By Doug Buchanan, www.AlaskaStories.com
One of Those...
It wasn't desperate until short final. Up until then it was one of those big money things, where two of us got together and counted out all our money, including what, if we would have spent on a bottle of beer, we wouldn't have enough. So we didn't buy beer, and we could afford to fly to a mountain that would have taken three days to ski to. Let a guy get a little money in his pocket, and first he gets lazy.
So we flew. We were with famous late Ron Warbelow of Tanacross, a little north of Tok. Well, we had earlier convinced him that he should fly mountain climbers to glaciers, and he would make a fortune, since no one else in area would do glacier landings. There was a reason no one else would do glacier landings, but he didn't know that yet, so he got a friend to tell him some of basics, and he started flying very few of we financially destitute climbers wanting to go to obscure mountains requiring landing on a different glacier each time, incurring all hazards for minimum return.
Approaching mountain of our interest, we were impressed with rolling wave of clouds boiling over ridge from south and disappearing in whispy fingers reaching out toward us as we set up on long final. We were in a Helio Currier. Things looked good. Then about short final, when we were getting kinda low, between towering mountains at hand on both sides, and nasty part of glacier below us, before we were at narrow tongue of snow that looked like a good landing spot, reason fingers of wisp were reaching toward us, reached us.
The unique thing about a Helio Currier is leading edge wing flaps, that are aerodynamically balanced to independently clunk forward if wing stalls, to suddenly give it more lift, or something like that. When it happens in turbulent winds, loud clunks of each wing's independent forward edge flaps randomly clunking forward and back, are rather dramatic, and flying plane is like guiding a bucking rodeo bull to a delicate chair at a tea party table. I would have been impressed with Ron's white knuckle thrashing-about on his side of plane, trying to stay on his side of airplane and also fly thing, if I weren't so fascinated with unusual cloud formation rolling over ridge above us. We planned to be climbing up there next day. I didn't even know until after we landed that my climbing partner in back seat was throwing-up whole time from first slam of wind until touch-down. You don't often get to look at clouds with that much fury staring you in face without their trying to rip your face from your shoulders.
We did touch down, with a bit of drama. Ron, he just shouted for us to hurry and throw our stuff out of plane and close door, while he fought controls at near full throttle just to keep plane on glacier at one spot. These airplane pilots who own their airplanes, sometimes don't appreciate spectacular mountain scenery. The cloud formations up on ridge, looking down on us, were worthy of pondering with an analytical gaze.
I shut door, and was a bit startled to see airplane as suddenly rise away from us vertically, lurch forward a bit, turn, and get blown out of there faster than departure of a government bureaucrat being asked a question.
Granted, wind was a bit brisk, but nothing a person couldn't crawl against. It was mid day, in dead of winter, in heart of Alaska Range, or a bit at east end of heart, on north side, kind of left auricle near aorta, from one's own perspective. Too early to camp, and where we wouldn't have wanted to try, for same reason airplane couldn't stay there very long. It wasn't all that desperate, since we just got there, full of energy and all, and there hadn't been time for much to go awry. My climbing partner quickly recovered from his esophageal opinion of most recent moments of flight. We leaned forward, and just before reaching horizontal position, were able to move against wind, up glacier. It was really easier than it sounds, since closer we got to steep north side of mountain, less wind was able to reach all way down to us on its little venture to north. But it did take us a few hours to get a short distance.