I've been friends with Ben for a while, almost three years now. We've been climbing, working, and camping together for a lot of that time. He's a very private guy - I'm glad to know him at all, really - so when he does open up it's a great surprise.
One thing he's mentioned on several occasions is the story of his great-grandmother. He had said that she was in a plane crash, and that the crash had killed his great grandfather. I didn't want to pry, as it's a personal matter, but was always intrigued.
We were at lunch one day when the subject came up again. He explained a few more details, and the story he was sharing was hard to believe. Dalton and Dorothy LeMasurier were the only two passengers of a small plane when it crashed in the mountains of Wyoming in 1957. They both survived the crash, but were stranded in the middle of nowhere on the side of a mountain in the snowstorm that caused the crash in the first place. They survived by eating snow for a few days, but then Dalton succumbed to internal injuries sustained in the crash and passed away.
Dorothy, Ben's great grandmother, was stranded for a total of 19 days without food or water. She lived in the gnarled tail section of the plane, too weak to climb down from where they had crashed near the peak of the mountain. It was mid May, and there were snow and rain storms as well as the high wind that Wyoming is known for.
She was finally rescued, according to the stories Ben had heard, when a worker from a ranch below the mountain saw a glint of the wreckage and rode his horse up to find her. She was taken down the mountain and continued on to live a full life after the loss of her husband.
The whole story is incredible. Love, loss, survival - I was totally engrossed on the walk back from our lunch spot while he was sharing it.
When we got back to our computer screens at work, we started to research more about the crash. There are a handful of newspaper articles about the crash just after it happened, and even more of the subsequent rescue more than two weeks later. We were both digging up snippets, researching, finding out more information about the accident.
We continued to think and talk about it over the next few weeks, and Ben eventually brought up the idea we were both thinking - we should visit the crash site.
Boulder isn't too far from the Wyoming state line, and though it's a huge state it can't be too hard to track down a crash site... Right? We started more research immediately, with a new focus on finding the location of the crash.
A bit more searching turned up the name of the mountain range: the Ferris Mountains. We pulled the location up in Google Earth and it was overwhelming. The Ferris Mountains are a range sprawling over ten miles long with peaks rising over 10,000 feet in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming. We figured it would be impossible to find the actual site of the crash, but we kept at it. We put together as much as we could from all the various digitally scanned newspapers from the era. The crash was at the top of a mountain. The crash was on the South side of the range. Some of the wreckage was destroyed in the resultant fire, some of it was still there...
Some of it was still there.
We were now determined to find the crash site, especially if there were pieces of the wreckage still intact! We dug deeper, looking for any clues at all that could help us locate it. I found a story in the "Outdoors" section of a local Wyoming newspaper from a journalist who tried to hike to the highest peak in the range. She was shut down by weather and turned back, but the article did very briefly mention the wreck, saying that "...the wreckage of the plane remains on the south side."
It was the most solid evidence that the crash site was reachable. Reading through the rest of the article, she mentioned a man named Greg, a biologist with Wyoming Fish and Game. From the story he seemed to be familiar with the area so I decided to track him down. I found his office number in a Wyoming state web site, and with crossed fingers punched it into my phone.
He picked up after three rings, and after a brief introduction I asked him about the Ferris Mountains. He was a bit hesitant, not sure what I was getting at until I asked him about the plane wreck. There was a brief pause, followed by "Yeah... yeah, I've been up there. I was just up there a couple years ago, there's not much left." I was speaking to a person who had actually been to the crash site.
After excitedly explaining to him that I was friends with the great-grandson of the crash victims, he immediately opened up. He fired up Google Earth, and I could hear the hard disk clicking over the phone. We browsed together over the phone for a few minutes saying such helpful things as, "see that dark spot of trees right next to that rock formation?" After a bit of browsing, he decided that the wreck wasn't visible from the satellites, but he was reasonably confident he could pinpoint it to within a hundred yards or so. He read me the coordinates, which I copied to my notebook.
I rushed over to Ben and shared the news. We decided that it wasn't much to go on, but we had to go check it out. We made plans to go the following weekend.
We left early Saturday morning, just as the sun was coming up. We made it to Rawlins, the nearest town to the site, and stopped for lunch. We were dependent on our phones for navigation, and there was no hope for cellular coverage once we were out of town. The coordinates from Greg showed us we were about 40 miles south of the site. We cached as many tiles as we could on our GPS apps, and marked the waypoint.
Driving north on a two-lane highway we came upon the mountains. It is incredibly desolate, with virtually nobody living in the area. There are dozens of drilling rigs, with roads interconnecting them all so workers and tankers can access them. When we were lateral with the waypoint, we decided to turn off the highway and make our way as close as we could to the site and hike the rest of the way, but we were still over four miles away from the base of the range.
We moved overland in the truck on the winding oil roads, often having to backtrack and find other roads through as they disappeared. Eventually we became surrounded by sand dunes in all directions, with the road conditions deteriorating below the tires. Despite considerable effort, the truck got stuck in the sand and we could go no further. We were still two miles or more away from the mountains, certainly not a fun hike over the sand dunes with full gear.
We did what we've done on oh so many occasions. We turned off the truck and grabbed some beers and watched a storm passing in the distance.
We decided to re-evaluate our plan, and headed back to the highway and into town. We studied the maps a bit more, and found a USGS map that marked a dirt road that traversed the base of the mountain range from the north. It was our best bet, so we hit the road and covered the 40 miles back to the mountains again. We found the dirt road, and followed it to the base of the range.
Much to our surprise, we came across a ranch.
I don't think that ranch gets many visitors, so we made quite a stir upon arriving. A few people came out of a garage where they were taking the axle off an old Ford truck. As you do. We parked and were greeted first by a handful of friendly ranch dogs, then by a man named Gary. We introduced ourselves and explained our intentions of finding the wreck. Gary, like Greg before him, was amazingly helpful. He told us how he has lived on the ranch since he was just two years old, and visited the wreck for the first time just the previous year. He drew us a map, and told us how many miles down the road we should go before parking and hiking up.
We were back on track. After promising not to discharge a firearm within 100 yards of a cow, we got Gary's blessing to cross his property in to the BLM land where the wreck is. We set off, map in hand, and made our way down the dirt road past fields of cows and through stream beds.
We traveled along the base of the mountain range, passing cows and creek beds. After a few miles our GPS indicated that we were once again alongside the wreck. This time, however, were were less than a mile away.
It was getting late, so we decided to camp for the night and continue the trek in the morning.
There was no moon that night, and the stars were brilliant. When the wind picked up just after sunset, I retired to my tent and lay awake watching the stars, pondering life and the strange places it takes us.
We woke up early again and set off after a quick cup of coffee. We were both excited, though conversation was minimal.
We referred to the topographical maps on our phones, as well as the map that Gary had drawn us. According to him, we should head up a gully and the plane wreck would be at the top strewn about in a talus field.
The engines of the plane, he had told us, had settled further down the gully after the crash. We followed his directions, and as we gained elevation we got more convinced we were on the right track.
Sure enough, we came across the twin engines, side by side just as he said.
The engines had been looted of any precious metal, and were pretty beat up. They were still beautiful, abandoned miles from anywhere.
We stayed at the engines for a long while. We ate a quick breakfast snack of some cheese and crackers, but still didn't speak much. The excitement of finding the location was being washed away by the gravity of the place we were now at, what had happened half a century before.
We continued up the hill, struggling with the thin air. We climbed over downed trees, through thick bush and over enormous boulders. There are no established trails on the Ferris Mountains, and this was no exception.
When we stumbled upon a talus field, we knew were close. We pushed on.
Finally I heard Ben shout back to me, "There it is!" We had found it.
The first thing we came across was the mangled tail section, the lowest part of the wreckage. This was the same tail section that had kept Dorothy LeMasurier alive 55 years prior.
I was surprised at how well preserved it was, however mangled. The Wyoming winters are anything but kind, and it had been exposed to many of them.
We approached slowly, and disturbed as little as possible. Ben looked in the tail section and found a brightly colored box nestled in the wreckage.
In it was another ancient-looking coffee can. Folded up inside was a collection of papers that had been left over the years. There was a register of sorts, with visitors marking their names and the date of their visit. The earliest entry I could find was from the mid eighties, and there were no more than two dozen or so total - this was not exactly a popular destination.
Most of the folks who had signed were either hikers, ranchers or hunters who had heard the story of the wreck and were passing through.
In addition to the signed papers there was a stapled-together photocopy of a story from the March 1958 edition of Reader's Digest. It was the first-hand account from Dorothy, as told in a Drama in Real Life segment. Neither Ben nor myself knew this existed, even after our fairly exhaustive internet research.
We both read the story, which is quite moving. It recounts her story with direct quotes, telling of having just a few candy bars and little else for sustenance. She tells of the first few days after the crash that would be the last she would spend with her husband. It was humbling reading that story, in her own words, at the very location of where it was set.
We dropped our bags and explored around the wreckage.
The tail section had been completely removed from the rest of the fuselage. The wings had caught fire just after the crash and had burned away nearly completely, leaving melted aluminum in the rocks below. The cabin was almost completely destroyed. I am still amazed they both survived the crash at all.
Standing above the wreck, looking 3,000 vertical feet to the plains and dunes below, I tried to imagine myself stranded there. I tried to imagine not the warm August day we were there, but a frigid May snowstorm with no visibility. I tried to imagine staying alive there for more than two weeks with nothing but a couple sweaters to keep warm.
It was truly humbling indeed.
We continued to look around the crash site, finding whole parts of the plane that had been ripped off and thrown across the mountain. We found batteries, engine cowlings and even panels from the fuselage sometimes a hundred feet or more away from the main wreckage.
We stayed for a few hours photographing, thinking about the place where we were. It is a beautiful location with 360 degree views of the mountains and plains, and absolutely no sight of civilization.
On the way back down the mountain we grabbed our bags and signed the summit register. Ben wrote a paragraph explaining his part of the story, asking future visitors to respect the place, and added his contact information.
As far as he knows, he's the only member of the extended family to visit the site of the crash since Dorothy was rescued.
The Woman Who Wouldn't Give Up
An almost incredible tale of survival
By Joseph Phillips
Last May 11 Dalton LeMasurier and his wife Dorothy were flying their twin-engine Beechcraft plane over the snow whipped mountains of Wyoming. Dalton, 47, and his wife, 45, were on their way home to Duluth, where their oldest son and their four grandchildren lived.
When they took off from Salt Lake City at 1:30 for Rapid City, S. D. the weather was good and Dorothy began to read a magazine. At three o'clock, the radio reported some storm activity ahead. Dorothy wasn't concerned; turbulent conditions were almost normal for these Wyoming mountains, and Dalt was an experienced pilot. She was still engrossed in the magazine 15 minutes later when suddenly the plane was skimming treetops. "Watch out!" her husband shouted. "We're going to crash!" Within seconds the plane pancaked sickeningly into the mountainside.
Dazed, Dorothy smelled smoke. Dalt yelled, "We've got to get out! Hurry!" He pushed her through the door. They had scrambled 40 yards uphill when the gas tanks exploded and the plane caught fire.
They looked at each other. Dorothy had a long cut on her forehead and one on her leg. Her thing blue linen dress was turning red with blood and she had lost one of her shoes. Except for singed hair and eyebrows Dalt was apparently unharmed. Slowly they absorbed their predicament. They were about 1000 feet below the 9500-foot crest of a nameless peak in the wild, rough Ferris Mountains. Around them were only jagged boulders, weather-worn pines, and snow--four feet deep in places. It was freezing cold.
When the plane had burned itself out Dalt slid down to the wreckage and brought back a heavy coat and the contents of two partly burned suitcases--slacks, shirts, socks, two pairs of his shoes. The only edibles he could find were four chocolates, a small bottle of hard candies and 120 protein-calcium capsules. In the middle of a second trip a slashing ice-cold rain started to cme down. He got the remaining salvageable materials: sweaters, a first-aid kit, some wire, pieces of silk from burned parachute flares, and two matches. Then he bandaged Dorothy's cuts and improvised a shelter out of tree branches, wire and parachute silk.
Dorothy and Dalt put on several layers of clothing, and used the sleeves of two badly burned sweaters to cover their numb feet. They slept fitfully that first night, their feet suffering the first patches of frostbite. The rain had turned to heavy, wet snow, building up around their shelter. Dalt was reassuring. "It should be clear tomorrow," he said. "They'll find us."
But the dismal dawn brought only more rain, snow and shrieking wind. They rationed themselves one chocolate and a couple of calcium-protein capsules each, assuring each other they weren't really hungry. In the afternoon, they heard aircraft droning above the clouds. "They're looking for us," Dalt said. "They'll spot us when the weather lifts."
The third dat brought more rain and wind. Again, search planes buzzed overhead. Once a Cessna banked in low toward them. "I thought I could reach up and touch it," Dorothy recalls. She screamed and Dalt frantically waved a red sweater on the end of a tree limb, but the plane disappeared.
They ate the last two chocolates and a few more capsules. In the late afternoon they gathered their pitiful belongings together, moved down to the plane wreckage and squeezed into the tail section. It was miserably uncomfortable but Dalt never permitted Dorothy to dwell on their plight.
"We talked about our being alive," Dorothy says. "Why weren't we killed in the crash? Why did the airplane door open, instead of jamming closed? Why was our clothing blown clear in the explosion? We thought it must have a meaning. We prayed often, together and aloud.
"To pass the time Dalt suggested that we talk about everything that had touched our lives, from the day we met at a high school dance in Grand Forks, N.D. We went over our business life--how Dalt at 16 began fixing radios then later managed a small radio station and eventually bought it. We now owned successful radio and television stations in Duluth. We talked a lot about the children. Dalt said, 'There isn't a part of our life I would change.'"
On the fifth dat Dalt decided they might be more visible if they moved to a plateau lower down the mountain. Painfully, on frostbitten feet, they struggled toward it, but could muster only enough strength to go 100 yards. There Dalt put up their flimsy silk shelter and used the two hoarded matches to start a fire. The little pile of twigs and branches had just flickered into hope-warming flames when a sudden downpour put out the fire.
Dorothy thought this the final blow, but worse came next day. At noon Dalt, who had never complained of any pain, went into a convulsion. Dorothy, frightened beyond feeling, jammed a piece of wool between his teeth and waved the ammonia bottle from his first aid kit under his nostrils. After a while he revived, saying "My, that's strong stuff." His attack, he decided, had probably been caused by something in the snow water they'd been drinking.
"That night the sky cleared and the stars shone," Dorothy remembers. "Around midnight Dalt had a second convulsion but came out of it all right." She spotted one especially bright star and said, "Look, there's our wishing star. Can you see it?"
But Dalt didn't answer. He was dead, the victim of a slow-forming brain hemorrhage caused by the impact of the crash.
The hours that followed are a blur in Dorothy's memory. She wept till there were no more tears and exhaustion had numbed her feelings. Then, desolate and lonely, she murmured the words of the 23rd Psalm over Dalt and covered him with the parachute silk. She herself prepared to die, certain that she could not go on alone. But somehow, as she thought of Dalt and relived their last conversations, she realized with astonishment that her despair was giving way to a greater emotion.
"I knew now why Dalt had insisted on talking about our lives. I felt love for everybody we had known," she says. "I felt tremendously close to our family and our friends. I wanted desperately to see again my home and my city--everyone and everything that made up our lives. This love of life was so compelling that I truly began to share Dalt's confidence. I knew that help would come because I could depend on the people I loved."
Dorothy kept hold of this feeling of love and faith all through the next 13 days. Snow, rain and wind lashed her; when the skies cleared the sun burned her face. Occasionally a plane would come over and Dorothy would scream and summon the strength to wave the red sweater. But each time the plane disappeared. She knew they were searching, but snow had hidden the wreckage of their Beechcraft, and the boulder-strewn terrain made it difficult to spot a human being.
As the snow diminished she saw birds and an occasional squirrel. Small pastel flowers pushed up through the melting snow. By now time had lost all meaning. "I wondered if I had been there through a complete change of season," she says.
"I was never really hungry for any long period. I guess my stomach kept shrinking. I remembered reading about men going for weeks on water alone. I was thirsty, so thirsty, all the time. I thanked God for the rain and the snow."
She remembered that Dalt had said, "It'll help our spirits to make some physical effort each day." There was a fallen tree about 18 feet away; she would crawl to it, rest, then crawl back. When about the 12th day that effort grew unbearable, she determined merely to stand up once a day. Each time the struggle to get to her feet grew more exhausting and painful.
She prayed--for help, for clear weather, for an end to the moaning wind. As the interminable hours passed, disjointed thoughts drifted in and out of her mind. She wondered how long her granddaughter Michelle's pony-tail had grown. She worried whether she had written a note explaining that she could not attend a luncheon. She vividly remembered the birth of her first son.
For long periods she went into a semicoma. The weather, just above freezing, cooled her temperature and slowed her body processes. Doctors feel she must have slipped into a state resembling hibernation during which she used an absolute minimum of energy. This helped to save her life.
The search for the LeMasuriers had begun a few hours after their plane failed to land on schedule in South Dakota. Local ranchers, shopkeepers and cowhands abandoned their work to comb the rugged mountains. The LeMasurier's sons, friends and business associates joined in. Under the direction of Y. E. "Dutch" Werner, air-search director for the region, some 40 private, official and military aircraft crisscrossed 4800 square miles of territory. But the rain, snow and fog often restricted flying to only a few hours a day. Vicious downdrafts constantly threatened to smash aircraft against the mountains.
"After three days of search," Dutch Werner said, "I didn't have much hope that we would find them alive, but the LeMasuriers' relatives and friends were determined and we kept looking."
On the morning of the 19th day Dorothy tried to get to her feet but couldn't. She struggled again and again, then fell into an uneasy sleep.
At the foot of the mountain that day Jack Putnam, foreman of the Buzzard Ranch, was herding sheep when suddenly his eye caught the glint of metal high above. He raised his binoculars: it was a wrecked plane! He raced back to his radio-equipped jeep and called the ranch.
Within two hours a search party, including Dutch Werner, County Coroner Dr. Robert D. Paul, a sheriff's deputy and Dale Cowle, a LeMasurier executive, arrived at the foot of the mountain. Carrying two plastic bags for bodies, they began the long, slow climb to the plane.
Dorothy heard what sounded like the crackling of twigs. "I thought my imagination might be tricking me," she says. "I sat up and listened. When I heard the noise again I screamed and screamed."
The searchers heard the faint cries. "It can't be," said Dale Cowle, "but it sounds like a woman's voice."
"Who is it?" shouted Werner.
"Dorothy," came the voice.
Werner yelled, "My God, she's alive!" and sprinted to her....
That night a chill rain swept over the Ferris Mountains. The temperature fell near freezing, and the wind howled through the trees. But Dorothy LeMasurier was safe and warm. She had a roof over her head and her family was around her again. It was for this that she had refused to give up. It was for this that she was determined to live.