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Guru of the glaciers

Andrew Williams, 74, is a muscular, wiry former Royal Marine-commando and bush pilot with a crisp and precise British accent, an unmistakable twinkle in his eyes and the well-leathered face of an man.


Andrew Williams, 74, is a muscular, wiry former Royal Marine-commando and bush pilot with a crisp and precise British accent, an unmistakable twinkle in his eyes and the well-leathered face of an man who spent most of his life in the wind and sun of the cold regions of the Yukon.

In his case, that’s specifically the Icefield Ranges of the St. Elias Mountains, Canada’s northwest terminus of the North American Cordillera and home to the five biggest non-polar glaciers in the world.

He is also the patriarch of the Kluane air charter business now known as Icefields Discovery, although he retired in 2011 at the age of 70 and handed over the reins to his daughter, Sian and her husband Lance Goodwin, originally from Atlin.

He remains a not-so-silent partner in the business and says with a dry chuckle, “although I hear they intend to buy me out if the weather improves.”

This was spoken during a late August weeklong snowstorm while 20-30 tourists were waiting patiently in hotel rooms and campgrounds for flight-seeing tours of the elusive Mount Logan, Canada’s mightiest mountain peak.

“The charter business has always been that way,” Andy went on, “and it will never change. We have a glaciologist up there right now on the west side of Mount Logan who’s been stuck for six days at Quintino Sella in a tent. We told him the storm was coming,” he sighed, “but he insisted, and we’re lucky he’s a tough old Kiwi who has climbed Logan several times and worked for years at high altitude, so we don’t have to worry about him. He’ll just be a little grumpier than normal when next we see him.”

That scientist is one of literally thousands who have passed through Kluane’s Arctic Institute of North America, which was founded in 1945 and is celebrating its 70th anniversary this season.

“I didn’t get involved until 1972,” said Andy, “and we’ve had just about every ‘ology’ you can name in our planes and camps, such as glaciology, geomorphology, geology, biology, botany, zoology, hydrology, limnology, climatology, high-altitude physiology, anthropology, archaeology and others I’m certain I’ve forgotten.

“But to properly understand what’s gone on here over the years you have to go far back before my time. The original dreamer was Dr. Walter Wood, who first started his experiments out of Burwash Landing in 1935 with the assistance of local native guides and outfitters who travelled in by horseback, at least to the base of Mount Steele.

“The institute was his dream, but he sorely needed a nearby airport close to both the Icefields and the Alaska Highway, and finally got his wish when the U.S. Army built this airfield in 1952 as a construction exercise, then used it to train paratroopers in winter conditions (including using drogue chutes to drop heavy equipment) before abandoning it after the Korean war. Walter finally got permission to reopen the airport in 1961 for scientific research, and that’s when this field base got going.”

In the late ‘60s a joint Canadian/U.S. high-altitude physiology study kicked the institute into high gear, and it’s been on a roll ever since, with consistent ups and downs, so to speak.

Andy was hired in 1972, the same year Sian was born, to work as a bush pilot and run the “high camp” on Mount Logan but quickly became the base manager since his original resume listed the following areas of competence: “diesel mechanics, mountain expedition logistics, weather forecasting, piloting, aerial reconnaissance and survey, small business management and accounting.” Within a year he was recognized as “one of the best research base managers in Canada” by NSERC, the national science awards committee.

In 1981 he bought his own plane to service the institute and fondly recalls the advice he was given by friend and fellow pilot, Joe Sparling, who told him: “Don’t quit your day job.”

But Andy and his new company, Icefield Ranges Expeditions, didn’t have to worry about that because he was still base manager for the Arctic Institute while his eventual successor, Sian, was nine years old and learning the business from the ground floor up by washing dishes in the cookhouse.

Andy had a simple three point operational mantra over the years for both the institute and the charter business: One: Be safe. Two: Have fun. Three: Try to get some work done.

Although he is most proud of the safety record and the immensity of the scientific work (hundreds of graduate theses and thousands of published scientific articles), like most Yukoners of his generation, or any other, it’s the humorous or unusual stories which endure and grow with the many retellings. Such as:

“We left a plane up there one winter and it disappeared! Not a trace of it anywhere until the summer sun exposed about four inches of the tip of one propeller. The winter wind and snow had buried it. If that tip hadn’t been pointing straight up, we may never have found it, which might have been a good thing because it never handled properly again after being glaciated. That was before we understood how much snow falls up there. We dug it out, thawed it out, checked it out and flew it out,” he laughed triumphantly.

He also is fairly certain he once held the world record for highest-altitude airplane “crash,” although it wasn’t much of a crash, as one ski fell into a crevasse on Logan High at 18,000 feet while taxiing much like a truck falling into a mud hole. The photo is actually quite humourous, with Andy and two others looking at the wounded plane and scratching their heads in a “Now what?” pose.

“And we flew that one out too, after digging down the high side until the wings were level, then digging a ramp down to the skis and revving it up. I drove that one out myself and flew it home. The toughest part of the job was shoveling snow at that altitude in the hot summer sun.”

Doug Sack was the first sports editor of the Yukon News and later a longtime sports editor of the Whistler Question and a columnist and features writer for Ski Canada magazine. He is currently semi-retired in Whitehorse.