The 10-passenger de Havilland Turbine Otter ski plane decelerated from airborne to standstill in a space not much longer than my driveway. Pilot Paul Claus pivots feet-first out of the cockpit wearing ski boots. Function-over-fashion footwear is the norm in Alaska, and here in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, where glaciers unfurl for hundreds of miles, Claus' ski boots are eminently practical.
At 13.2 million square acres, the park is bigger than Massachusetts and Vermont combined. Inside, four ranges collide to form the United States' second and fourth through ninth highest peaks. "As far as I'm concerned, this is the best ski terrain in the world," says Claus. "This week we skied terrain nobody's been on before. That's the same story every spring." Despite the park's enormity, only two dead-end gravel roads penetrate the wilderness. If you want to ski amid the thousands of summits, your options are either a multi-day walk or to hire Paul Claus, the son of a bush pilot who took his first flight while only a few days old.
Above his ski boots, 53-year-old Claus wears soft shell pants, a tech fabric jacket, and mirror-coated glacier sunglasses that hint at his storied mountaineering resume. A shock of hair has escaped above the closure on the rear of his ball cap, coupled with clean-shaven cheeks that dimple when he grins. But he is not grinning. Sizing me up, he quizzes, "What is the definition of wilderness?" His jaw sets as he waits for my fumbling reply.
"Paul is a no-bullshit guy who has a deep love of wilderness and adventure," says snowboarder Jeremy Jones, who hired Claus' operation, Ultima Thule Lodge, to handle logistics for a month while filming with Teton Gravity Research in the Wrangell Mountains. "Paul lives in a very serious world. He's hauled a lot of bodies out of those mountains, and with the flying he does, there's no room for error." Jones is hooked on these mountains and Claus' lodge. "Riding in the Wrangells makes traditional lines in Haines and Valdez look simple and Paul is the gatekeeper to it," says Jones.
With a flying and skiing resume that's been intertwined for 40 years, Claus' handling of sketchy landing zones is consummate. "What Paul can do with an airplane is unlike any pilot I've been with," says former TGR Producer Jon "JK" Klaczkiewicz. "Coming into a glacier that nobody has ever landed before and seeing the amount of confidence he has in putting the plane down exactly where he needs to put it down, knowing exactly where he needs to turn around, knowing exactly how long the plane needs to take off… There's a reason why he wins short takeoff and landing competitions."
I ask Claus why he is the only pilot-for-hire who flies in the park during springtime when the skiing is prime, and he turns philosophical. "I think to be a really good mountain pilot, you need to love the mountains," he says. "You need to be a skier or climber. As a pilot, that takes you to another level." He stops short of pointing out how few bush pilots share his passion for mountains and instead tells of a cranky pilot who grudgingly flies climbers while spewing snark about their pursuit. When he adds that the man flies in cowboy boots, the contrast with Claus is absolute. —Jim Harris