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Wager with the Wind: The Don Sheldon Story

Wager With the Wind: The Don Sheldon Story, by James Greiner. Chicago-New York-San Francisco: Rand McNally & Company, 1974. 256 pp., 55 photographs. $8.95.

Increasingly over the past fifteen years or so, Don Sheldon* has assumed legendary proportions. Well known to all of his friends and clients, Sheldon gained national fame from feature stories in Life and Sports Illustrated magazines dealing with his exploits as an Alaskan bush pilot.

In his biography of Sheldon, James Greiner, also a pilot with considerable experience flying Alaska’s wilderness, attempts to separate fact from legend with a balanced account of Sheldon’s, early experiences in Alaska, his brief stint as a World War II tail-gunner, and his return to Talkeetna to stay in 1948. Thereafter, one astounding episode followed another. Greiner’s account is enlivened considerably with lengthy commentary from Sheldon himself.

Dominating Sheldon’s life as a bush pilot has been his relationship with climbers who have come to tackle Mount McKinley and other nearby peaks of the Alaska Range. On my only trip to Talkeetna in 1972, I did not fly with Sheldon. But his presence was conspicuous there and on the Kahiltna Glacier near McKinley when he flew in the Japanese women’s team. On the way back from a sumptuous evening meal at the Roadhouse in Talkeetna, we encountered Sheldon walking across the muddy runway abutting his hangar, house, and the Fairview Hotel. He asked whether we had heard of Riccardo Cassin, Lionel Terray, and other “famous” climbers he had flown. He talked also of the rescue missions he had undertaken, the “cadavers” he had flown out from the mountains—one frozen climber so huge “I had to strap him to the side of my plane to get him out.” For Sheldon, everything is a superlative. I had to be impressed, and maybe even regretted passing the opportunity to have a flying experience with him.

A disturbing note about Greiner’s account: Although he has obviously strived for accuracy in detailing the most significant of Sheldon’s mountaineering expedition-related adventures, Mount McKinley is not “one of the highest mountains of the world, exceeded by only two or three Himalayan giants” (p. 73). Henry, not Fred, Meybohm accompanied Beckey and Harrer to Mounts Deborah and Hunter in 1954, not 1953 (p. 102). The ledge at the top of the Hidden or Japanese Couloir upon which Cassin and his party were forced to camp six days in a storm is more like 8 feet wide instead of 3 feet, and the description of the major difficulties of the Cassin route as being above 17,000 feet is entirely misleading; they are in fact below, (p. 179). Boyd Everett’s 1962 ascent of McKinley was up the Southeast, not South, Spur (p. 208). In his discussion of Lionel Terray and his expedition’s struggle to make the first climb of Mount Huntington in 1964, Greiner appears to confuse the French climber with Walter Bonatti in stating that Terray was a formidable solo climber (p. 212). Grace Hoeman’s tragic accident in a snow avalanche most certainly did not occur on the “August rotted surface of the Eklutna Glacier” but in an April storm (p. 223). Finally, the frontispiece does not have the Moose’s Tooth as a backdrop to Sheldon and his plane, as it is captioned, but the stupendous 5000-foot southeast face of Mount Dickey. This may be nitpicking, but it provides cause for concern about the accuracy of the rest of Greiner’s book.

More disconcerting is Greiner’s failure to mention the other bush pilot operating out of Talkeetna, Cliff Hudson, except in a seemingly uncomplimentary aside relating to whether Sheldon or Hudson would fly a drunk who had fallen unconscious from his stool at the Fairview bar to an Anchorage hospital, (p. 81). In recent years, Hudson has come to be as widely used as Sheldon by mountaineering expeditions to the Alaska range. Like Sheldon, Hudson is also possessed of enormous flying skills. Greiner’s book is about Sheldon, but how can he ignore the tempestuous relationship between the two pilots and the stories which have come out of it? Many have even involved fisticuffs, but one of the best has to do with an alleged buzzing of Hudson by Sheldon in his Cessna 185 as Hudson was in his final approach for landing one morning. Hudson did not see Sheldon, who had wheeled away, but filed a complaint with the FAA on the basis that he heard Sheldon’s 185 buzz him. In the hearing, the central issue was whether a 185 could be heard flying immediately above a plane of the type Hudson flew. Sheldon’s lawyers conducted tests and, to their dismay, discovered the unmistakable engine roar of a 185 could be heard. They wisely decided not to introduce this damaging evidence, but the FAA conducted similar tests, with the same result. Incredibly, when the damaging evidence was introduced, everyone in the crowded courtroom, including Hudson, Sheldon, and his lawyers, could hear the 185, but the FAA hearing examiner (who must have been partially deaf) couldn’t, and dismissed the complaint.

One interesting fact about Sheldon which Greiner does bring out is his considerable flying experience in Arctic Alaska north of the Brooks Range. Not only one of the two finest mountain pilots in Alaska, Sheldon is equally adept at flying over the featureless desert of the Arctic tundra when fog and storm are a constant threat.

Despite its errors and omissions, Wager with the Wind is an absorbing book and will rank as one of the better done of the Alaskan bush pilot genre.

James Wickwire

* Many of us lost a true friend when Don Sheldon died of cancer in February, 1975.