Alaska Range. In the single-engine, six-seat, dull red Cessna, Lee is watching clouds build and threaten to obscure the route through the mountains into the camp. He is tantalizingly close to his objective. Five minutes from now, if the weather were even slightly better, he’d be flying an approach he has flown thousands of times to a familiar patch of relatively level snow.
Reluctantly, Lee switches to company frequency, and reaches for the mike.
“Sheldon Base, One Echo Echo.”
At the Sheldon Air Service flight office, about 60 miles away in Talkeetna, Alaska, the unexpected radio call breaks the stillness.
Dispatcher Jody Fitzgerald responds, “One Echo Echo, Sheldon Base.”
Lee says, “We’re coming back.”
A round trip that produces no revenue is a tough decision, but in this moment Lee is providing what the client is really paying for: not just transportation, but experience and judgment as well. More than three decades of flying the Alaska Range has taught him there’s a point past which you don’t push the mountain.
Sheldon Air Service is one of a handful of aviation businesses that exist almost solely because of the allure of Mount McKinley. At 20,232 feet, it is the tallest mountain in North America, with a higher vertical rise from its base (18,000 feet) than Everest. In 2012, 1,223 climbers registered with the National Park Service; 498 achieved the summit. Six lost their lives in the attempt.
David Lee and the other high-time skiplane pilots working the frozen slopes of Denali (Alaskans call Mount McKinley by its native American name) occupy a tiny niche in aviation. There are fewer working commercial glacier pilots than there are astronauts who have flown on the International Space Station. The pioneers of the trade were self-reliant, minimally equipped adventurers whose scrapes, survivals, and disasters contributed to the legend of the Alaskan bush pilot. Today, the frontiersmen have given way to an organized, technology-enabled nature tourism industry. But the mountain hasn’t changed, and to survive flying there, today’s pilots need the same set of unique aeronautical skills refined by their forebears and the same ability to judge when conditions pose unacceptable risk.
Most air taxi services flying tourists to the mountain and supporting its climbers are based in Talkeetna. In few places is aviation as interwoven with local culture as it is in this small town. A small dirt airstrip, once Talkeetna’s only runway, begins one block below Main Street (though most air traffic today uses Talkeetna State Airport, on the town’s southeastern edge). In the historic Fairview Inn, built in 1923 and topped by a windsock, the walls are covered by photos of climbers and pilots in equal proportion. On one wall, a plaque carries the motto that has told the story of transportation in Alaska since the 1930s: “Fly an hour or walk a week.”