The True Story of What Happened When A Plane Loaded with 6,000 Pounds of Pot Crashed in Yosemite

Credit: Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

Jon Glisky believed someone was trying to kill him. The thought was festering when he called his wife from a hotel in Las Vegas. Pam Glisky had just had surgery on nerves in both feet and was slow getting to the phone.

"What took you so long?" he ribbed, cracking a smile over his John Wayne jaw.

Glisky was in that still purgatory between runs, with too much time alone with his thoughts. After the call, he mailed a package to his wife — a toy tea set for their six-year-old daughter. Later that evening he went to dinner at a steakhouse, where he bumped into an old Army buddy. They stayed up late drinking expensive scotch and reminiscing about Vietnam — the purloined jeep they airlifted to their hangar in Quang Tri, their close calls flying helicopters under fire. Glisky laughed and put away several glasses of whiskey, but beneath the easygoing exterior he was on edge. He'd discovered a damaged oil fitting on the left engine of his plane. He didn't think it was routine wear and tear.

The next morning Glisky taxied down the runway at McCarran airport with his colleague and sole passenger, Jeff Nelson. They were in a twin-engine beast called a Howard 500. The Howard carried 1,500 gallons of aviation fuel for long hauls at high speed. After wheels-up, Glisky turned south, toward Mexico. He crossed the border and flew into Baja California, where he landed on a marginal airstrip. Later that night, under cover of darkness, a crew loaded his plane with 6,000 pounds of Mexican red-hair marijuana. The pot was a strain of potent sinsemilla cultivated by an American syndicate known as Mota Magic. The Washington-based crew Glisky flew for bought the premium weed in tightly packed 40-pound burlap bales. Some of the bales were marked frijol, the Spanish word for "bean."

Glisky and Nelson took off before dawn on December 9, 1976. After crossing back into U.S. airspace, they flew just off the coast of California, where anyone tracking the plane would assume it was an executive aircraft ferrying hotshots to San Francisco or Seattle. Halfway up the state, Glisky killed his running lights and turned sharply inland, hitting the deck to drop off radar. Cutting across the sparsely populated farmland of the Central Valley basin, the plane reached the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in minutes. Under the luminous orb of a gibbous moon, the Howard 500 hugged the rocky alpine slopes like a ghostly manta ray gliding up the continental rise.

Ron Lykins and a co-worker finished their shifts at Yosemite's famed Ahwahnee Hotel and loaded the car for a couple of days off. The plan was to meet up with another two friends on the trail and snowshoe out into Yosemite's backcountry. Winter was slow after the holidays, nothing like the human crush of spring and summer. There was no traffic in January, and the granite-carved 1,169-square-mile park felt imbued with a sunny, snow-kissed solitude. In 1977, California was in the second winter of its worst drought in a hundred years, so snowfall had been light. The roads leading to the high-elevation passes were mostly open, and the backcountry was covered in less snow than usual.

The crew at the Ahwahnee was tight, a hive of young, turned-on souls drawn to that wild, rock-shattered valley where God seems to have lost all sense of proportion. Most of the year, waiters lived in 12-by-12 canvas tents with other low-level park employees. The tents were reasonably plush — oil heaters and plank flooring — and employees enjoyed free showers and cheap hot meals in the cafeteria, courtesies they sometimes extended to the hippies and climbers who came by the busload from San Francisco and Berkeley or up from Los Angeles to get weird and enjoy nature's splendor. There was the postcard version of Yosemite — station wagons and happy families — then there was the far-out reality of California in the 1970s. Waiters at the Ahwahnee, one of the finest lodges in North America, bounced between the two.

Lykins and his friend parked where the plows had given up clearing the road and donned their snowshoes. Setting out, they laid down a straight stitch through the meandering trail, taking the quickest possible route up the mountainside. They were about eight miles out when they lost track of the diamond blazes branded into the trees to mark the trail. Out front, Lykins came into a gently sloping bowl. At its center lay Lower Merced Pass Lake, a six-acre blip of water that didn't show up on many maps. As Lykins scanned the trees for some sign of direction, he spotted something incongruous. From way off it looked like a bridge suspended between two snow-draped conifers. He was almost underneath it before he realized it was an airplane wing. Hydraulic oil was still dripping from frayed lines and soiling the snow below. There was no other debris or any sign of wreckage in sight, as though the plane had dropped its wing and somehow continued on. They thought about hiking to the lake, but it was getting dark so they decided to set up camp. In the morning two friends who had followed their tracks came snowshoeing along, already high on acid, and together they headed to higher elevations.

Winter was always quieter, but Yosemite's rangers kept busy year-round. There was always someone who needed rescuing, always a group of "nontraditional visitors," the Park Service term for hippies and rock climbers, smoking dope or camping out of bounds. One afternoon that January, a waiter from the Ahwahnee strolled into the ranger station to report a downed plane.

"Do these guys know where they were?" Tim Setnicka asked a fellow ranger as he dragged a finger across a map of known crash sites on his office door. Setnicka, who ran Yosemite Search and Rescue, wasn't much older than the kid who reported the crash. He was part of a new generation of rangers who mixed rock climbing, backcountry camping, and scuba with advanced law-enforcement techniques. The Danger Rangers, as they were called, had been trained in everything from reconnaissance and undercover work to traditional coroner's duties. They were the law in Yosemite, which operated as a city-state in the middle of California's rugged wilderness.

Setnicka dialed the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center to ask if anyone had reported the plane missing. He gave the dispatcher the number off the wing, which the waiter had written down. That set off a chain reaction. Before the Park Service could get a team of rangers together, four other federal agencies were vying for access to the crash site. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration were interested in the downed aircraft; the DEA and Customs wanted the cargo they thought was onboard. Customs sent a Vietnam-era Huey from San Diego to shuttle agents and rangers to the crash site. The sound of the aging chopper thundered against the walls of the mile-wide valley as it landed in El Capitan Meadow and departed for the backcountry. Everyone in Yosemite knew something big was up.

From the air, the debris trail of the downed Howard 500 stretched three-quarters of a mile and pointed like an arrow toward Lower Merced Pass Lake. Covered in ice and a modest dusting of snow, the lake was a bald patch in an undulating white landscape. Stripped of one wing and most of its tail, which came off in the trees, the plane's fuselage had cartwheeled through the ice. More than a month had passed since the December crash, and the lake had frozen over, entombing the plane — and anyone who was onboard. Several burlap sacks lay strewn along the shoreline. Some of the sacks had ripped open on impact, leaving a chunky vegetal trail in the snow.

Since the plane was on Park Service land, Yosemite's Office of  Law Enforcement coordinated the investigation. A well-coiffed regimental ranger named Lee Shackelton took the lead, ordering his rangers to fan out alongside gun-toting Customs agents to gather marijuana and pile it near the chopper landing site on the frozen lake. A few bales stuck out of the ice like decaying stumps. The total haul was close to 2,000 pounds. Representatives from Customs and the DEA helped catalog the evidence.

"It became a recovery of drudgery because we used chainsaws to cut out these bales of marijuana, which were frozen," remembers Setnicka. "They're heavy, they're broken apart, they're wet. The chainsaws were cutting ice, you know, so the chainsaw blades don't last long. The most obvious ones we cut out, and then we had to fly this marijuana back."

Then the rangers used the chainsaws to open a hole for Yosemite's dive team. High-elevation diving is taxing under normal circumstances, but these were the worst conditions that the Park Service's lead diver, Butch Farabee, had ever seen.

"The water was murky because of the aviation and hydraulic fluids," Farabee recalls. "Visibility was pretty minimal. When the plane went into the water, all these bits and pieces of aluminum broke off and floated to the surface. They got frozen in place, so now you had a couple feet of metal hanging down, and you had stuff on the bottom as well."

It was darker than the inside of a cow, one diver told Setnicka. Twisted metal and wire hung like booby traps in the shallow lake. The divers recovered several bales of marijuana bobbing under the ice, which they passed back through the oil-slicked hole. A commercial diver was brought in from Fresno to try to recover the bodies, but even he couldn't penetrate the gnarled underwater wreckage around the cockpit.

Back in the valley, rangers off-loaded the bales and cataloged them as evidence. Yosemite's jail took up a portion of the second floor of a battleship-gray building that also served as the firehouse. "We closed down one side of the jail and put these bags of marijuana in a cell," remembers Kim Tucker, who worked in the Office of Law Enforcement. "They came in like giant ice cubes, with all that vegetable material and green leafy substance frozen. Over time the bales started to thaw and became runny, just like if you take a package of spinach out of the freezer."

With melting bales stacked halfway to the ceiling, the cell soon filled with runoff. A drain became choked with stems and plant matter. Yosemite's fire brigade occupied the office below. A few days into the recovery, fire chief Don Cross stormed up the stairs. "You gotta do something with this stuff!" he bellowed.

Pot-tinged water was dripping onto his dispatcher's desk. Exhausted rangers began the arduous process of moving dozens of bales from the second-story jail to a walk-in storage freezer in a nearby Park Service warehouse, where it would stay for weeks.

Up at the lake, Shackelton got word that a massive storm front was rolling in. The five investigating agencies had spent nearly a week scouring the area, cataloging the wreck and collecting all the marijuana they could find. A full-blown winter salvage operation to recover the fuselage and the bodies presumed to be inside was out of the question. It would be too costly to bring in heavy equipment to manage the ice and too dangerous to keep working in the finicky weather. Everyone expected that the approaching storm would cut off the backcountry, so Shackelton opted not to leave any of his rangers posted at the lake. The crime scene would stay put until spring. In the first week of February, the Huey carried the last load of rangers back down to the valley before the storm rolled in.

Jon Glisky's wife, Pam, had an ominous dream. She saw her drug-runner husband's body upside down in the cockpit of his plane. His brown hair danced in the water and that big frame — he was 6-foot-2 — hung weightless in the harness.

When Jon failed to check in after calling from Las Vegas, Pam went to the authorities and told them everything. She was 28 years old, a hundred pounds soaking wet. Gone was the cute, carefree little blonde who zipped fearlessly under low bridges in her husband's plane, who dropped acid and threw clay pots while the men in her life debated smuggling routes. Her feet were still in bandages from her recent surgery. Her daughter was sick — a chronic ailment had threatened the little girl's life since she was a baby. Despite her intuition, her dream, Pam believed there was a chance her husband was still alive.

The DEA had been after Jon Glisky for years. He was a phantom in their surveillance reports. One minute he was in sight of their planes, the next he was gone, vanished into thin air. Despite her cooperation, the DEA gave Pam no information for days. In a desperate bid to locate her husband, she chartered a plane and went looking for him. She told the hired pilot to stay low as they flew into Baja California along Jon's route. She landed at every airstrip on the way and hobbled up to the shadiest-looking characters she could find. No one remembered seeing an American pilot who looked like John Wayne.

Finally, after weeks of silence, an agent phoned to say a plane had been found in Yosemite. Pam then called the only person in her husband's world she trusted, Jon's lawyer, Jeffrey Steinborn. She needed to know what was happening, whether Jon was dead for certain. Steinborn had no love for his client Jon Glisky, whom he regarded as a prick. But he had feelings for Pam — the two had been lovers years earlier — so he flew from Seattle and rented a car. He got a hotel room just outside the park and for three days hung out in bars and restaurants with his ear to the ground. Eavesdropping on a DEA pilot who was talking about the investigation, Steinborn filled in the few remaining gaps himself. The fuselage was still up there under the ice. So were the bodies and whatever weed the rangers hadn't recovered.

On his last night in Yosemite, he noticed a fire burning in a campground nearby. He lit up some Thai stick and sauntered toward the trees. He found about a dozen young campers around a fire, so he passed his joint. Without revealing who he was, he told them a fantastic story about an airplane full of dope.

"I knew Jon Glisky and Jeff Nelson were dead," Steinborn remembers. "I just had this romantic notion that someone should smoke that beautiful weed those guys were bringing back from Mexico."

Rumors spread like embers from the fire: The plane was Colombian, owned by the Mafia, part of a secret government program. It was filled with weed, cocaine, cash. It was a trap, it was a myth, it was the score of a lifetime. As soon as the lawyer pulled out, Yosemite's scruffiest residents began planning their assaults on the backcountry.

There were only about 20 climbers living in Camp 4 over the winter. The Stonemasters held special status in the campground. They were the legends of  big-wall climbing: John Bachar, a brilliant soloist; Jim Bridwell, who had bagged more than 100 first ascents in Yosemite Valley. Stonemasters were the best big-wall climbers in the world. Rangers sometimes asked for their help with technically difficult search-and-rescue operations, and magazines wrote about their first ascents — Dawn Wall, the Nose, Mescalito. Others, like 17-year-old Chuck Strader, were guppies who had arrived in Yosemite from the Sacramento area a few weeks earlier. After he passed the high school equivalency test, he set out for Yosemite with one dream in life: to climb El Capitan. Strader looked to the Stonemasters as though they were gods. Their presence gave him greater incentive to conquer El Capitan. It was also incentive to do whatever was necessary, and at that point, his main necessity was money to buy gear.

"I was there to climb," says Strader, "so I wasn't really paying attention until people started saying, 'Oh, yeah, there's bales of pot up there if you can go get one.' Then suddenly you're going, 'It could be worth some money, and I don't have any money.' 

"Everyone was going up. Everyone. Some people went more than once. Those people did really well." A couple of Stonemasters were among the early visitors; the veteran climbers' conditioning and knowledge of the backcountry had prepared them well for this once-in-a-lifetime score. They jogged up the treacherous trail with huge backpacks and mischievous grins, returning to the valley to dump load after illicit load in tents and secret stash spots near Camp 4.

It was early April when Strader decided to go to Lower Merced Pass Lake. His parents were visiting Yosemite for Easter. Strader told them he was going for a climb.

Strader and two friends got a ride up Glacier Point Road, which slaloms around Yosemite's granite monuments toward the backcountry. There had been only a few snowstorms during the drought winter, and the road opened early. The threesome got out at the trailhead for Mono Meadow. Their backpacks were mostly empty: "I had a sleeping bag and a jacket. I was wearing tennis shoes." The plan was to be in and out, so they didn't bring any food. They forded icy rivers and climbed into the chilly backcountry, spurred on by adrenaline.

Lower Merced Pass Lake is nestled below a boulder field and penned in on three sides by trees. As they approached, they saw discarded sleeping bags and old clothes along the shore. Early arrivals had jettisoned unnecessary gear to make extra room in their packs. A collection of rudimentary tools lay abandoned farther out — sticks and poles, odd pieces of wreckage, even an ax. There were scores of  holes chopped in the ice. Exhausted and cold after the hike in, Strader and his friends made a campfire on the shore. Out on the lake, they began hacking at the thick ice. "I remember chopping the ice," he says. "We dug one hole, didn't find anything. It was, like, three feet thick, and when you're chopping the ice, it splashes back at you." Their hands stung from the cold. When they broke through, Strader went back to the shore and found some fuel line among the scattered debris the rangers had left behind. He bent it into an L shape and stuck his arm into the frigid water. With his face lowered into the three-foot-deep hole, he smelled the fuel in the lake. He probed until he struck something solid and buoyant eight or nine feet from the hole. The bobbing gunnysack was almost too heavy to lift out. The friends yanked until it slid onto the ice like a wet seal. The burlap was sewn at the top. A marijuana leaf was stenciled on the side. "It was wrapped with, like, three layers of plastic, but the buds were soaking wet. Some parts were more exposed to the airplane fuel than others."

Grinning, nervous, they sized up their haul and divided it up quickly. Marijuana was a Schedule I drug, and the quantity they were hiking out with — measured in pounds, not ounces — would mean a certain felony. "It was trippy," he says. "We were pretty scared. We got the hell out of there, just carried it out wet." Another group showed up before they pulled out. One of the newcomers was carrying a big breaker bar he'd stolen from a contractor working inside the park. Stabbing the bar over and over into the ice, the big guy eventually punched through. As soon as he did, the heavy iron bar shot through his hands and disappeared into the lake, leaving the tiniest pinprick of a hole. As Strader's group hiked out, the big guy was busy hacking away with the ax left behind.

Water from the sodden weed soaked the hikers' packs and poured down their legs. As night fell, icicles formed on the packs. The sky clouded over, and it began to snow. "We didn't have a headlamp, so I was feeling the trail with my feet." With no ride back, they hiked all the way down to Camp 4. Strader's parents were staying at the Upper Pines campground, just on the other side of Yosemite Village. "I stashed the wet weed in my tent and then went to see my parents."

In lean times, when pot was a prized commodity, it might have been possible to get rid of a large quantity of the stuff in the park. But by April of 1977, Yosemite was awash with weed. People called the new stuff "airplane" and "crash buds." Laced with traces of aviation fuel, it occasionally sparked and crackled when smoked, and the hit was harsh.

Strader knew they had to get out of the park, so he made an excuse to ditch his family and borrowed a VW Bug from one of the Stonemasters. The friends filled the Bug's front trunk with pot. When it didn't all fit, they put the remaining weed in the backseat and set out for Los Angeles, where one of the climbers knew a dealer.

They didn't get far.

"We were just past Yosemite West on our way down toward Oakhurst and we got a flat tire. We were like, 'Son of a bitch!' " Driving slowly, they pulled into a gas station in Oakhurst, less than 50 miles from Camp 4, where an attendant approached the car.

"Need a new tire?" he called before taking a startled jump back. The car reeked of pot.

While they were waiting for the tire change, a police cruiser pulled into the gas station. "We were just like, 'Oh my God, he's turning.' " But the cruiser drove right past the Bug and out the other side without stopping.

The climbers reached downtown L.A. after midnight and waited for their connection, who didn't show. It was late, so they found some bushes and climbed into their sleeping bags. Strader woke to find a handful of children gazing down at him. They had slept on the edge of a school playground.

The trio spent the rest of the day trying to locate the dealer, but the weed in the trunk was getting musty. They pooled their money and rented adjoining suites in a motel. After a trip to a hardware store, they spread the soggy buds on a tarp and turned on heat lamps. On the third day, someone knocked on their door. Without removing the chain, Strader opened it a crack. It was only housekeeping, and Strader shooed her away. When he turned he saw one of his companions clutching a pistol. "It turned out he was AWOL from the Army. Right then I was just like, 'I don't want anything to do with this.' But I had no money left, so I was kind of stuck with these guys."

Strader convinced his companions to get out of L.A. They drove to the desert near Palm Springs and found some rocks off a lonely road on which to dry their weed. Then they drove to the Bay Area, where he found someone to buy a portion of the stash. He used the cash to buy a Greyhound ticket to his hometown, near Sacramento, where he gave his share of the pot to a high school friend.

"I just said to him, 'Get what you can for it, make some money, and give me whatever,' " Strader says. "I'm not a drug dealer. It was such a scary, eye-opening experience."

By Easter weekend word had spread outside the park and people were coming by the VW busload from Fresno, San Jose, and Berkeley. Ron Lykins, the Ahwahnee waiter who first found the wing, knew something was up when the climbers started leaving huge tips. He kicked himself for being so close to the score of a lifetime, only to walk right by it.

"When spring came you started hearing all these stories. Being the guy who found the wing, I said, 'I got to go up there.' So after work one day, I took a backpack with nothing but a sleeping bag and a little food in it, an ice ax, and some plastic bags. We hiked up there in the middle of the night."

At the height of this so-called gold rush, 20 or more people were mining the lake at the same time. Vern Clevenger, who had spent the winter in nearby Mammoth, returned to the park and went up with a group of five. "We had heard there wasn't a lot of dope sitting on top of the lake anymore," he says. "My girlfriend's father was head of the road crew, so we stole his chainsaw and carried it up there. We took turns sawing through the ice. That's how we got a lot of marijuana from the lake."

But with so many outsiders, the mood was tense. "By then there were a lot of shitty people up there," Clevenger says. "Drug dealers, low-life types from the Central Valley. Some guy came over and started to take our stuff, and one of my friends who was a real hard-ass held this saw out about three inches from the guy's neck. He was saying, 'I'm gonna fuck with you, don't come any closer.' So that was the end of that. Honestly, by then we had too much to carry out anyway."

The rangers weren't oblivious. As head of search and rescue, Tim Setnicka began to hear insinuating comments from the climbers he worked with and with whom he had developed a mutual respect. The road crews started reporting an unusual amount of traffic near Mono Lake Trail. And the commercial diver who helped the rangers excavate the lake in February called dive officer Butch Farabee from his shop in Fresno with an odd report. There had been a sudden rush on rental equipment. All these young kids who had never gone diving suddenly seemed intent on learning in Yosemite.

It was obvious to anyone living in the small community of Yosemite Valley that something had changed. In addition to throwing money around in the Village, a few climbers — the same ones who dived dumpsters for food — bought used cars and new packs. All of a sudden there was plenty of nice climbing equipment in Camp 4. Strader got his rack, which he would use to climb El Capitan four times in 1977.

Some of the climbers squirreled away their earnings. John Bachar, the Stonemaster and famous solo climber, was rumored to have used cash from his haul to help fund a successful climbing gear company. (Bachar died in a climbing accident in 2009, so it's impossible to confirm.) Lykins, the waiter who first discovered the wing, traded his windfall for a couple of years of college tuition. Vern Clevenger bought his first Nikon with the Lower Merced weed money — Clevenger has since become an acclaimed nature photographer. There were climbing trips to France and Asia and blowouts that are still the stuff of legend. It's likely the biggest windfalls exceeded $20,000, a tremendous amount of money in 1977. But the climbers tended to live fast, and in most cases the money didn't last long. The story has fared better. The crash grew mythic in barroom retellings and has been conveyed in fragments in books and newspapers, as well as in the 2014 documentary about Yosemite's climbing scene, Valley Uprising.

On April 13, which would later be known as Big Wednesday, six armed rangers boarded a Huey and stormed Lower Merced Pass like death from above. "By all reports it was like ants scattering," recalls Setnicka, who was on the radio at the time of the April offensive. "The people up there had created this infrastructure kind of like the Vietcong put in some areas of Vietnam — makeshift housing and tents, fire pits, all sorts of tarps. They picked up digging equipment wherever they could. It was really caveman technology."

The Park Service was embarrassed that the crash site had been discovered. "We underestimated the entrepreneurial spirit of certain members of the community," says Setnicka. Rangers were posted along the trails leading away from the lake in order to catch people fleeing. For all the melee, Clevenger and a companion were the only two arrested. They were told to report to the park's federal magistrate the next day, but the arrest was later nullified, thanks to a due process violation. No one was ever convicted for their involvement in Dope Lake.

After the siege, two rangers who had served in the military were given rations and equipment and sent to guard the lake. The pair lived in a tent for 17 days. They rigged trip wires to ration cans and kept their pug-nosed .38 pistols at the ready.

"We caught about six parties going up to the lake," recalls Jim Tucker, one of the two rangers. "We separated them and interrogated them. Most were not climbers. Word had leaked out by then." For two months rangers rotated in to keep watch over the lake. Hopeful late arrivals kept showing up with visions of a lake full of pot. Some were woefully ill-prepared for spring hiking at high elevation. One group was lost for a week without adequate food before finally stumbling across a trail crew.

It wasn't until mid-June that the lake thawed suitably for a salvage operation. On June 16, a local salvage company began pulling the fuselage out of the water. During the operation, the body of Jeff Nelson floated to the surface. Jon Glisky's body was strapped inside the cockpit, as Pam Glisky had seen in her dream.

After cooperating with the DEA, Pam laid low for years. Following her mother's advice, she chose not to identify Jon's body after it was recovered. Her mother thought it would be too traumatic, and in a small way Pam wanted to keep hope alive.

"When you love someone like that, you aren't thinking in any kind of practical way. I had people we knew, people who knew Jon, telling me he was still alive and living in Cancún. That's what I chose to believe."

It wasn't until nearly 30 years later, when a high school friend named Rick Schloss began investigating the crash for a book, that Pam finally got closure. Schloss said he had a picture to show her, but only if she wanted to see it. It was an evidentiary photo taken during the salvage operation. When Pam saw her husband's body, she broke down. To this day her feeling is that the cause of her husband's crash has never been adequately investigated. It was deemed an accident in a brief report by the NTSB, but the odd circumstances of the wreck, along with Jon Glisky's suspicions immediately before his final flight, have kept the question alive for her.

She is happy that something good came of it all. When Schloss began to tell her about what went on in Yosemite in the months following the crash, she couldn't help but laugh. It was her husband's kind of scene.

"The climbers got a chance to push the limits of their sport. Jon would have loved that."

Greg Nichols is a senior editor at Good magazine and author of  Striking Gridiron. This is his first piece for Men's Journal.