These guys were walking through the Chugach Mts. on a month long expedition. They needed food, fuel, and supplies delivered at three different points along their route. We try not to leave food unattended in the wilderness because animals always find it and make a mess. We usually plan to meet the teams so that we can give them their supplies in person, and back-haul their garbage.
Their second re-ration was scheduled for June 1st at 10,000′. (Let me remind you that this is Alaska, so 10,000′ is really high, and even in the middle of summer a couple of feet of snow and 80 mph winds are not uncommon.) When I woke up on June 1st it was rainy and foggy and rather persistent, so we held out for the next day which showed little improvement. On the 3rd of June they called and said it was improving. Since we were already 2 days behind schedule, I launched immediately for the 20 minute flight to 10,000′. By the time I got to 8500′ I could tell that things were not looking good up ahead. I got within radio range, and was speaking to the course leader on the ground. He told me that conditions had deteriorated drastically over the last 30 minutes. I was only 600 yards from them, but I could do nothing. Their camp was on a long narrow shelf with steep mountains to the immediate South, and a 3000′ cliff just a couple hundred yards to the North. I was circling out over the cliff and looking onto the shelf, but could see nothing but white. The weather was only deteriorating so I headed home with an airplane still full of groceries.
The weather continued to be horrible for several more days, and finally on the 6th of June I got a sat-phone call from the mountain. The report was mediocre at best, but I hurriedly loaded the plane and headed for the glacier. 6 days late on a re-ration is a really long time, and I knew that they were out of fuel. Without fuel it’s difficult to get water because they can’t melt snow, not to mention the shortage of food. As I passed through 8500′ I noticed it looked … bad. Not horrible, but bad. The clouds were higher now, and I had decent forward visibility, but there was no substantial light to cast any shadows. I climbed up to 10,000 feet and circled over their camp just 200′ below. The only reason I could see the ground was because of the climbers out walking around. It looked like they were floating in a world of white. I asked two of them to put on skis and go down-hill away from camp so that I could aim for something on final approach. This is a little airborne test that I like to make occasionally. If I can see their tracks while they ski I will take further actions toward a landing attempt. If I cannot see their tracks in the snow … the light is too flat and I won’t do it. As the skiers got roped up and headed down hill I strained to see a variance in color on the ground … nothing. Just two dudes floating around on a common rope.
I forgot to mention there was also about 20 mph of wind at elevation so the variables were stacking up against me. Even if I had them lay-out two parrallel climbing ropes up the glacier for a visual clue, the prevailing winds would make the approach unstable. And with a heavily loaded super cub, at 10,000′, in super-flat light … it ain’t worth it !!
I reported the bad news on the radio and asked them if they wanted an air-drop. We don’t often airdrop because it breaks the animal crackers and leaks the fuel, but sometimes you gotta get ‘er done. Without a moments hesitation they said, “Yes, anything, fuel please.” I flew off to the North so that I could get immediate clearance from the invisible ground and circled out beyond the cliff while tying surveyors tape to several gallons of white gas. Gallon cans of white gas have about a 50/50 chance of staying intact if dropped in the snow. On my first pass I threw out 3 gallons of white gas and one food bag. I did not dare get low-and-slow, as is custom for an airdrop, because low-and-slow is a bad idea when you can’t see the ground. I stayed up high enough that the people on the ground looked small and made three passes throwing food out the door each time. While dropping the food I focused on looking straight ahead and flying level. Normally I look at my target, and drop while looking down, but I did not dare take my eyes off the few visual references I had. It’s not that I was in the clouds or had reduced visibility, it was simply that everything was white, and there was no sun-beam strong enough to separate the monotony. This is the only airdrop I have done at a cruise power setting, hundreds of feet off the ground, but it worked thanks to all the fresh snow.
I took the above picture the morning after the airdrop when I was finally able to land and laugh about it with them. They were more hungry than I realized, and told me they had just laid in their tents and tried not to burn any calories. 6 days is rather extreme and VERY uncommon. Especially in the era of sat-phones. Usually the weather will break for a few hours and we will get it done very near the schedule. But then again … this is the last frontier, it can do what ever it wants, it’s Alaska.