The backseat of the Cessna wasn’t actually a seat: It was a low-to-the-ground, flimsy aluminum lawnchair. I wedged myself into it, surrounded by all the camping gear we could possibly cram into the cabin. With my knees at eye level, we throttled forward for takeoff. Seconds later, the radio silence in our headsets was replaced by panicked cursing: “Oh, God, oh no! Shit! Hold on!” I gripped the cheap armrest expecting the worst.
Desperate for an Alaskan experience, but unable to afford a heli bump, four friends and I committed to the more affordable ski-plane option. With splitboards in tow, we spent our first week in Haines running daily drops on the glacier. We’d split-ski up the shoulder and along the ridge lines, reassemble our snowboards and drop in, navigating huge cornices before committing to the upper rolling convex turns. After momentarily confirming the 3,000-foot run below was indeed the right line, we’d open it up for the rides of our lives.
Beyond the concerns about unfamiliar terrain, open crevasses and the possibility of avalanches, the consensus was that takeoff and landing on the glacier were the biggest hazards. The “runway” conditions had to be just right – preferably a long, flat zone where we wouldn’t get blower faceshots on touchdown. And you had to be aware of the slope’s fall lines; a plane fitted with skis schussing over snow couldn’t steer, it could only bank off the slope’s transitions.
The multiple overhead passes, the final commitment to land, the puckering landing itself – it was just too much. We decided it was time to camp. We found an epic cirque deep in the Takshanuk Mountains and set about splitboarding and dropping lines days on end without incident – blower steep runs, stacked couloirs, airtime cornices. At the end of a long week, with Alaska checked off and weather moving in, we were ready to eject.
The plane landed in front of our campsite facing uphill. My close friend Chris Ankeny and I won the roshambo for the first flight out. Ready to roll that into the first hot shower and cold beer, I jumped in the backseat, Chris hopped in front and, as flat light began to envelop the cirque, we looked expectantly to the left as our pilot throttled uphill, gaining momentum to bank a turn off the shoulder and then take off.
But the plane unexpectedly dipped to the right. What the hell was to the right? The flat light had confused our reading of the slope’s fall line. We looked ahead in horror as we realized we were headed toward a 40-foot-deep, open wind tunnel. Without enough runway to takeoff, and no ability to turn, the plane glissaded toward the hole. The pilot hit the kill switch. Silence. Then, screaming. This was going to be bad: the initial impact likely followed by an explosion. The plane, now taxiing parallel to the opening, somehow started to slow down. Teetering. Stopping? Chris stared at the stunning view over the edge; I instinctively jumped up from my passenger-side lawn chair onto the driver’s-side gear pile, and our pilot jumped out.
The crew from the campsite had seen us disappear over the shoulder and raced uphill. Chris and I gingerly exited the plane – I don’t remember how we decided who would get out first; I’m sure it was totally civilized. We tied off the plane below the wing. Then the pilot put on a borrowed helmet, left the door open, fired up the plane, and pivoted it around our human anchor.
With a newfound appreciation for our own mortality, we loaded back up and lifted off, taking in the stunning landscape and our temporary marks on it below. Our streak continued back in Haines: The brake line snapped on the car as we pulled out of the airport. Wordlessly, still wide-eyed from our experience, we coasted straight to a brew pub, pulsing the emergency brake.