Tough Time On The Mountain

By Bob Strand

Mountain Whitney

 

They left Salt Lake City, Utah, early in the morning on their way to Rapid City, South Dakota. It was raining and cloudy, but he was an experienced pilot, and the twin-engine Beechcraft carried him and his wife uneventfully eastward across southern Wyoming.

It was early May, and the rain at Salt Lake had turned to sleet and snow over the Ferris Mountains, a rugged spine of peaks rising to 10,000 feet that split the ranch almost evenly from one end to the other and stood directly in the flight of the Twin Beech.  Dalton LeMasurier and his wife, Dorothy, could not see the ranch land below or the rapidly rising ground beneath them as they made their way toward the mountains.

The first indication of trouble came suddenly, when they flew out of a cloud bank and directly toward the side of the mountains at over 9,000 feet.  Dalton frantically pulled the airplane into a sudden and steep climb, but the straining airplane could not clear the mountain crest.  It stalled and slide sideways into a rock slide, tearing off a wing and coming to rest not 500 feet below the snowy summit.

Not a sound was heard by the cowboys in the cow camp 4,000 feet below.  The droning of engines and the fiery crash had all been muffled by the clouds and falling rain, below.  Rain had already been falling, constantly, for several days, and they were wet and cold and miserable in the freezing moisture of the Wyoming spring storm.

It would be a week before news of the plane crash would make its way from the home ranch to the cow camp on the head of Sand Creek.  And the rain would not have stopped for a single day, keeping the mountains above the camp completely shrouded in clouds.

When the ranch owner brought supplies, he only casually mentioned that a search was under way for an airplane that had disappeared in Wyoming.

“No one seems to think that they were this far south,” he said, “but you might keep an eye out when this rain clears up.”

But the rain continued to fall, day after day, making it hard to get anything done.  Cowboys and horses grew weary of one rainy day after another, and no one ventured into the mountains above camp.

Another week passed, and still the rain fell on the cow camp.  And snow fell on the couple stranded above.  After the plane slid to a stop under an outcropping of rock, the LeMasuriers were able to exit their down aircraft without any apparent injury.  But the plane immediately caught fire and exploded as they huddled in the snow nearby.  The explosion blew their luggage away from the fiery remains, along with two parachutes that were carried on the plane.

The clothing provided warmth for the bodies, and the parachutes formed a wind break.  In the luggage, they carried vitamins and a few candy bars.  These few provisions would be their only resources for what they couldn’t realize would be a 19-day ordeal on a snow-covered ridge at timberline.

During the third week, word came to cow camp that a $2,500 reward had been posted for anyone finding that downed airplane.  The cowboys were astounded at such a large sum of money.  None were making more than $150 a month plus room and board, so $2,500 represented more than a year of very hard work for any one of them.  They began to think that they should get out there and get to looking for that plane - if only the rain would stop.

By now, it was starting to warm in late May, but, still, the mountains remained covered with snow.  On the 18th day, the cowboys finally saw the mountain tops.  They were glad just to dry out and see some sunshine, but it wasn’t more than late morning before a cowboy named Jack Putnam spotted the plane’s severed wing high above him, shining in the morning sun.

“Fellas, I think I just earned myself a lot of wages today.  I’m sure I can see that airplane from over there on the east side of the Larson pasture.  I need to get to a phone and see if we can get some help up here.”

It would be late afternoon before he could ride to an oil-pumping station and use their phone to call the home ranch. By the next day, they had more company in cow camp than they had ever seen before. Sheriff’s vehicles and ambulances and news reporters all tried to make their way to the camp over rough, muddy roads, and few succeeded except on foot.  Most were mired in mud up to the hub caps, and all began to curse the rain that was beginning to fall once more.

Worst of all, everyone was beginning to get discouraged, and they questioned whether Jack really knew what he had seen on the mountains above, mountains which were once again covered with clouds.

“Yes, I know I saw an airplane up there.  I know this country like the back of my hand, and I have never seen anything like that up there before.”

By the next day, it was apparent to everyone that the best hope to get on the mountain would be by seasoned men with well-shod horses.  And so, in a lightly falling rain and dense fog, they began to make their way up a rocky ridge that Jack imagined should come out on top just east of the wreckage he had seen the day before.

Their horses snorted and struggled for several hours as they carried them high on the mountain, through fog and slide rock, and scrub pine at timberline.  Over their saddles, they carried two canvas body bags.

“Don’t think they should be badly decomposed,” commented a sheriff’s officer who accompanied them.  “At this altitude, it must be like a freezer every night.”

“We have to be getting pretty close,” Jack said, as the horses slipped and slid on the wet slide rock and snow along the mountain crest.  “It should be just here below and ahead of us a little ways.”

Suddenly, the horses stopped and threw up their heads with their ears pointing sharply forward, nostrils flaring and eyes wide.

“Can you hear anything?” Jack asked.

“Not me.”

“No, nothing.”

“Well,” said Jack, “These horses sure sense something, that’s for sure.  You sure you can’t hear anything?”

The horses really began to spook, and, as their riders tried to settle them down, a ghostly figure emerged from the fog in front of them.  It was wrapped in a parachute shroud and was stumbling toward them over the rocky ground.”

“My God!  My God!  I’ve been saved.”

It was all the men could do to keep their horses from running off, and chills of fear ran up their backs as they watched the scarecrow of a figure approaching them.

It was Dorothy LeMasurier.

“Who are you?  How long have I been here?  Where am I?” were her first questions as she clung desperately to their clothing.  She had hidden from them at first, fearing the noise of the horses slipping and sliding over the rocks above her.  It was only when she could hear their voices that she came to them through the fog.

The woman led the searchers back through the fog to where her husband lay dead, wrapped in a parachute below the ridge of rock running above the wreckage of their plane.

“How long has he been dead?” someone asked.

“I don’t know.  I don’t even know how long we have been here.”

It was apparent to the men that she was suffering from amnesia, but not much else.  She was 50 pounds lighter but otherwise unaffected and was able to make her way slowly down the mountain until it was safe to get her on a horse.  Behind her, and over the saddle, they brought her husband’s body.

It would be several days before she could tell relatives how they had existed on snow water, vitamins, and a few candy bars and how her husband had slowly lapsed into a coma and then, sometime, slipped from life into death.

Not wanting to leave him, and not sure whether he was alive or dead, she stayed there day after day, afraid to take the walk down a ridge that would have led her off the mountain to the cow camp in less than three hours.

The Denver Post and Life Magazine would carry pictures of a frail, gray-haired woman who defied all odds for nearly three weeks of terrible winter-like weather in the mountains of Wyoming, and of the wet and weary cowboys who rescued her.

And every one of them would take his hat off to one tough lady who accomplished a feat that none of them was sure he could have endured himself.

 

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