Young Austrian Aidan Don was never supposed to die in a cold river in Alaska. The 49th state was supposed to be but another stop along the way in a life of film and adventure lived far bigger than his 22 years of life might at first indicate.
Back home in Salzburg, Don was a budding film maker and already established videographer, which is how he came to be in the north. His Facebook page – Aidan McDon – provides a history of his travels across Europe, Africa and into Nepal, and his hookup with extreme runner Christian Schiester.
An adventurer sponsored by Ledlenser, a flashlight and headlamp company, Schiester provided Don entry into the world of business-financed adventure sport where videographers, especially those young and willing to work cheap, are always in demand.
How and where Don made the connection to Red Bull-sponsored paraglider Paul Guschlbauer, an Austrian like Don, is unclear, but it was a Guschlbauer adventure – “Project Overland” – that brought Don to Alaska.
His camera led him to Willow – where Guschlbauer was preparing a Piper Super Cub for a flight from Barrow to Terra del Fuego, Argentina – on to the edge of the Arctic Ocean, and finally back to an old homestead across the Nizina River from McCarthy, a tourism and recreation outpost at the end of the road 60 miles deep in the country’s largest national park.
It was there the money for Project Overland reportedly started to run short, and Don was left behind with an airplane ticket home from Anchorage to Vienna. He would never make his flight.
He would end up dead in the cold, gritty glacial flow of the Nizina River after a packraft accident the details of which the National Park Service is still trying to sort out.
As this is written, Guschlbauer appears to be somewhere in Canada. His personal webpage documenting the trip has him in Pemberton, British Columbia, Canada, although “Paul’s Live Journal” on the webpage of Salewa, another Guschlbauer sponsor, has him still heading for “Mccarthy (sic) in the Wrangell Mountains”
The Salewa page links to a YouTube video of “Episode 7” of the trip which shows Guschlbauer flying into the McCarthy area where he meets with the “local heroes,” one of whom later accompanies him in another single-engine plane on a flight through the Wrangell Mountains with a landing at what Guschlbauer says is 7,000 feet in the high peaks.
Guschlbauer accepted a Facebook friend request, but did not respond to messages asking for information on Don. Don, who filmed the Project Overland trip from the start in Barrow, left the adventure at an airstrip in Nizina, according to sources in both Alaska and Austria.
Ken MacDonald, a Willow pilot who specializes in airframes and rebuilt the Super Cub Guschlbauer is flying north to south along the length of the Americas, said Don had to leave the trip after Red Bull said it couldn’t afford to pay for his continuing on as the videographer.
Red Bull is a long time Guschlbauer sponsor. It backed his first foray into Alaska in 2016.
“Alaska is one of the last great frontiers,” the company webpage said then. “Distant, intimidating and wild, it has a population density of one person for every square mile and most of that concentrated in the capital city (sic) of Anchorage. So when you head into the outback, you’re truly going into the middle of nowhere.
“That’s one thing that drew pro paraglider pilot Paul Guschlbauer to Alaska. The other thing? He had bought a plane — a 1959 Piper Super Cub — sight unseen. Of course, he’d have to head over to check it out. And once he was there, what would he use it for? To find more places to paraglide, of course. Watch the video above to learn more.”
Lacking the funds to cover Don’s expense, MacDonald said, “Paul bought (Don) a ticket out of Anchorage” back to Austria. But with days left before this flight left from Alaska’s largest city, Don decided to spend time in the McCarthy area “with friends they’d just met,” MacDonald added.
“It’s a really sad story,” artist Emanuel Jesse messaged from Vienna today. “I was really shocked when I heard the news of Aidan. I just knew him for a really short time when I was in Alaska to paint an airplane for a project of Paul Guschlbauer.
“What I can say is he was super sympathetic to hang out with, made awesome videos, and for his young age he had seen a lot of the world. If this accident wouldn’t have happened, I would have met him a day later in Vienna where he wanted to go next.”
The last picture Don ever posted on his Facebook page is a selfie of himself sitting at the controls of what appears might be a Cessna 172, single engine aircraft.
“2nd solo flight today, weird feeling!” says the caption above. The post is dated July 28. Five days later, Don would be dead in the packraft accident on the Nizina deep in the 20,000-square-mile Wrangell-St. Elias park.
A wilderness about the size of West Virginia, the park is probed by the 42-mile Nabesna Road on the north and the McCarthy Road on the south. The McCarthy Road used to continue across the Nizina River to the Dan Creek, May Creek and Chititu mines, but the bridge washed out long ago.
The state talked of rebuilding it in the 1970s, but it has now been a long time since anyone heard that kind of talk. But that hasn’t stopped a European flying club from flourishing along an old airstrip across the river from McCarthy.
That is where Don was reportedly left by Guschlbauer, and where he was staying before he took a flight upriver to the lake at the base of the Nizina Glacier. He and a friend or acquaintance were planning a day-long float back down the river to the club.
The National Park Service has released precious little information about that float and accident that claimed Don’s life. The other packrafter with Don has remained unidentified as has the party who flew Don and his companion to the lake where they launched their packrafts.
Small, one-person, inflatable boats which have radically evolved over the past decade in Alaska, packrafts transformed wilderness river travel in the north. Outfitted with sprayskirts and paddled by experts, they can handle Class IV whitewater and even some Class IV+ to Class V.
But much depends on the specific packraft involved – some are designed more for flat water than whitewater – and the skill of the paddler. The Park Service is not saying what type of packraft was involved in the Don accident, and his skill set is unknown.
Wrangell spokeswoman Margie Steigerwald said Tuesday the park couldn’t talk about the accident because “there is an ongoing investigation.”
Legal grays surround operations in the park. If a business provided Don with the equipment and flew him into the park to begin his trip, the owner would be required by law to have a commercial-use permit. But if Don borrowed or rented the boat from a third-party and a friend or acquaintance flew him into the park, no such permit would be necessary.
And then there is the question of safety gear – drysuits and personal flotation devices (PFDs). All of the permitted commercial raft and packraft operators in the McCarthy area put clients in them, and everyone in the tight-knit, recreation-driven community seems shocked that Don wasn’t wearing a PFD or drysuit or both.
“Dry suits are up for debate,” local paddler Nancy Cook argued. “(But) I’d never float the Nizina without one.”
On the other, she added, the necessity of a PFD is clear.
“Embarking on a 4- to 6-hour whitewater, cold-water float without a PFD is ludicrous,” she said. “Maybe they don’t have cold water in Austria, but Aidan’s local host should have and after five plus years in the valley presumably does know better. The morality of this sickens me.”
The operation is based around an airstrip on old homestead across the Nizina from McCarthy. Club members stay in cozy, wood-heated yurts atop elevated platforms in what looks like a small, treehouse community.
Reached by telephone Tuesday and asked what he knew about Don’s death, Sturm said, there was “a report from park out” about the accident. Asked about Don’s paddling experience, Sturm added, “I don’t know anything about this. I can’t help you. Bye, bye.”
He then hung up the phone. Steigerwald later said there is no park report.
Sturm’s website says he operates the “base of the Swiss Bush Pilots Association (SBV)…located in the southeast of Alaska, not far from the Nizina River in the village of McCarthy in the middle of the gigantic Wrangell-St.Elias National Park. The club is based in Switzerland and allows members to fly in Alaska. He offers no commercial services.”
The last line is noteworthy. Sturm would need permits to offer commercial services. If he is running a club, no such permits are required.
But the website also says this:
“Far away from civilization, a wilderness lodge has been established here on a grass track over the last four years. From here you can explore some of the highlights Alaska has to offer: the area of the large meandering rivers Nizina, Chitina, Tana and Copper, the volcanoes Drum, Sanford and Wrangell, the mountain range of Mount St. Elias with the Bagley Icefield, the coastal towns Valdez and Cordova, the pristine glaciers of Prince William Sound and Icy Bay, hundreds of miles of deserted beaches, trout lakes and salmon rivers. Everything within one hour’s flight from the base.”
Lodges that do business on national park lands in Alaska are generally required to obtain commercial-use permits. Steigerwald said Sturm has no such permit to operate in the Wrangells.
A video promoting Fly Alaska was released the day after Don’s death. It features his former boss – Guschlbauer – promoting Sturm’s business.
“So the Wrangells here…are the perfect place for backcountry flying, and Philipp has set up here the perfect place to discover this perfect flying place,” Guschlbauer says. “Just very close by you can really discover strips you will never find anywhere else in the world….”
In one of his own videos, apparently shot by Don, Guschlbauer is filmed making one such landing at that strip he claims to be “higher than 7,000 feet.” It appears to be in the park, and he appears to have been guided by those pilots he described as “local heroes.”
Whether they were operating legally could also be part of the investigation. Commercial operators making landings in the park are generally required to obtain permits.
Some of Don’s family is now in McCarthy investigating his death.
“This whole situation is very confusing for us,” his brother, Dylan, messaged Tuesday.
He does not appear to be alone in that regard.