Plane gets stuck in snow on Yukon glacier as region sees 'incredible amount of change'

'It was a little trying, because we knew we had one shot to get the plane out,' says pilot Mike Butler.

'The snow was up to the wing of the plane,' says Mike Butler, who spent 2 nights stuck on Hubbard glacier

Icefield Discovery's helio courier pictured while stuck in three metres of fresh snow. One of the skiers Butler was attempting to pick up is pictured stomping down the runway. (Ian Holmes)

Glacier pilots are known to be fairly tough individuals, but when Icefield Discovery pilot Mike Butler describes getting stuck with his plane for two nights on Yukon's Hubbard glacier, he says there were definitely some frustrating moments.

"It was never dangerous, but it was unpleasant. It was a little trying because we knew we had one shot to get the plane out," he said.

Butler's ordeal began Sunday morning. It seemed like the start of a routine day — at 9 a.m., he dropped off a group of mountaineers on the west side of Mount Logan. Snow conditions seemed fine where he landed. 

He then made another landing on the other side of the mountain, at a slightly lower elevation — and promptly got stuck in a metre and a half of fresh powder.

He managed to get his plane free pretty quickly, but says he should've taken that incident as a warning.

"I should've just said, 'Let's call it a day,' because I barely got out of there."

Mike Butler of Icefield Discovery flies over the icefields in Kluane National Park. (Steve Hossack/CBC)

The icefields of Yukon's Kluane National Park are a seemingly endless expanse of mountains and glaciers. The interior part of the St. Elias mountain range is significantly higher in elevation than the coastal regions, and temperatures within the icefields can vary significantly.

Butler recalls the temperature rising steadily as the morning continued and he knew that he still had to pick up a group of skiers at Mount Seattle, nearly 460 metres lower than where he had just been stuck.

He realised the risk of getting stuck again, but was tantalized by a runway the skiers had built for him.

"Apparently they had been stamping it down for two days or so, so I was lured by the siren song of that," Butler joked.

When he tried to put the plane down, he immediately bounced off the runway. He was then stuck again, but this time getting out wouldn't be so easy.

"The snow was up to the wing of the plane", he said. "[The skiers] had a 320-centimetre snow probe and that was going right to the bottom."

In other words, there was more than three metres of loose snow beneath them.

'I didn't need that kind of excitement'

"So, we spent one day digging out the airplane, and moving it four times. The next day we spent stomping out the runway and then hoping for a clear night," Butler recalled.

Fortunately, his second night on the glacier was cold enough to harden the makeshift runway, and the next morning, Butler was able to make his great escape.

He left the skiers behind, though, because he wasn't sure the runway was long enough for a heavier load to take off. They'd have to be picked up later by a helicopter.

"At the bottom of their runway, there was about a 200-metre slope that led into a crevasse. So, I didn't need that kind of excitement," he said.

Butler's been flying for a decade, but says he's never had an ordeal like he did this week on Hubbard glacier. (Icefield Discovery)

Everyone made it home safely, but for Butler, a pilot of 10 years, it was certainly a memorable endeavour.

"It's safe to say I've never been stuck on a glacier before," he said.

Changing conditions

Andy Williams is the founder of what is known today as Icefield Discovery. He began flying into the St. Elias range in the early 1970s, but he says pilots were surveying the area as early as the 1960s.

He's noticed an "incredible amount of change" in the region over the last few decades, making it increasingly challenging for pilots to navigate the area. 

"It is becoming somewhat more difficult to find places that we used to use on an annual basis, and to use them today is requiring a great deal more inspection and judgment before we go into them," Williams said.

He says Butler did everything right, but he was up against some tough conditions.

"When it's wet and isothermal like that, you get a lot of surface tension on the snow which means pilots can't build up adequate takeoff speed."

An Icefield Discovery plane, coming in to land on more stable terrain. Glacier pilots need to adapt to a changing environment with different snow conditions, one pilot says. (Icefield Discovery)

Williams believes glacier pilots need to adapt to a changing environment, with different snow conditions.

"We're getting pushed into higher altitudes, to better snow conditions, earlier in the year than we ever were before," he said.

"It's not just our experience, because we do have some pretty good information going back at least a hundred years or so. The loss of ice over this period, up in the range there, has been absolutely colossal.

"The trend is set in, I think. We're going to lose ice ... it's not going to recover."


Steve Hossack is a CBC North reporter based in Whitehorse.


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