The Pilots of Mount McKinley

For 50 years, the world has reached the mountain on airplanes from one small town

With Mount Hunter looming over his right wing, Paul Roderick, director of flight operations for Talkeetna Air Taxi, flies over his favorite place to ski. (Courtesy Talkeetna Air Taxi / Cameron Lawson)
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Lee tells the guests to go on with the party, and he jumps in the pickup, runs to the hangar, fuels the 185 to the limit a takeoff at base camp will allow, pulls out all but two seats, and launches under the overcast, looking for a route to retrieve his climbers. With the welcome news, other Talkeetna operators also launch, hoping the window will remain open long enough to extract some of the mountaineers waiting for a lift. When base camp opens after an extended down spell, air traffic at Talkeetna Municipal resembles a fighter base scramble.

Thirty minutes later, Lee learns over the radio that conditions have changed again, and the camp has closed. As the other airplanes return to base, Lee considers his fuel and elects to linger to see if the weather changes yet again. His decision pays off: A small hole in the overcast drifts over the camp; when Roderick calls, Lee swoops in and lands. On the snow, the Becketts exchange high-fives with their fellow climbers.

But getting in and getting back out are two different things. Cloud still clogs the departure route. If it doesn’t lift, David Lee will spend his 50th birthday night in a spare sleeping bag in the base manager’s hut. It won’t be the first night he spends there.

Lee swings the Cessna into position for takeoff, instructs the brothers to load their gear, then walks to the edge of the takeoff area to evaluate the shifting conditions and consult with Roderick. Anders would later estimate it was a half-hour of consideration before Lee would suddenly turn and run toward the pair. “We knew then we would make it out,” Thomas says. “I’ll never forget that feeling.”

Minutes later Lee and his payload slid off the snow, turned left down the Kahiltna, and disappeared behind a canyon wall into another brief opening in the overcast. Like any wise pilot flying in Alaska, Lee, relying on experience, waited for the weather, knowing that the go/no-go decision would come, in the end, from the mountain.

Frequent contributor Larry Lowe has traveled frequently to Alaska and is a fan of the state’s extreme sports, but prefers viewing Denali from the air to attempting to climb it.


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