Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Mann Gulch remembrance tour

Wayne Phillips at the spot where fire survivor Robert Sallee says he went through a crevice to the ridgeline and saved his life.
If you’re looking for a family day hike guided by a book that reads like a historical mystery try hiking Mann Gulch and reading Norman Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire.”
Thirteen smokejumpers died Aug. 5, 1949 in the gulch, located near Meriwether Picnic Area in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness in the Helena National Forest.
The smokejumpers were dropped into Mann Gulch and died trying to outrun a fire that blew up on them.
Picture Point on Mann Gulch.  
The Mann Gulch fire is significant because it was the most tragic event in smokejumper history at that time and because a life-saving technique known as using a “back burn” came into standard practice because of the event.  The fire boss on Mann Gulch was Wagner Dodge, who when seeing the fire approaching, lit a fire around him in the grass and stepped into its ashes and was saved because the larger fire had no fuel.  Dodge had futilely tried to get his men to step into his backfire.
For years the Gates of the Mountains tour boats have swung by the mouth of the gulch several times a day during summer months recounting the catastrophe.
Maclean’s book was published in 1992, two years after his death at age 87, and is an exhaustive account of the fire, detailing how the firefighters ran uphill, trying desperately to reach a ridge line several hundred feet above them to escape it. 
In addition to Dodge, four others survived, but two of those died the next day.  Only three reached the ridge line and one of those died from burns received before the ridge was reached.
Where smokejumper Eldon Diettert died.
Maclean, who is probably better known as the author of the Montana classic, “A River Runs Through It,” was haunted by the deaths of the smokejumpers and returned to Mann Gulch into his late 80s, trying to recreate the chain of events that led to the fatalities.
He invited the two survivors who reached the ridge, Walt Rumsey and Robert Sallee, to show him where they attained the ridge (and safety) through a “crevice” in the quartzite and limestone rimrock that block the top.
Maclean took the official fire reports and first-hand accounts from survivors, and did measurements with a hand held tap measure, and concluded that where Rumsey and Sallee say they hit the ridge was far east of where they did.
All this has a bearing on trying to corroborate Dodge’s account of events and whether his back burn rather than the main fire might have killed some of the smokejumpers.
On a hike Tuesday organized by H. Wayne Phillips of Great Falls, himself a former smokejumper, and two other former smokejumpers and one former paratrooper, the questions raised by Maclean’s book were examined and argued.
Maclean's book was our true guide.
Among those points:
Where did Sallee and Rumsey crest the ridge?

·       Did we find the “crevice” that Sallee said is the correct one?
·       Did we find the “crevice” that Maclean claims?
·       Where was Sylvia’s rock (used as a certain measuring point for the back burn and ridge run)?
·       Where did Wag Dodge set his back burn (another crucial measuring point)?
·       Can we locate the grassy slope that Sallee and Rumsey used on the ridge before descending to the rock slide (and ultimate safety)
Phillips stopped to leave some sweetgrass at several of the crosses marking the spots where the smokejumpers had died.
Probably the most conventional route into this area is from the Meriwether Picnic Area reached by the Gates of the Mountains Tour Boat.  A trail leads leads from the picnic area up and over the Meriwether-Mann Gulch divide. 
Another route is again, by boat, and would dump the hiker at the bottom of Mann Gulch where it meets the Missouri River.
Assessing where the drama occurred
Finally, the route we took is an abandoned Forest Service Trail that rises from Willow Creek a couple of miles beyond the Willow Creek-Elkhorn turnoff in the Beartooth Game Range.  About a quarter mile from the main Forest Service trail into Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area a ridge comes down from the south and then it’s a couple of miles and 732 feet of elevation to Picture Point above Mann Gulch.
Jim Phillips, one of the smokejumpers on the trip, will help lead a group of retired smokejumpers and Montana Conservation Corps volunteers in the next couple of weeks restore that trail.
The big caveat about this area is that beyond that Willow Creek turnoff the road is as rough as it can be.  I have a good all wheel drive Rav 4 with high clearance and I scraped bottom several times. 
Wayne Phillips suggests a better route right up from that turnoff on a ridge that rises more than 1,000 feet to Picture Point ---- but there is no trail.
I think this would be the best route in and you would save lots of wear and tear on your car.
I highly recommend Helena science teacher Rod Benson's virtual tour Web site as another guide if you're planning to make this trip:

Story I did for the Great Falls Tribune Aug. 6, 1978

Two different routes to the same place.  The refurbished hiking trail is to the right in this map.  Wayne Phillips' off-trail route is to the left.  Wayne's route would allow the hiker to bypass the extremely poor road where the road crosses Elkhorn Creek and proceeds up Willow Creek. 

A quick run into the Scapegoat Wilderness Area

The pack bridge over the South Fork of Sun River at Benchmark.
On Tuesday my wife and I took a quick recon trip into the Benchmark area and walked a couple of miles of the South Fork Sun River Trail into the Scapegoat Wilderness Area.
The short day hike renewed my enthusiasm for this area when you don’t have much time.
It is a quick way into the wilderness and there’s plenty of good scenery to be had.  Some of the trail was pointed directly at the Patrol Mountain cabin, where there is still some snow.
On the way out we spotted a waterfall on what appears to be Lick Creek a mile or two above Wood Lake.
I’ve driven this road numerous times but have never noticed that fall before.
A waterfall we discovered Lick Creek Falls off the Benchmark Road above Wood Lake.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

it does seem a miracle that anyone came out of this alive. I am surprised that so many are still interested in this fire in particular.

These lightening strike fires will be happening forever with concomitant loss of life and all we can do is watch, donate and hope.

I voluntarily evacuated ahead of the rodeo-chedesdki fire in Arizona from pure fear after reading mr. maclean's book. my husband called me chicken until we had to detour all over northern Arizona to get out of the reach of the fire.

I would say that it's never too early to pack up and go.

thank you for posting this most interesting piece. The more people who are afraid of fire the better.