Dope Lake was way more than just a cool body of water. It was a sliver of time fully embodying the craziness of the 1970s. On December 9, 1976, pilot Jon Glisky took off from Mexico and headed to California in a plane loaded with bales of cannabis. The plane never reached its destination, however, and ultimately crashed inside Yosemite National Park in the cold waters of Lower Merced Pass Lake.
Though the Summer of Love was a distant memory, hippie culture was alive and well in California. Word quickly spread about a plane with abundant drugs crashing in Yosemite. Despite the harsh winter conditions, people braved the backcountry in hopes of striking it rich from the massive drug stash.
It wasn't until well into 1977 when the lake thawed, allowing authorities to at last break up the party. Though there were no justifiable arrests, the story stayed alive over decades, especially since this rare, true tale stands out from the many apocryphal weed myths. As for Glisky and the Yosemite plane crash, the mystery remained. Was it an accident? Had he succumbed to paranoia, or was someone truly out to get him? The answer rests somewhere deep in the forests of Yosemite.
Pilot Jon Glisky and his colleague, Jeff Nelson, left Las Vegas, NV, and headed for Mexico in December of 1976. On the other side of the border, their Howard 500 plane lugged 6,000 pounds of marijuana. This particular cannabis strain was "Mexican red hair," grown by an American syndicate.
Jon Glisky's primary task involved flying the product north for an organization based out of Washington. The 6,000 pounds of weed came in 40-pound bales tagged as beans. Witnesses at the crash site, however, say some of the bundles had labels indicating quaaludes.
There are a few conflicting reports of the quantity of cannabis found at the crash site. A climber familiar with the crash recovery efforts told NPR he estimated local climbers removed 200 bales, with each weighing about 50 pounds. Based on his estimates, the people who unloaded the product from the ice ended up moving 10,000 pounds of drugs from the crash.
Days before crashing his Howard 500 into the Yosemite cliffs, Jon Glisky had a bad feeling about his upcoming job. He told his wife about his premonitions before he left his hotel in Las Vegas. The ominous sensation only grew stronger when he found a damaged oil fitting on the plane - it didn't look like damage from regular wear and tear.
Despite his worries, he set out for the state of Washington in the early hours of December 9, 1976, flying just off the coast to avoid suspicion. Halfway through California, he cut across the state to fly through farmlands and the Sierra Nevada foothills.
After the crash, Glisky's wife, Pam, had a dream about her husband dying. She saw him hanging in the cockpit of his crashed plane. As it turns out, their dark suspicions were right. He never made it past Lower Merced Pass Lake in Yosemite National Park.
More than a month after the plane crashed, a waiter from a lodge situated in the Yosemite area, Ron Lykins, found the crash site. He had plenty of free time to hike, climb, and snowshoe around in the nearby national park since the lodge was quiet that winter.
Lykins and his friend set out with the intention of snowshoeing up a mountainside, but they lost the trail. Then Lykins spotted the plane crash on Lower Merced Pass Lake. The day was growing dark, so they didn't risk walking out onto the icy lake, but Lykins had the foresight to write down the number from the plane's wing to notify the proper authorities.
Tim Setnicka, the ranger in charge of Yosemite’s search and rescue team, received word about a downed plane in Yosemite’s backcountry in January. He followed standard protocol and called the Air Force to inquire about any reports about missing planes. The National Transportation Safety Board, as well as the Federal Aviation Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and US Customs all got involved quickly to fight over who would gain access to the crash first.
Customs sent a helicopter to take their agents and a team of park rangers to Lower Merced Pass Lake. As the lake had frozen over the plane, any hope of a rescue mission disappeared. Then they found the bags of cannabis.
The team of park rangers did their best to recover the illicit substances, but it was difficult. They could see the bales beneath the ice, but retrieving them was arduous. They cut a few bales out of the ice with chainsaws and tried to recover more with a dive team. The bags of weed were challenging to manage since they were either frozen solid or soaked with water.
High-altitude diving was ambitious enough without sub-zero temperatures and jagged plane debris. The crew eventually recovered about 2,000 pounds from the crash site, leaving the rest frozen in the lake. They'd come back for it in the spring.