Scary Flights – “One shot pass” Alaska Denali.

I did lots of scary flights in helicopters for many years on all weathers. Yet the most scared I was when flying into Denali (Alaska) on Mount McKinley.

I had seen many aircraft crashes in my Mountain Rescue days. Always in my thoughts was that rarely did anyone get out ! It did give me a great wariness in flying. Lots of the helicopter crews knew this.

Add to that the tragedy of Lockerbie that I was involved in yet I had to fly a lot to go on so many expeditions all over the world.

So you get on with it or do not go.

One shot pass.

Alaska is a wonderful place and so wild. Access is by small aircraft and you have to take everything with you on the plane.

There are no porters everything is hauled by sledge and the rest on your back. It’s an exhausting procedure moving up the mountain slowly yet it is an exciting place. In Alaska every thing is weather relevant and at times you have to wait Takeetna . Packing the aircraft is scary there was no space left and only room to get in. It’s so tiny and you never think the aircraft will take off !

Tiny plane !

My memories are we got a weather window after a few days waiting we were in the pub. Next thing we were off and heading through “One Shot Pass” and into an Alpine world where everything is so huge that it is impossible to grasp the scale and size. Distances are warped! We fly over Base Camp which is nestled down in the South East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier between the Summits of Foraker and Denali. During climbing season (peak May and June) you will be looking at a continuous stream of climbers on there long effort to climb Denali.

This is from my dairy

I had an interesting trip to Alaska in 1996 – previous trips by other friends had showed blue skies and great weather, incredible peaks and unlimited sun light! Unfortunately our trip was not like this at all. The long trip to Anchorage was fine and the drive to Talkeetna was fascinating where you await for the weather as you fly into Denali, landing on a glacier at 7200 feet!

Most people may be are aware that I hate flying and flying in a little Cessna and landing on a Glacier was something I was not looking forward to at all. To get to the mountain you have to fly from Talkeetna a wonderful wild west town where you wait for the weather to allow you to fly in to the mountain. Packing and unpacking weighing gear, for a month on the hill taking stuff out, what an epic and the weight is incredible. After 4 days waiting for the weather we were off, the weather cleared and we got the message in the pub, that never closed. When the aircraft left Talkeetna is was packed with gear and had an epic taking off we had 3 on board and food and gear for a month. All this to be dragged by you on your sledge, there are no Sherpas in Alaska. In addition we had skis, yes skis for me as well but that was the plan. The flight in to the Base Camp takes about an hour is an incredible journey, mountains everywhere and the huge bulk of Denali just looks so massive and imposing. The flight takes you over high mountain passes and the famous “One shot Pass” is exciting as you pass the huge cliffs, Cornices and a wee gap in a ridge.

Not every landing is as expected landing on a glacier!

People  I naively asked why they call it “One Shot Pass” and got a laugh in response. It’s the best shot you have for flying a direct route to Kahiltna Base Camp. Our tiny plane lifted up out of the cloud layer, and the three great peaks of the Alaska Range I saw them for the first time these amazing peaks of Foraker, Hunter, and Denali rose above the glacier in full view.

Our pilot Paul skirted over One Shot Pass, giving me a non stop update of how close we were and we had got friendly over the days of waiting to go. He was bringing the plane in low over the crevasse fields of the Kahiltna, the longest glacier in the Alaska Range. The plane in front bumped along the glacier and then crashed, we flew over, they all got out, gave the thumbs up and we flew back to Talkeetna. It was to windy to land and Paul did not want to risk it, I was terrified and agreed with him.

They all walked out!

We went back and a few hours later the aircraft had been moved and the wind had died down we were off.   We landed on skis in the white powder snow and came to a stop before a snow hill cluttered with tents.

Most climbers are on their way up the mountain; the others have returned from their attempts. So far that year, only 18 percent of Denali’s 600 climbers have made it to the summit, a very low number for a mountain that boasts a 50 percent chance of success.  We had landed and soon we were on the glacier and the wee plane lightened now took off over the glacier and was soon lost in the great peaks. The Plane does not hang about and is gone as soon as we were off, now on the glacier a jumble of tents and gear and the “Base Camp Annie” met us and gave us a quick brief.

Everything is carried with you and each night you break camp and move on or stay and move gear up. It was a wonderful place to be and soon the tent was up and we got organised.

It was going to be an interesting trip! I will never forget that trip or the landing ?

Still alive ‘

About heavywhalley.MBE

Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 37 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 3 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer when body slows, loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Alaska, Articles, Avalanche info, Expeditions - Alaska - Himalayas etc, Friends, mountain safety, Mountaineering, People, Recomended books and Guides, Views Mountaineering, Weather, Well being, Wildlife. Bookmark the permalink.

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