For 20 years, Aidan Loehr has been a regular fixture in Alaska's wilderness. There, he's known as bush pilot, delivering fuel to remote villages and flying adventurers into the unknown, and a mountain guide who has stood on the summit of Denali many times. When he's not in Alaska, Loehr can be found making solo first ascents in China or flying planes in African war zones. Mountain caught up with him to talk about mountains, risk assessment, and the recent climbing season in Alaska.
Bush flying actually refers to more of a time period than a job description. The original bush flying was defined by finding your own places to operate in the wilderness, and for most pilots, that refers to the 1920s–1960s. They were providing essential services to villages, landing on roads or gravel bars. We're still providing those services, but now we're really more air taxi pilots.
I loved flying for the Talkeetna Air Taxi because we got to scout out the climbing routes. We flew tourists and climbers from Talkeetna to the glaciers around Denali National Park. Some air taxi pilots are legendary for finding new places to climb. As a climber myself, I love looking at the routes and conditions before I make plans, and what used to be a three-day trek in is now 15 minutes by air. That's the fun stuff—and probably the closest thing we do in modern-day bush flying.
Everest got all the attention this year, but there's been a lot of action in Alaska recently, too. People don't realize how much huge terrain there is up here. There have been some big accidents in the last year or two, too, and they're changing how people approach both Alaska and mountains in general. The weather has been terrible this year for climbing, though. Really atrocious.
When you've been doing something for a long time, your comfort level with risk changes. Whether it's a doing a hard climb or a landing on a sketchy runway in rural Alaska, there's a fine line between safety and recklessness. That line can be deceptively thin, and very easy to cross. Most of the time crossing it won't hurt you—but once in a while it'll kill you. Some people call it fear extinction; other people just call it complacency. Either way, good climbers and good pilots are always re-assessing their comfort level with risk.
Accidents get publicity. After the Everest tragedy in 1996, more people than ever started climbing big mountains. It's counterintuitive, but people want to be involved with things that have a high level of perceived risk. Whether they want actual risk is something totally different.
My dream trip in Alaska would be an expedition to someplace remote. Maybe the Aleutian Islands—there are huge volcanoes that would be fun to climb and ski. I've always admired the Lake Clark Pass area, which I've flown over many times. And I've always wanted to traverse the Brooks Range from west to east. I imagine it taking two weeks, but I think it would actually take between two and three months. It would be epic. —Charlotte Austin
Keep up with Aidan Loehr's adventures on his website, oddballpilot.com.