In the wake of a heli-skiing crash that killed his wife and three others and shattered his body, maverick filmmaker Mike Hoover has been left to rejoin the living the only way he knows how

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Outside magazine, February 1996


In the wake of a heli-skiing crash that killed his wife and three others and shattered his body, maverick filmmaker Mike Hoover has been left to rejoin the living the only way he knows how
By Trip Gabriel

Snow was falling heavily as two Bell helicopters dropped the skiers on a powdery slope in Nevada’s Ruby Range. The heli-skiing vacation was planned to be the high point of the winter, a reunion of friends with commingled roots in Hollywood and the high mountains, hosted by Frank G. Wells, president of the Walt Disney Company. Included in the party were Wells’s old climbing buddy Dick Bass, owner of Utah’s Snowbird Ski Resort, actor Clint Eastwood, and Mike Hoover and Beverly Johnson, a husband-and-wife team of adventure filmmakers. Hoover knew Eastwood from The Eiger Sanction, the 1975 action film for which Hoover had shot the climbing sequences and served as Eastwood’s stunt double. Despite the bad weather, the skiers stayed in the high country, swooping through open bowls and over rolling benches studded with limber pines. At the end of the day, two helicopters came to ferry them back to their base lodge. By the time the chopper carrying Wells, Hoover, and Johnson took off, a fierce storm had blown in, forcing them to land minutes later. They waited out the squall for about two hours and then took off again, the pilot slowly picking his way down a rugged canyon. Hoover was snapping photographs from the backseat when suddenly, through his viewfinder, he saw a light flashing red on the control panel. The engine had shut down, and the helicopter, some 250 feet above steep terrain, began to tumble. “Brace yourselves,” Hoover said to his wife and Wells beside him on the seat. “We’re going in.”

Johnson, a licensed pilot, assumed crash position, dropping her head and extending her arms to protect herself. The 62-year-old Wells, who had been one of the first men to climb the highest peaks on six continents, looked disoriented and confused. “Brace yourself!” Hoover said again.

The pilot, Dave Walton, calmly radioed the pilot of the other helicopter, reporting that he had engine trouble. “There was no panic,” Hoover would recall later. “He was cool as a cucumber.” Walton managed to wrestle the powerless craft to smoother ground in the last desperate seconds. Just before impact, he cried out what sounded to Hoover like the shout of a surfer about to drop into a wave: “Wahoo!”

Hoover never lost consciousness. “There was the noise and then the silence afterward,” he’d recall. “Then a kind of moaning from the others.” A rescue helicopter arrived within minutes. Walton and Wells were pronounced dead at the scene. Their ski guide, Paul Scannell of Tahoe City, California, would die of his injuries nine days later.

One of the rescuers helped pull Hoover, who was in shock, out of the wreck, and then turned to give Johnson mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Several minutes later, Hoover, propped against the crumpled fuselage, heard someone say, “She’s gone.” Of the five people aboard the helicopter that day, April 3, 1994, he alone survived.

Months later, Mike Hoover hopped around his Los Angeles bungalow, defying doctors’ orders by ignoring his crutches. He seemed miraculously well healed from his injuries: fractures of the skull, neck, right shoulder, right elbow, rib cage, and left lower leg, which shattered so violently that bone shards pierced his ski boot. After a dozen painful operations, the only real hint of his ordeal–other than the hop-hop-hopping sound that accompanied him through the dark rooms–came when he stiffly swiveled his head and shoulders. It was the aftereffect of months spent in a metal “halo” designed to immobilize his neck.

Careerwise, Hoover seemed barely to have slowed at all. By the summer following the crash, he had climbed back into a helicopter to film the opening sequence for Crimson Tide. Then he was off to the Canadian Arctic to film Arctic Flight for Busch Gardens, most of which was also shot from the air. “Getting back into a helicopter had zero effect on me,” he said coolly.

Hoover’s bluntness wasn’t surprising. He’s long been known as the Cecil B. De Mille of outdoor films–direct, aggressive, sometimes harsh. It’s a reputation that dates back to the first film he made himself, the 1972 rock-climbing documentary Solo, now considered a classic. Since then, Hoover has worked on nearly 100 film projects, including Forrest Gump and The River Wild. In 1984 he took home an Oscar for a hang-gliding film called Up. With only a slight professional stretch, he covered the anti-Soviet guerrilla war in Afghanistan, bringing back footage that won him an Emmy, not to mention a good deal of controversy.

Yet it was clear that Hoover, now 52, had mellowed considerably since the death of his wife. The last time I’d seen him, a decade earlier, he’d been directing a climbing film in Yosemite Valley for ABC’s Wide World of Sports. On the night before shooting, he’d ordered his camera crew to bed as if he were a general addressing his troops. “Well, gang,” he’d barked, “let’s get up at six. Not stir at six–up at six!”

Now Hoover lay on his living room rug before a glowing fire, quietly offering cheese and crackers. The room resembled the inner sanctum of an explorers’ club, all heavy oak furniture and exotic memorabilia. A highboy held carved African figures and a metronome. Shelves were piled with hardcover books and dusty awards.

Nights, he confided, were the worst. That was when the realization returned that he had lost his wife. To put off having to go to bed, where he tossed sleeplessly, he often worked at his computer until 1 or 2 A.M.

“Beverly and I did everything together,” Hoover said. “On our trips to Antarctica, we wouldn’t be more than a rope-length apart for three months. Something happens when you’re together like that. You become infused, like in metallurgy when you meld a chunk of iron with a chunk of brass. The molecules combine and they become one.”

Hoover met Johnson in the late 1960s in Yosemite. He was descending a rock-climbing route when he threw down a rope and heard a yelp. It was Johnson, leading a much harder climb, and she was not pleased to have been hit.

“As I went by she totally ignored me and said something to her belayer about how some people are dickheads– she had a real foul mouth,” said Hoover fondly. “I hung on the rope next to her to say I was sorry, but it was like I didn’t exist. I was in love.”

Johnson, the daughter of a navy pilot, had a taste for adventure every bit the equal of Hoover’s. Called the top woman rock climber of her day by Sports Illustrated, she was the first woman to climb El Capitan solo, in 1978. In the early eighties she paddled a kayak alone through the Strait of Magellan, and in 1984 she filmed a ski traverse of Greenland for ABC’s American Sportsman, acting as a one-woman crew. Though Hoover had top billing on their films, his wife was intimately involved, whether as a camera operator dangling from a rope on the Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite or a master of logistics at the South Pole. She became an expert pilot and was the first in Antarctica to fly a gyrocopter, a type of ultralight helicopter, on high-risk reconnaissance flights.

“When things would really get horrible and everybody else would be falling apart, she would get a snake-eyed look and just chill out,” said Hoover. “In her plane, when the engine would go out, she’d be perfect.”

Friends remember Johnson as winsome and sunny, much the opposite of her husband. She was often called upon to soothe friends and colleagues whose feelings Hoover had hurt. The contrasts in their personalities–Beverly an engaging chatterbox, Mike irascible and taciturn–made them well suited to each other.

“He had a tough motivational attitude,” recalls one of Hoover’s former crewmen, Ron Peers, with an odd mix of admiration and distaste. “When we were on the shoot, it was work. ‘We’re gonna get the shot, the camera will not fail, the batteries will not blow up.’ He always came back with stuff in the can and always got film out of it.”

But Peers, who worked with Hoover in Afghanistan and on AT&T commercials, ultimately became fed up with what he saw as Hoover’s lack of compassion. His disillusionment came to a head during a 1988 expedition to Antarctica when Giles Kershaw, a celebrated South Pole pilot, was killed flying Johnson’s gyrocopter. Peers was devastated, but Hoover seemed to take it in stride. On the trip home, when Hoover criticized him for a small matter, Peers vowed it would be the last time. He said he was leaving the business. “Fine,” Hoover replied.

“After that it was as if I’d fallen off the face of the earth,” Peers says. They did not speak for six years, until just after Hoover’s helicopter tragedy. Hoover reached out, Peers says, in the spirit of someone who’d done a lot of soul-searching and wanted to get right with the people he’d hurt. Peers prefers to keep their conversations private, but he acknowledges that Hoover apologized for the way the friendship had ended. “It was the first time I heard Mike cry,” he says.

It was a bright California day, but the curtains in Hoover’s living room were tightly drawn, the room cast in an eerie half-darkness. Hoover was entertaining two old friends from his Afghanistan days, one a man he called General and the other Doctor. Both had once been high officials in the anti-Soviet guerrilla group the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan.

Hoover entered Afghanistan 22 times with NIFA to cover the war against the Soviet Union, which invaded the country in 1979. Much of his footage ran on CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. Freelancers like Hoover were among the few sources of information, and he says that twice he was debriefed in Washington by William Casey, then head of the CIA.

The stamina he’d developed during his years on expeditions made it possible for Hoover and his crews to get footage that others could not. “All our guys were climber types, so we could keep up with the Afghans pretty well,” he said.

The General recalled that his mujahideen, amused and impressed by a white man who hauled his own pack, gave Hoover the nickname Shuttar, “Camel.”

“He was always pushing the lines, going everywhere,” said the Doctor. “Everywhere, he was in front.”

Turning to me, the General said, “Put down that he was really rough on his crew.”

“You said it yourself,” Hoover recalled. “They were more afraid of me than the Russians.”

In 1987 Hoover’s best footage was assembled into a CBS News special, The Battle for Afghanistan. The gripping combat film earned him his Emmy, but two years later it nearly destroyed his career. Under a front-page headline reading, “CBS Aired Fake Afghan Battles,” the New York Post accused Hoover of fabricating scenes and of mislabeling film of refugees fleeing a battle zone. CBS News investigated and cleared Hoover of the charges. Today he believes that the newspaper story, which did not name its sources, originated with a disgruntled Afghan crewman he had briefly employed.

As it does at such reunions, the talk turned to war stories. The two Afghans, thickly built men with coal-black hair and heavy gold watches, recalled the time Hoover aimed his camera at a guerrilla charging into a battle with a grenade. Hoover asked the man to slow down so he could film, and soon the other attackers were far ahead.

“This guy pulls the pin on his grenade and he’s going to throw it,” Hoover said, “but now, if he throws it ahead, it’ll hit his own men. So where does he throw it? Right in front of me!”

“I saw it but I couldn’t even speak,” said the Doctor, convulsing with laughter.

“Good-bye, Mike,” laughed the General.

“He was so sorry,” Hoover said.

Yet mixed with the laughter there was an air of melancholy. All three had suffered losses since their days of wartime glory. Hoover, of course, had lost Beverly, a blow that at least on afternoons like this one seemed to have sheared the edges off the famously gruff filmmaker. And though the Afghans and their fellow mujahideen had won a remarkable victory, expelling the Soviets in 1989, they’ve been caught up in a bloody civil war ever since. The Afghan cause, once embraced by Americans, has dropped from view.

“Some friends are just friends for a while and then disappear,” the General said wistfully. “We had in the State Department so many friends. We were their heroes.” He tipped a glass toward Hoover, one of those who didn’t forget. “We have been through so much.”

After more than a year of investigating the crash in the Ruby Range, the National Transportation Safety Board last June issued a report that cited as the probable cause of the crash “the ingestion of foreign material (snow) in the engine, which resulted in a flameout (loss of engine power).” During the two hours or so that the skiers waited on the mountain for the storm to clear, the helicopter pilot never covered the engine intakes. According to Hoover, Dave Walton, the pilot, didn’t think they’d be there for long. The engine shut down 30 seconds to two minutes after takeoff.

Hoover said that he blames neither Walton nor Joe Royer, the founder of Ruby Mountain Heli-Ski, for the tragedy and that at this point he has no plans to sue. “You roll the dice every time you get into one of those things,” he said, “and sooner or later you’re going to get caught.”

Hoover can now walk without crutches and attends rehabilitation sessions only three times a week; he also bikes and lifts weights six days a week. Although he can’t sling a camera under the same strenuous conditions as before, he continues to oversee the work of his crews at Mike Hoover Productions. He’s scheduled to begin work on The Hollow Earth, an IMAX caving film set in New Zealand, this month.

“I now feel 100 percent again,” said Hoover. “But even before that the question of backing off and not taking any more risks never arose. To me people who do that are kind of stupid. It’s like they never realized in the beginning that what they were doing was dangerous. They were living unrealistically.” Hoover then repeated what he’d told me earlier in his home in Los Angeles. “It was nothing to me to get back into a helicopter.”

His words were a splash of cold water. He may have become, on one level, more humane in the wake of his accident, but there is plenty of the old Mike Hoover left: the tough nut who courts confrontation and takes a kind of pleasure in his own bluster. To assert that getting into a helicopter months after an accident that killed his wife and three others meant “nothing” seems strange, a caricature of toughness.

Despite an operation last year that fused his left tibia to his shattered left ankle, he still faces the possibility of losing his foot. “There’s no real ankle joint,” he said, “nothing to absorb the shock of normal movements. Medically there aren’t many options besides amputation.

“But it’s no big deal,” he said. “When the prosthetic is hooked up, you can bike, run, ski, do just about everything.”

There are some who know Hoover who wonder whether he’s dealt with all that has happened to him with a form of denial. He says he has suffered little physical pain from his many operations; his chief orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Ken Lambert, says he must have been in terrible pain. Many people might have taken a soul-searching hiatus from their work after such a tragedy; Hoover says he “kind of never stopped.” When he was recuperating from the crash at St. John’s Hospital in Jackson, Wyoming, where Lambert is based, Hoover would sometimes mention that Beverly was just away on a short trip, scouting film locations. Then he would catch himself. “Denial is a big part of the grief reaction,” says Lambert. “There’s no question that’s how he related to Beverly’s death.”

In discussing his recovery, Hoover sometimes seemed to slight the emotional trauma his wife’s death must have caused him. He said the accident gave him a new attitude toward death.

“Sometimes when you get beat up a little bit or you’re in a situation where you have to bury some friends, you start to take things in maybe a more realistic way,” he said. “People might think you get a crazy perspective. But in fact maybe you have the right perspective and everybody else has been hiding from the tragedy of death.”

Hoover said there has never come a point when he’s fallen into a pit of despair. Never has he confronted the demons known to others facing irreversible loss. Perhaps that confrontation lies in his future. In the meantime, it’s worth considering the view of his doctor, whose specialty is sports-medicine trauma. Hoover’s shunting aside of his emotional trauma, Lambert says, has probably allowed him to focus all his strength on fighting his way back to physical health.

“He doesn’t accept he’ll be less than perfect,” says Lambert. “He thinks he’s a superman, and he may well be right.”

As for Hoover, he tries to have no regrets: “We’re here for such a short time. And we’re going to be dead forever.”

Trip Gabriel is a reporter for the New York Times and a longtime contributor to Outside.

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