The Legend (and Truth) of Yosemite’s Dope Plane Crash
When an airplane smuggling a load of high-grade marijuana crashed in a Yosemite lake, a gold rush of climbers hauled out a fortune in brick weed right under the noses of the authorities.
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One winter morning in 1977, two young waiters at The Ahwahnee hotel—crown jewel of national park lodges – set out on snowshoes for an over-nighter in the Yosemite backcountry, dropping LSD for good measure. Six miles out they found an airplane wing and a debris trail. Once the acid wore off, they beat it back to the valley and alerted rangers of a probable plane wreck. Agents from The National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration, the DEA, and Customs, quickly assembled in the valley.
Customs sent a Vietnam-era Huey from San Diego to shuttle the Feds to the crash site, at Lower Merced Pass Lake, just below timberline and 16 rugged miles from Valley Central. Over the following days, federal officers hauled out over 3,000 pounds Mexican marijuana. Then logistics and an approaching storm shut down the operation. Given the waist-deep snow and marathon trudge from the Valley floor, the park superintendent chose to wait for the spring thaw to complete their recovery operation. Divers couldn’t extract the bodies of the pilot and co-pilot, who were left entombed in the frozen cockpit.
One of the dead airmen was former Army copter pilot Jon Gilinsky. Gilinsky’s attorney, call him Atticus, was alerted that his client was dead. In fact, Atticus hated the drug-runner’s guts, but still had a shine for Gilinsky’s wife. The two were an article back in college. The widow received no information about her dead husband except that his plane crashed somewhere in the valley. As a favor to his old flame, Atticus drove a rental car to Yosemite and spooked around, eavesdropping on DEA agents still slumming in the Yosemite Bar, and was able to get the low-down on the dead pilots and the salvage operation just abandoned. I wonder if Atticus knew that the night before the crash, at a dirt airstrip in Baja, California, Gilinsky had loaded 6,000 pounds of dope onto his twin engine Howard 5000. Atticus did know that the fuselage was still up at the lake, under the ice, as well as Gilinsky’s and the co-pilot’s bodies, along with whatever weed the feds had not recovered.
On his last night in Yosemite, according to Greg Nichols, in Men’s Journal, Atticus noticed a fire burning in a campground nearby. “He lit up some Thai stick,” wrote Nichols, “and sauntered toward the trees. He found about a dozen young climbers around a fire, so he passed his joint and told them a fantastic story about an airplane full of dope.”
Camp 4 jefe Jim “The Bird” Bridwell, who walked on water, was quickly filled in (over the following week, The Bird acted as a sort of ombudsman, shipping manager, and logistics director as climbers relieved the crashed Howard 500 of its remaining cargo). The Bird immediately dispatched Woody, Buzz, and Skillet (I’ve changed all the names) up to Lower Merced Pass Lake. It was cold at 9,000 feet, and snowing on and off. But the trio gained the wreck site by the wee hours, where they found the crumpled fuselage augured into the frozen lake. When Skillet reached into a slushy hole next to the cockpit, and heaved out what looked like a plastic-wrapped hay bale, the small talk stopped. They hauled the bale into the moonlight and broke it open, studied it under their headlamps, sniffed it, ate it, smoked it, and were still disbelieving. But it was true: the submerged fuselage was bursting with five-kilo bales of Mexican weed. “Airplane,” as it came to be universally known. “All tops,” wrote Mountain Gazette. “Tight clusters of flower buds shot through with red and yellow threads. Even damp it looked sticky.” The good shit.
The storm didn’t come, rather a heat wave. And since the rangers never stationed a sentry to stand guard, the feds were none the wiser when several Bridwell strike teams made four trips in as many days to ransack the Howard 500. Each time they hauled out a bale, another bobbed to the surface. Since the wreck was the climber’s version of discovering the treasure ship Atocha, Camp 4 and everyone in it was duly informed. In a matter of hours, the gold rush was on and a regular mule train of climbers were tromping 32 miles to and from the lake. Some teams returned with upwards of 200-pound loads, a burden that fetched roughly $50,000 on the open market. “Hiking for dollars” they called it, and in a week’s time more than a half a million bucks worth of booty had been hauled to light.
The plane had broken up, and perhaps half of the payload was lodged under the ice, some distance from the wreck. The Feds had used chainsaws to extract the submerged bales, till the blades got dull and the storm hove to. But Pepe got the picture and returned with several Husqvarna chain saws he rented from woodcutters down in Briceburg and El Portal, just outside the park. For several days Pepe and his partners skipped around the rink, boring the ice with the buzzing saws. If a blizzard of green stuff shot from the chain, they knew where to dig.
Once the trove dried up (dozens had worked the site by then), Winchell tromped out and drove down to Fresno, returning with a diving mask, flippers and a wet suit. After warming up by a roaring fire, he lashed a rope round his waist and dove through a hole and into the bowls of the fuselage. God bless that rope because after 10 seconds in the ice water his limbs went dead; but when they hauled him out, Winchell had a death grip on an attaché case full of greenbacks (pilot Gilinsky’s working capital, most likely).
Pound for pound, the mota was worth gobs more than the thrashed tents, sleeping bags and cooking junk the climbers had humped to the lake, so all personal gear was abandoned. They could buy new stuff later. Soon, all across Yosemite Valley and in the small, roadside towns nearby, in tent cabins, bungalows, bathrooms and garages, tons of sodden weed was drying out. That’s when they discovered a problem. The fuel cells on the Howard burst on impact and some of the weed was drenched in av gas. “It was like going to Mexico,” said Steve, per visiting the lake. “Don’t drink the water.” If you couldn’t smell the gas, you’d find out the moment you’d stoke a pipeful, when a flame like a blowtorch leapt off the hooch. The Bird said not to worry, that the tainted goods could be peddled off at top dollar. In fact, they were, and things got crazy.
Homer left for Berkeley in a wheezing DeSoto crammed to the shattered windows with soggy hemp. Ten days later he tooled back into the Valley driving a candy-apple red convertible Lincoln Continental with fleecy dice hanging from the rearview mirror. Butch rolled in on a chopped Harley. Hank showed back up in a buckskin suit with a Latvian bombshell who spoke almost no English and wore almost no clothes. He spent $800 in the bar the first night—even bought the rangers a beer.
Climbers who a few weeks before hadn’t had two dimes to rub together streamed back into the Valley and were spending cash money with all the nonchalance of a Saudi prince. Goodbye peanut butter and jelly. It was steak dinners forever and cognacs all around. When the rangers put the pieces together, Bridwell had already ordered most of the looters out the valley.
The months that followed are best illustrated by a “climbing” trip undertaken by Buzz and five others. They took a charter to New York and the Concorde to London en route to Chamonix. They had plans: the North Face of Les Droits, the Walker Spur on the Grandes Morasses, to name a few. Later, they’d swing by the Eiger. They got hung up at a “Gentleman’s Refuge” in Bordeaux, however. A few days stretched into two weeks. In fact, they never made it to the Alps at all. The stories are legion; several might be true. Twenty years later a fantastically embroidered version of “The Wreck” provided the basis for Sylvester Stallone’s hit movie, Cliffhanger.
Four years ago, down in Desert Center, I dropped in on my old partner, Jim “The Bird” Bridwell. Complications from hepatitis C had left him frail and housebound. I couldn’t hack seeing him like that, so I started gushing about our expeditions, decades before, to Borneo and Angel Falls, and a hundred thrilling, jackass, reckless things besides. All the whacky incredibleness that had blessed our souls. I was still bitter about missing out on Cerro Torre, however. And of course, The Wreck. While Jim and my closest friends were “hiking for dollars,” I was 335 miles south in Claremont, Ca., a freshman lit student jammed in a crappy dorm room, slogging through The Deerslayer. I’d only learned the details second hand.
Jim bummed a cigarette from his son, blew out a cloud, and assured me we were two of the lucky ones. The shit we’d survived, while so many of the original crew had marched straight off the topo map, to peaks unknown. “Nobody gets it all,” he said. A week later, like ice in a spring lake, the great Jim “The Bird” Bridwell was gone.