Here’s the Real Story of That Jeep Grand Cherokee Airlifted Off a Glacier in Alaska

We talked with the tow company who retrieved it as well as Alaska's Department of Natural Resources to get the full scoop.
Elite Towing and Recovery

You might have seen by now that a first-gen Jeep Grand Cherokee wandered off an Alaskan trail and had to be retrieved via helicopter last week. It was stuck about 16 miles into a route that runs by Knik Glacier, sunk into the silt and meltwater with no other way out. I spoke with the Black Hawk charter company that assisted with the job for my initial report, which explained that the chopper alone cost $8,250 to deploy. Now, we have more info from the tow company that executed it all, as well as Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources.

The real story is about as messy as you’d expect. After all, the stock Jeep ZJ was abandoned off the marked trail in a protected environmental area. But after speaking with Cody Gray, owner of Elite Towing and Recovery, I found it’s even more convoluted than it seemed on the surface.

“We tried to go in twice after getting the call and we couldn’t make it across Metal Creek,” he explained. “It had rained a ton between the time the guy went in there and when we went in.”

Come to find out, the Jeep got stuck on June 20—nearly two weeks before it was actually recovered. That’s according to Travis Jensen, land manager at the Knik River Public Use Area. The KRPUA is part of Alaska’s DNR, and Jensen was contacted about the situation by Wayne’s BSF Off-Road Recovery. The 4×4 tow specialist had been contracted by Elite Towing to try and reach the Jeep by ground.

With the rain that had fallen around Knik Glacier in the days between, there was absolutely no way to get to the Jeep in their truck, even with its 38-inch tires. You can see from the photos here just how swift and mighty Metal Creek can be:

Gray says it looked like the driver tried turning around and going back the way they came in. Even if the Jeep hadn’t gotten stuck, it might not have been able to cross Metal Creek again because the water level rises that fast. He explained to me that it can swell drastically in just an hour’s time; after days of rain, there was no shot.

When the Jeep owner reached out to Elite, he allegedly told them the DNR was on his case about retrieving the rig. Indeed, leaving a vehicle unattended for more than 72 hours in the Knik River Public Use Area can result in a $400 fine. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Jensen, the KRPUA land manager, told me via email, “The initial report from the owner to me was, ‘I left it near the glacier and came back the next day and it was gone. I found it later, higher up, stuck.’ I asked if the vehicle was stolen and the owner said it was. I asked if he had filed a police report and he said he had and was working through his insurance to get it out, but that he didn’t think he could get it.”

Gray mentioned something similar to me about the Jeep owner claiming the rig was stolen. Their story was seemingly inconsistent throughout and he allegedly had the keys when they finally reached the vehicle. Regardless, a flight by Heli Alaska determined the Jeep’s exact coordinates before they dispatched a second helicopter to airlift it out.

“I said since he knew the location of the vehicle and he was the registered owner of it, it was his responsibility to remove it,” Jensen said.

The DNR was willing to work with the owner even though he apparently refused to pay as soon as penalties were mentioned.

“I disengaged at that point and simply said, ‘I can’t tell you what to do. I can only tell you the State of Alaska sees that vehicle as your private property and that it [is your] responsibility to remove it,'” Jensen continued. “I also informed him that other agencies may have authorities [involved] as well if it contaminated the waters.”

Of course, all this could have been avoided if the driver—whoever that actually was—wouldn’t have traveled there in the first place. Gray told me, “In 30 years here, I’ve never recovered a vehicle that far back. They were back there where they should not have been.” Matters were only made worse by the fact that the Grand Cherokee was totally stock with tires “10 miles away from being NASCAR slicks,” Gray added.

Nevertheless, Elite and Northern Pioneer—the helicopter charter company that provided the Black Hawk—finished the job.

“A lot of people don’t understand, the glacial lakes that are in there aren’t very big but they’re super deep,” Gray said. “Even the chopper, when he landed there, he was an inch and a half or two inches deep in the silt. When you walk out there, you’re ankle-deep in that stuff. You get up there and fall through one of those pits, you end up in the same situation [as the Jeep] and maybe worse.”

The only damage to the Grand Cherokee was a couple of pinched fenders sustained during the initial two-point chopper lift. Gray says they would have taken more care “if it was a Lamborghini,” but this is a $1,500 beater at most. Plus, he says it was only in the air like that for two minutes before they sat it back down and rigged up all four corners. It’s not worth risking an operator’s safety to climb in the freezing waters where it was stuck.

It took an hour of fly time to recover it, but there were many more man-hours involved in the process. Gray wouldn’t say how much the job cost in total, adding that every recovery is different and no one should expect the price of this to apply to another sketchy retrieval. He also wouldn’t comment on whether it was covered by insurance or if it was all out of pocket for the owner. Still, he assured me they billed for every step including the two attempts by truck before the choppers got involved.

“It still runs and drives,” Gray said. “He actually wanted it back.”

If you want to avoid making the same mistake, stay on your marked trails and pay close attention to the terrain. Oh, and make sure your tires have tread on ’em.

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