stranded on a glacier for four days.
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Shortly after the start of the excursion with the 66-year-old Talkeetna Air Taxi company, a thick fog swept into the mountainous region, forcing pilot John Nealon to land the small de Haviland Beaver plane on a glacier to wait for clear skies, according to KTUU. But the fog didn’t lift.
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So Nealon’s six passengers—including five members of a Colorado family and another young woman traveling solo—hunkered down in the 3-foot-wide airplane for two uncomfortable nights. They wrapped themselves in sleeping bags kept aboard the plane, eating a stash of energy bars and relying on body heat to keep warm as outside temperatures hovered at freezing.
On the third night, everyone shifted into a tent in the snow that was brought in by rescue rangers.
“It’s rare to be stranded for that length of time,” Denali National Park spokesperson Maureen McLaughlin told Yahoo! Shine. “More typically, a sightseeing trip might plan to land on a glacier, spend about 20 minutes, and then sometimes get delayed there for just a little bit longer.”
Amazingly, everyone involved seemed able to stay levelheaded.
“They were all in really good spirits,” Denali National Park ranger Brandon Latham told Yahoo! Shine. “They were of course tired from being inside the plane for so long, but they had great attitudes.” It’s something he and others credited mainly to a heroic Nealon.
“My sense was that he did a great job at keeping everyone engaged in conversation and a positive light on the situation,” he said. “Everyone knew they were fine and that it was a situation they would just have to get through.”
In an on-air story by KTUU, reporter Garrett Turner noted, “Every single person I talked to today said it was the Talkeetna air taxi pilot John who kept them calm and safe throughout their glorified camping trip.”
On day three of the air taxi’s grounding, Latham and three other rangers helicoptered into the park, getting dropped off at a slightly lower, less foggy altitude of 5,000 feet. From there, the rescuers hiked in for four hours on skis, laden with equipment including an eight-person tent, winter sleeping bags, sleeping pads, warm hats and booties, fuel for cooking, and camping food like dehydrated spaghetti with meat sauce.
Everyone slept in the tent that last night. And then, on the fourth morning, skies cleared briefly, and Talkeetna sent in another, larger plane to pick up the pilot and his passengers, as the wings on the original plane had iced over, Latham explained. The rangers hiked back down the glacier where they were picked up by a National Park Service helicopter.
Though waiting out clear skies might have been uncomfortable and worrisome for the group, Latham said, the pilot made a good decision to land when his visibility decreased.
“Typically they are able to see the incoming weather, but this particular system closed down faster than normal,” he explained.
Yahoo! Shine was unable to reach Nealon or any of the air taxi passengers Wednesday. But Glenn Hard, a high school principal from Colorado who was on vacation with his parents, his wife and their teenage daughter, spoke to local station KTUU about his experience of sleeping in the tiny plane. An athletic, outdoorsy guy who is described on his high school’s website as liking to hunt, fish, hike, run and ride motorcycles, he noted, “They were uncomfortable seats to begin with, and trying to survive the entire night was rough.”
His wife Chris Hard, an insurance agent, seemed more focused on what she saw when the tour began, when skies were still clear. “Beautiful,” she said. “Absolutely beautiful scenery. The mountains were amazing.”
The passengers’ collective awe over the national park—home to Mount McKinley, also called Denali, which is the highest mountain peak in North America—was something that impressed Latham. On the final morning, just before they left, everyone seemed thrilled to finally get a clear view of the mountain. “They hadn’t been able to see it until that point,” he said. “And they were just enamored with the terrain.”
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