Outside magazine, August 1998
Early morning at Ultima Thule Wilderness Lodge in south-central Alaska. Inside the dining room, the day takes shape in cinematic perfection: the steam curling from a pyramid of sourdough pancakes, the golden April sun shafting through the windows, and visible beyond, the snowy peaks of Wrangell — St. Elias National Park glinting in the cold air. Around a spruce-plank table gather the lodge's guests and members of the extended Claus family. Twenty faces composed in that slack, beatific expression of those who know that they, at this moment, are the most fortunate people in the world. Which, as it happens, they are. Because in addition to all these other blessings, Paul Claus, king of the bush pilots, is smiling.
Hallelujah! Not just a smile, but an actual full-blown grin, that overbitten Huck Finn grin that crinkles the corners of his blue eyes and lights up the room. They know he's grinning because they checked when he walked in the room a few seconds ago — with Paul Claus, you always check — and they watched him wish everybody a good morning and they watched him sit down right next to a couple of guests with his elbows practically touching theirs, and they watched him pile his plate with one, two, three of those tawny, magnificent pancakes, each measuring half-a-foot across — or as he would say, "half-a-foot acrost." Though raised in Alaska and of Swedish-German extraction, one of the incongruous things about Paul Claus is that he occasionally sounds like some kind of cowboy. He uses terms like "figgerin'" and "just 'bout." He doesn't taxi and take off; he pours the coals to her and jumps out. He doesn't crash a plane, but he might bend one a little. It's not a real cowboy voice — there's no twang — but it's a cowboy rhythm, a rollicking pulse designed to deliver the cardinal verbs of Alaskan bush-pilotry: flyin' and dodgin' and bendin' and bouncin'. A rhythm that's perfect, in fact, for telling Paul Claus stories, even if Claus himself usually isn't the one telling them.
Recounted and repeated at airfields and grimy taverns all around the Last Frontier, Paul Claus stories constitute a library of tales so numerous and sundry as to demand cataloging. For starters, there are the stories about his flying exploits, many stemming from his unsurpassed ability to insinuate an airplane onto postage-stamp snowfields, boulder-strewn ice shelves, wind-scoured mountaintops, and hanging glaciers — spots so tight and steep that upon landing he anchors an ice screw to tether the plane, and to take off he leans out of the window with a knife, slashes the tether, and hurtles downslope. Then you could add up Claus's various climbing feats, including first ascents of the Wetterhorn, Mount Miller, Mount Gunnar Naslund, and Mount George. ("He would be a world-class mountaineer," says the noted Swiss climber Ruedi Homberger, a close friend, "if he only weren't doing so many other things.") Then there are the rafting and kayaking adventures, beginning with his pioneering descents of the upper Kiagna River and Young Creek; and his achievements as captain of the three-time top-earning salmon boat in insanely competitive Bristol Bay; and the parapenting; and the hang gliding; and any number of other...pursuits. A few years back, off Kona, Claus hooked a thousand-pound marlin that proceeded to rip the fighting chair, with Claus in it, off the boat. The fish sounded, towing him down like a hijacked bath toy more than 100 feet below (he could plausibly estimate the depth because — surprise — he has worked as a dive master) until he was able to worm out of the fighting vest, swim to the surface, and get hauled aboard, reeling and unable to stand because of the water in his ears, and feeling a little, well, disappointed. Because, as he recently told me, "that would have been the biggest fish caught on Kona that year, by far."
"What is he, Superman?" I jokingly asked Dan Hollingsworth, an Anchorage aircraft mechanic who does not traffic in hyperbole.
"Sort of," he said.
In accordance with pilot tradition, Claus leaves most of the storytelling to others. Not that he doesn't talk; he does, and can be loquacious at times. More often, however, he prefers short, vague sentences, delivering the simplest pronouncement — "It was a good flight" — as if it were the first half of an encrypted message. Which, of course, it is, letting us know that he understands the sacred code of northern aviator courage, rules built around a casual disregard for danger and a predisposition toward stoic silence that, to those on the inside, isn't silence at all, but the vivid and constant communication of life's primal truths. As Homberger loftily puts it, "When I climb with Paul, we don't speak in words. But we speak."
Yet now, at breakfast, Claus has loosened the reins and is actually regaling the gathering with a leisurely rendition of one of the good ones, and everybody seems to realize it at once. Conversations cease, necks twist, heads lean in to catch every detail. He's telling about the time he flew this big-time executive to a glacier, and the big-time executive decided to take a stroll — you know, go for a little walk, like he was in New York City or something — and three steps away from the plane the executive starts sliding into a moulin, one of those meltwater-cut, greasy-walled elevator shafts that plunge thousands of feet to the core of the goddamn planet, the kind where you don't bother looking for the body.
"So I leaned out and snagged him by the hair — 'course he didn't have too much of that — and hauled him back," Claus says. "That guy barely even know it, and he came so close to dyin'." Then Claus goes into a gale of laughter; raw, uncontrollable, squint-eyed glee, his teeth catching the morning sun, and everybody in the room can't help but join in. Of course! A rich city slicker dangling by his hair over a gaping maw, so close to dyin'! A riot! Claus puts the downbeat on the so rather than on the dyin'. The dyin', after all, is just part of the bush-pilot game of flyin' and dodgin'. And Claus's mastery of the game is why he's stunt-flying in Hollywood movies, why The North Face supplies him with clothing and gear as part of a mutual endorsement deal. It's why, at the age of 38, having amassed 15,000 hours of mountain flying, Paul Claus is indeed the undisputed king of the bush pilots, that venerable and righteous crown, bestowed by general acclamation and bringing with it glory, hatred, money, jealousy, and occasionally a premature demise. It's why the world's badass buckaroos — software millionaires, Fortune 500 CEOs, famous lawyers and actors — are beating a path to this remote valley. Because they know that in a world that's been gridded and shrink-wrapped, Claus isn't simply selling his skills as a pilot; he's offering access to one of the last living incarnations of unalloyed American freedom. He's the lone cowboy, soaring in blue-eyed glory through God's own backyard, his iconic wings framed against high prairies of clean ice, going where no one else can or will.
But as the laughter rolls on, one of the guests — an orthopedic surgeon from Vermont and a first-time visitor — interrupts to ask Claus a question. It's not a big question, it's just a little one. In fact, it's the simplest, most normal question anyone might possibly ask. And therefore the worst.
"What's the weather supposed to be like today?"
Well. The lodge folks look at one another nervously. The laughter ebbs. Claus keeps smiling, but the smile gets tight and humorless, and he cocks his head at a slight angle, as if the doctor has just said something subtle and ironic. For two seconds, there's no movement, no sound, just an undiluted suspension of time, enough time so that the doctor can look at Claus, gaze into those blue cowboy eyes, and come to know the unimaginable depth of his own ignorance.
Then Claus gives a dry, humorless chuckle. "I'm not a weatherman," he says. "I'm a pilot."
He returns to his breakfast, leaving the mood shattered and the doctor waiting hopefully, assuming it's a joke, not believing his host could so unexpectedly turn rude. But there's no joke. Paul Claus does many things well, but he does not joke, because jokes are mostly lies, and he is built to tell the facts, no matter how harsh. And the first fact he needs you to know is that nobody — not a paying guest, not family, not fate, not death — fucks with Paul Claus.
The flight from Chitina to Ultima Thule begins modestly enough. First there are treetops, so we skim across treetops, banking and accelerating like a bobsled. Then there is a ridge, so we tilt back and follow it up like a staircase, Dall sheep scurrying in our shadow. Then there are peaks in the distance, so we ascend and discover that these first peaks are mere nubbins; that beyond, inviolate in the sunshine, lie hulking, magnificent ranges, the mountains that that make up what has been called the American Himalayas. They encircle us, the Chugach, the Wrangells, and the St. Elias, and only now do we begin to gain a sense of where Claus is taking us. There are words and numbers that purport to define it: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, 13.2 million acres, nine of 16 highest peaks on the continent, more glaciers than anywhere outside the polar regions, less than 100 miles of road, fewer than 100 full-time residents. But from the air, you comprehend only the landscape's harrowing loveliness, its obliterating scope, its raw power to defy comprehension.
Slowly we descend, and the picture changes. In the shadow of a ridge, along a river, there are cabins and buildings, a sawmill, a generator house. A few airplanes, people moving busily about. We touch down on a frozen river and are greeted by John and Eleanor Claus, Paul's parents, who claimed five acres here as a "trade and manufacturing site" in 1959 and later enlarged their inholding to its present 99 acres. Paul and his wife, Donna, later named it Ultima Thule, after the Greek mapmaker's designation for the northernmost habitable land. Scattered around the compound are their children: Three-year-old Logan races shoeless through the snow; 9-year-old Jay is inside, landing Cessnas on his computer flight simulator; and 12-year-old Ellie, who hopes to run the Iditarod in a few years, is tending to her dog team.
John Claus, the patriarch, is straight out of homesteader mythology, a plaid-shirted 65-year-old man with rumply white hair and bushy eyebrows and a kindly voice that invites guests to act like family because, by golly, for the next week they are family. I really should meet Donna, he tells me — smart, indomitable Donna, keeper of the books and of the Ultima Thule vision — but she's in Tokyo on an Alaska state tourism junket, courting the Japanese demographic able to afford the lodge's $700-a-night rate. Meanwhile, there are other Clauses afoot: Pam and Peggy, Paul's sisters, are visiting with husbands and kids. Then there's the rest of the crew, a handful of guides and lodge staff, and Mark Bills, Paul's easygoing, toothpick-chewing, 27-year-old assistant pilot.
In addition to the eight guests at the lodge, there are several parties in the field, including noted climber Alex Lowe on Mount Kennedy, some Anchorage climbers on Mount Bear, and a group of backcountry snowboarders on Mount Drum. This is how the season goes: climbers and skiers in the spring, a flood of casual recreationists in the summer, and hunters in autumn, all of them provided with what the Clauses call "a high-quality wilderness experience." The lodge has not, however, provided a high-quality financial experience for the family, at least not yet. High insurance costs, plane repairs, and various acts of God (the lodge buildings are being rebuilt on higher ground for the second time in seven years because of riverbank erosion) have repeatedly forced Ultima Thule to siphon funds from its summer fishing operation at Bristol Bay; last year the business took in over half a million dollars in revenues but netted only $10,000. Despite its highfalutin clientele and growing ambition — Donna has sketched out an 8,000-square-foot main lodge to be the centerpiece of the new site — Ultima Thule is basically a larger, busier version of most bush-flying operations, lifestyle businesses for which the rule is high cash flow, low profit.
With such tight margins, you need something extra, and that something extra here is Paul Claus's reputation and expertise and authority. His day-to-day work, however, encompasses more than glory. He has the difficult and sometimes awkward job of serving as the conduit between the confines of the lodge and the unforgiving world that surrounds it. He alone decides who will fly, when, where they will land, what they can bring, when they will return; he alone plays the often complex logistical chess game of maintaining communications, checking on climbers, reacting to the weather, and compensating for a wide variety of skill levels, all the while trying to send home the kind of satisfied customer who'll spread the word and come back again. It's a job description that embodies the contradictory character of modern bush piloting, an occupation stretched between the way the pilot views himself (as a skilled professional, heir to a tradition of self-reliance and courage) and the way he is sometimes viewed by clients (as a hired flunky, a glorified taxi driver). Given these tensions, it's little wonder that Claus is a touchy soul.
And yet ... Though some guests seem to accept Claus's behavior as part of the high-quality wilderness experience — bush-pilot crotchetiness ranking second only to moose-nugget earrings as a genuine tourist artifact — his dealings with his family are more difficult to fathom. One night at dinner, John Claus gently lets his son know that Pam and Peggy were anxious to head home today and were disappointed that they couldn't fly out to Chitina because Paul was so busy. Claus turns to his father, eyes blazing, and says, "Are you blaming me for that? Are you blaming me?" — words that some guests take for a Joe Pesci-like comic riff until they notice John's deep discomfort.
In conversations I have with Peggy and John, they unexpectedly unburden themselves about Paul, revealing their sorrows, venting their frustrations, offering a set of pop-psych Allen wrenches with which to deconstruct him — he never had a childhood, he feels responsible for everyone, he and Donna don't communicate well, John was too strict, but come to think of it his father was too strict — and even hoping out loud that this very story could perhaps serve as some sort of mass-circulation therapy session, helping Paul get to know Paul. It's only Donna, savvy and practical Donna, who's got things figured out, who knows how to cut to the heart of what makes her husband tick.
"Paul's ornery," she declares over the phone a few seconds after saying hello for the first time. "He's also an artist with an airplane. You read about Van Gogh or Monet or Picasso, they weren't exactly a picnic to live with either. But they were good, and Paul's the best in the world at what he does."
Bingo. Of course he's ornery, the argument seems to go, thank God he's ornery, because if he weren't, he might not have that extra edge; he might not be quite so good at flying, climbing, and surviving (and, as Donna so nicely implies, making sure you survive, buddy-boy). Nice guys finish dead. It sounds harsh, but in essence it's a ruthlessly logical extension of the pilot adage: Everything's a trade-off. You want altitude? You give up speed. You want to bring extra gasoline? You haul extra weight. You want the aura of on-the-brink risk? You want to be a hero? You want to be king of the bush pilots? You might have to give up a piece of your humanity.
"This is a hard place," Claus himself says. "My job is to make everybody happy, and that's not easy. I'm not really gruff and mean, though sometimes I have to act that way. You do what you have to do." He pauses and looks me in the eye. "I'm not out here to make friends. I'm out here to fly a plane."
It's a job requirement that famous bush pilots either write a book or be featured in one: Don Sheldon's Wager with the Wind, Bob Reeve's Glacier Pilot, Jack Jefford's Winging It!, Noel Wien's Pioneer Bush Pilot, Bob Ellis's What ... No Landing Field? They are autobiographies of the loosest sort, consisting almost entirely of funny, tragic, and hair-raising stories — pilots battling drunken 300-pound passengers for control of the plane, resolutely chopping frozen limbs off dead bodies to fit them into cargo holds, unsuspectingly landing on the back of a whale, flying full-throttle in total whiteout until they realize they've accidentally landed on a mountaintop-stylized campfire tales that in a deeper sense are all the exact same tale: Look! I survived!
When he writes his, Claus's story will fit nicely into the genre. The first chapter can include the moment John and Eleanor brought him home to that three-room log homestead near Anchorage, little braces on the boy's club feet. Then the other childhood ailments — two surgeries by the time he was four — that made him tough, almost as tough as his strong, overachieving father. Claus was soloing the Super Cub at 13, captaining the family fishing boat at 16, and when high school got dull, graduating early so he could spend more time running his trapline.
In 1982, at 22, Claus married Donna DeNier, a championship skier and pilot and the daughter of a prominent Colorado state legislator. Together, Paul and Donna started the lodge business. Their first clients were European climbers, and news stories and documentary films followed, publicity that Donna wasn't shy about utilizing to attract more high-end business. "I talked to everybody about the lodge and about Paul," she says. "After a while, a few famous people started showing up. Of course, most of the time we don't even know they're famous. Gerry Spence came because I met his son at an airport. Nathan Myhrvold, of Microsoft, I think he found our Web page. When Steven Seagal called, we had to quick get hold of his movies so we could find out who he was."
Claus's reputation as a pilot spread, partly as a result of Donna's efforts, partly through tales of derring-do (like the time he caught a thermal and rode to 24,000 feet, five grand higher than they say a Super Cub will fly), but mostly through a much-talked-about series of sportily averted disasters, the news of which spread over the bush-pilot network of bars, airfields, and radio chatter. The details weren't always completely accurate, but that didn't hurt any.
Did you hear about Claus? Had a crankshaft go on him over the Bagley Ice Field. He parks without a scratch on her but then a storm moves in — and the bastard was hauling empty, didn't bring survival gear! No food, no water, no nothing. So he tears the insulation out of the seat to stuff his clothes with, hunkers down, and four days he sits there, radio battery running down, melting snow to drink, before he makes contact with a search plane and they get him out.
Did you hear about Paul's latest? Seems he borrowed old Tommy Speerstad's Arctic Tern for a joyride, spots this big, flat, perfect gravel bar, goes to set her down, and boom! Flips it flat on her back, prop bent to hell, windshield smashed. He says the brakes locked on him. Nobody knows to look for him, he's got no food, no matches, no nothing — so he heads out, 50 miles of beaver dam, bog, and river between him and the lodge. Day and a half later he shows up, gets his tools and a mechanic, flies back to the gravel bar, fixes the Tern, and flies her out.
Did you hear Claus had a bolt snap on his Beaver ski coming into the Hawkins Glacier? He's pig-heavy with a full load, when a ski cracks off, surfs forward, nails the prop, and gets slapped back against the strut and stays there, just hanging like a barn door. Controls go all to shit, everybody figures they're gonna buy it, but Claus finds this spot he's never landed on the glacier, shimmies down on one ski, and pulls her up just short of a crevasse.
Some disasters, of course, can't be averted. In 1988, three people died when they were bucked out of a raft Claus was piloting through a Class V rapid on the Tana River. Difficult publicity followed. The victims were part of a crew filming an outdoors program with former Alaska governor Jay Hammond, and things weren't eased by Paul's matter-of-fact statements about the incident. ("They should have hung on," he explained to me. "I told them to hang on, and for some reason they didn't.") But publicity is publicity, and the tragedy only heightened the Claus profile. Pretty soon, whenever somebody from the media starts poking around for the Chuck Yeager of Alaska bush pilots, the real deal, there's one name that keeps coming to the top of the list.
As Kelly Bay, co-owner of Wrangell Mountain Air, says, "Getting famous like he's getting doesn't just happen — you've got to want it to happen, and Paul and Donna have made a decision. It's what they want."
Breadfasts devoured, backpacks and water bottles brimming, the guests huddle near the planes, pairing off by occupation: the two marketing guys from The North Face, the coach and a former member of the U.S. Nordic Ski Team, Homberger and another Swiss climber, the Vermont orthopedist and the Anchorage obstetrician. Everyone will be skiing today, this they know. Most do not know exactly where they are going, and by now they know better than to ask.
John Claus stands patiently with the group, making small talk. "I'm waiting to see if the boss needs me to fly today," he announces with a self-deprecating chuckle. Though John has served as a de facto assistant pilot for a few years now, it's not a role that he, a former teacher, top sheep-hunter's guide, and owner of an Anchorage contracting business, takes to naturally. But after the state's mideighties recession swamped the contracting business, he and Eleanor sold their home in the city and moved out to the lodge more or less permanently. Things got tougher last year, when the elder Claus had heart bypass and valve-replacement surgery, whereupon Mark Bills was bumped up to assistant pilot. John's able to fly again this year but takes things a step slower.
The boss walks up, looking snazzy as usual. He is wearing a cobalt-blue, form-fitting micropile jumpsuit with a red-lined hood, mirrored glacier glasses, a navy-blue baseball cap, and blue ski boots that make him walk slowly, heel-toe, on slightly bowed legs. He carries his arms slightly bent at the elbows and away from his torso, aware of their position and movement — the watchful bearing of good carpenters and cops.
"Hey, Paul," everybody says.
But Claus is examining the sky. Though the lodge has satellite phone and television, weather reports remain essentially meaningless in so vast a region, so it's up to Paul to make his own seat-of-his-pants forecast — not that anyone is about to inquire what the current forecast might be.
Then Claus's gaze moves down to the planes, gassed up and arranged neatly on the river ice: the DeHavilland Beaver (seats six or so, including the pilot), the Cessna 185 (seats four), and his favorites, the two tiny, fabric-covered Piper Super Cubs (each seats two), one of which, the 160-horsepower Alpha, is customized to the lightest possible specs — no electronics system, an engine that must be started by hand-turning the propeller-to facilitate high mountain flying. Today, Claus has decided the group should ski Mount Gage, an 8,500-foot peak off the Goat Creek Glacier. (He's going to ski too.) Further, he has decided they will take three planes, the Beaver and the Super Cubs, and that they will convoy to a landing spot on a glacier at Gage's base and then shuttle skiers to the top with the two smaller planes, à la heli-skiing. There's time for two runs, maybe three, by evening. The only dire element will be the landing high up on Mount Gage, on a small, steeply canted snowfield that shoulders the peak, with a drop-off of several thousand feet in two directions: the aerial equivalent of the head of a pin.
"It's interesting" is all Claus will say.
After a flurry of loading we're in the air, flying low above the river, skimming over dazed-looking moose. Claus flies with a studied casualness, his hands resting lightly on the yoke, his cap pushed back on his head. He adjusts the elevator and rudder trim, raises the skis for better aerodynamics, but mostly he lays back and lets the plane fly itself. While other mountain pilots enjoy strenuous talk about rotors, lenticular cloud formations, wind patterns, pass-approach angles, and convection currents, Claus shrugs off such discussions of flying technique. "I don't really know about any of that technical stuff," he says. "I visualize the air as flowing water. Sometimes it flows up, and sometimes down, and sometimes it goes over rocks and turns into whitewater."
He is similarly laconic when it comes to describing his specialty, glacier landings (a maneuver that legendary glacier pilot Bob Reeve once compared to "sticking your head inside an enamel pail"). Even when poor-visibility weather isn't a factor, glaciers are notoriously difficult to judge from above: Seeming pebbles turn out to be boulders, flat landing spots turn out to be icy 30-degree chutes. Claus sometimes tosses spruce branches or weighted bags out of the plane to establish perspective and improve his odds. But it really comes down to the ineffable things: vision, experience, confidence, feel — the things pilots are referring to when they deploy the catchphrase everyone inevitably uses to describe Paul Claus and other top bush pilots, such as Talkeetna's Doug Geeting: He's got touch. The difference with Claus is that Wrangell-St. Elias gives him endless opportunities to show just how fine that touch can be. "Those guys in Denali are good pilots," Claus says, "but they fly the same shuttle run, A to B, B to A, all the time. Here, we go weeks, entire summers, without flying the same thing twice."
With Goat Creek Glacier unfurling ahead of us under faultless blue skies, Claus, relaxed, props the yoke with his knee and pencils in a log entry. As we move into the valley proper, he swings the plane to the right and begins hugging the mountainside, his starboard wingtip only a few dozen yards away from the snow, tracing a sinuous path that keeps everyone in the plane checking out the window, just to make sure. Later, I ask him if perhaps he flew so close to the mountain to keep out of the wind.
He gives me that sidelong, challenging look, as if I don't get it.
"To shorten the trip, to save fuel?"
"To scout for game?"
"No," he gives an exasperated chuckle and throws up his hands for the revelation of the great, obvious secret, the clean and pure answer of a child at play:
"Because I want to."
In Alaska, getting killed in a small airplane is partly a function of mathematical certainties. Graced by few roads, the state contains about 10,000 small planes and around 9,500 active pilots, or one for every 58 residents. Last year, a fairly typical one, the Federal Aviation Administration recorded 162 small-plane accidents in Alaska, producing 51 fatalities. Which means that the odds of a pilot's being involved in an accident were one in 61, a shade more favorable than the chance an American serviceman had of being wounded in Vietnam. Since a little more than half of the fatalities were passengers, the odds of a pilot's being killed were about one in 500, a rate almost double that in commercial fishing, the second-deadliest line of work in Alaska.
Most fatal crashes involve inexperienced pilots, but occasionally good pilots go down. Pilots like Clark Engle, a Super Cub veteran who crashed and burned in the Alaska Range; or Mike Ivers out of Yakutat, who flew his 207 into a mountain; or the renowned Ace Dodson, with more bush hours under his belt than just about anyone, who augered in on the Iditarod Trail. Or Gwen Frary — beautiful, funny, gutsy Gwen Frary — who was well on her way to becoming the first modern bush-pilot queen when her Super Cub crashed and burned after being caught in severe winds at low altitude four years ago.
Accidents, the FAA terms them, but to bush pilots, who closely parse each crash, there is rarely anything accidental about them. Modern engines, when properly cared for, fail at an infinitesimally low rate. Barring disastrous structural failure, there is always an explicable, avoidable reason — they turned downwind, they came in too hot, they pushed the weather. Each death becomes the affirmation of a fundamental tenet of bush pilot belief: You get what you deserve. So the bush pilots look at Paul Claus, and they see the stunt flying he did in the 1996 feature film Alaska or the worshipful portrayal he received earlier this year in the TBS documentary Alaska Bush Pilot — they see him hydroskidding across rivers on his floats, pulling wing-overs next to sheer granite faces, killing the engine midflight and deadsticking the plane to a perfect landing — and they can't help but wonder.
"I think the picture industry is making Paul act like more of a cowboy," Jay Hudson, of Hudson Air, says. "I think this kind of glory might make somebody a more dangerous pilot."
"He's a good pilot, willing to do the things that give you a name, and he's lucky," Kelly Bay, of Wrangell Mountain Air, says. "The famous in this business have skill and luck; the rest get killed. It's a process of elimination. Of course, a person can only have so much luck."
"Paul gets a kick out of flying on the edge," Gary Green, of McCarthy Air, says. "His skill level is undoubtedly the highest that I'm aware of, but if he keeps going, I don't know if he can continue at his present level."
"Let's just put it this way," Lynn Ellis, a veteran bush pilot from Glennallen, deadpans. "Paul Claus is going to be a very famous pilot someday."
Claus knows what they're saying about him. He's aware that if he were to die tomorrow, fellow bush pilots would shake their heads knowingly, just like they do when any hotshot buys it. But Claus knows something the doubters don't. He believes in destiny. And it's his destiny to survive.
"I'm not real religious, but I do believe in fate," Claus says one afternoon as we sit in the Ultima Thule dining room. "I think accidents have a lot to do with your divine time. There's definitely been things that I shouldn't have lived through. There's been much safer pilots and climbers than me who have gotten killed — who have had their time come up. I can't explain it, but it's true."
"He's immune to death," his sister Peggy tells me. "He's had so many friends who have died, pilots and climbers whose corpses he's hauled out. I think by now he thinks it's normal, that it can't ever happen to him."
"In tight spots," Claus says, "I always envision myself living through it. These guys here" — he gestures out the window toward a ridge behind the lodge, the site of a fatal crash two years ago — "they weren't envisioning themselves living through it. They weren't seeing the whole picture, all the options. I picture myself flying ahead of the plane, seeing the possibilities, and when something bad happens, I'm ready. In a way, I've already dealt with it."
Then something suddenly occurs to Claus.
"Hey," he says, "want to see something?"
He disappears downstairs and returns holding a paper cup, the kind a milkshake might come in. He reaches in, and with a flourish, pulls out a human jawbone.
"I picked this up from an old crash site on Mount Susitna when I was a kid," he says. "Check it out — the pilot's teeth."
The bone is gray and curved like a scythe. The teeth are large and white, and the spaces between are jammed with pebbles. There are gold crowns on two molars, and the incisors lean together, overlapping slightly. Claus rotates it slowly in the light.
He looks closely at the teeth, seemingly deep in thought, and then opens his mouth to speak. I lean in, ready to hear words about fate, about luck, about the meanings that reside in the dusty bones of this poor Yorick. But I'm wrong. Another pilot might see a glimmer of mortality there, but the reason Claus keeps surviving is because he won't — or can't. To him, it's just a jawbone.
"Look," he says. "This guy had a lot of cavities."
At Goat Creek Glacier, the three planes land: first Paul, then Mark, then John. Paul switches to the Alpha Super Cub and starts to shuttle guests up to Mount Gage, where they will begin their day. Two skiers wedge themselves into the conical space behind the pilot's seat, and Claus twirls the propeller and climbs in. He's airborne with the abruptness of a kite, spirals around the valley to gain altitude, and we can hear him roaring in for a landing. He reappears 20 minutes later and continues to shuttle skiers until there's only John, Mark, and myself left. Mark and I are climbing into the plane when Claus looks back at his father.
"Dad, why don't you fly up this time," he says. "Follow me in." The suggestion hovers between a challenge and an order.
John Claus looks up, eyebrows raised. He didn't expect to fly up there, and he's not needed to haul anyone, and besides, since the surgery he's avoided the dicier stuff. Not that he couldn't do it — he could. But from his perspective, there's no point.
So John says, "Do you think I can land there, Paul?"
But Paul — Paul is pissed now. It's not that his father is saying no; it's the way he's saying no. He's just giving up! He's afraid! He's violating the code! Paul has no choice. He sets his face into a cold mask and lets his dad have it.
"Anybody can land there," he snaps. "You just got to land right."
John exhales forcefully, as if he's been hit. The old man may have mellowed, but he hasn't softened. Honor impugned, he looks at his son angrily. For a long time, no one speaks.
John, inevitably, is first to give in.
"Oh, I don't know, Paul," he says, his voice searching for its usual music. "Maybe I'll go up and have a peek at it."
But it's too late for compromises. "Whatever," Paul says, even as he's starting the engine. He swings the Super Cub around for takeoff and sends a stinging wash of snow toward his father, who hunches his shoulders and walks alone toward his plane.
We rise in sweeping circles until we're at 10,000 feet, looking down on a jagged universe of white. Paul levels off, and we follow his gaze to a creamy-looking shoulder, a small, smooth place a few hundred feet short of the summit. Claus eyes it appreciatively, craning his neck to peer into the surrounding chasms, and then, finding his line, pushes the stick forward and begins his steep approach. He goes to work, hands and feet pulling steel cables, steel cables pulling ailerons and rudders, each move an intricate act of communication, part of the eloquent language that gives him entr‰e to this deadly, heavenly place and a thousand more like it, places distant from the complexities of family, relationships, everyday life. Then he reaches the place where he wants to be, flying uphill a few inches above the mountainside, and the wings begin to moan with that low vibrato they make just before the plane stalls, but Claus prolongs the moment, still airborne, until the skis contact snow with a silken, barely perceptible hiss.
John Claus, banking overhead, doesn't follow us in. Having watched to make sure his son has executed the landing just as he should, just as he was taught, Paul's father heads for home, the slender outline of his plane growing smaller against the mountains until it rounds a corner and disappears.
Paul doesn't seem to notice. He's gearing up to go skiing with his guests while his apprentice, Mark, shuttles the Super Cub back down to Goat Creek Glacier. His instructions are brief: Paul points to the tracks from his previous takeoffs, which run for perhaps 70 feet and end abruptly at the lip of the cliff. "Go there," Paul says. "Not left or right — there."
Through glacier glasses, Mark assesses the tracks. He switches his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other and then gives Claus a slow, cool, aviator grin.
"Flyin' or fallin'—what's the difference?" he says.
Paul grins back in brotherly affirmation. Then he steps into his bindings and starts to skin up, strong and steady. He climbs for 20 minutes, until he reaches the top of the mountain, where he looks around at his perfect, desolate kingdom of granite and ice. And then, with a whoop of pleasure, he begins to float downward through the powder.
Daniel Coyle's profile of Ted Nugent appeared in the March issue of Outside.
Filed To: Snow Sports