Forewarned is forearmed – this might be long or even tiring.
It’ll put you in the same place we were for most of the trip.
On August 14th BopOp, AuntHazel, and I set out for Cody Wyoming to meet our cousin Louie – we were preparing to spend about a week high in the mountains recovering airplane parts from the site of my grandfather’s and great uncle’s plane crash in May of 2014.About a week ; more on that later.
To answer an obvious question – Why? – read on.
We drove straight through to a rest area a few hours north of Cody and camped flat in the back of my van, three across, from about 2AM until dawn. We rolled into Cody and unexpectedly met Louie outside the Albertsons – he was taking his pet raccoon over to his daughters house for the week – ahem.
We made the trailhead by noon on day one, Monday the 15th, and after 7+ hours of hiking, perhaps 3.5 miles/1000ft elevation gain, and with supplies for two weeks (did I say the packs were heavy?), we camped in an open spot near this trail marker.
The weather was calm, with broken clouds and on day two we made it through the meadows and halfway up the steep, off-trail, timber slope with several breaks. The goal was to make it to the crash site with energy still in the tank. Spoiler alert – we made it.
On day three we finished the ascent to about 10,300ft through some timber – with some planning and scheming about how to make the mountain level-off sooner than it liked.
Mid-day on day three we began the short steep descent to the crash-basin. This descent took about 3-4 hours and was no joke. I wasn’t honestly afraid at any point but the only thing steeper I’ve climbed is a tree and with ~60-70lbs on my back – it was real work.
Tangible emotions were thick in the air at our arrival. This is hallowed ground for our small party and we each acknowledged our arrival separately and privately.
Day four was to be a recovery day – primarily for our bodies, unused to this sort of effort. We began to make plans and perform small tasks on pieces of the wreckage.
We were quickly brought up to speed on just how much effort this truly would be. Some work had already been completed by Louie and his son Sam in the previous years, the snow and rocks falling from the cliff above had done their fair share of moving things around as well.
A small hatchet was our most effective tool making quick progress through the thin aluminum skin, around the more sturdy structure.
By day five, the work crew was in full swing and we resolved to haul major pieces up the 800 foot ascent of snow and ice by a work crew of three – two haulers on top and one tie-monkey at the bottom. With 1000′ of parachute cord and a mile of bailing twine at the bottom we threw the cord off the rim.
It rolled about 60 feet before it came apart. We’d tangled it good – and spent something like the next 3 hours setting things right.
That mess squared away, we successfully started the rope elevator and got 4-5 good pieces topped before it was quitting time at 4:30PM. Sundown (behind the mountain) at 5:30 – Dinner at 6 – Sunset at 8:30 – in “bed” at ~9PM became the ritual for the next four days. Travel time between tasks could easily be 45 minutes.
Our food could be anywhere – the critters up there don’t know humans well (or at all) and so they didn’t know to come visit.
The timber was half dead – a pine beetle infestation has taken out more than half of the trees on the slopes. It could be why we didn’t see many birds, few (none?) mosquitos, and more flies (houseflies?) than I’ve seen in one place. The ecosystem was beautiful to our eyes, but undeniably stressed.
Day six, Saturday, and day seven, Sunday, were similar enough; staging pieces, ascending, hauling, topping, descending, eating and sleeping – working our way through the plane.
Hazel stayed limber, hauled pieces, discovered wildflowers, wrote about her observations and generally made the moments in the collective effort a delight – she continually noticed interesting details the rest of us might skip over in our haste to “get ‘er done”.
Nights around the campfire were filled with stories told (and retold) from our lives past through current day. Jokes were plentiful.
Late Saturday we began planning our return. We ate like kings since we had more than enough food for the week – and we challenged ourselves to try for a one-day hike out on Monday. Louie had work to get back to and we were more than a little bit tired of the ground, the dirt, and the smoke in the air.
The desire to stay and do more work was outweighed by the desire to see friends and family, both new and old.
One smoldering thing might have derailed our well-laid plans; a forest fire.
Based on the amount of smoke in the air it appeared obvious that a fire had started to the south of us. Louie talked us through the ways we would be safe; being above the tree-line, creating a firebreak, starting a backfire etc…it all made sense but didn’t do much to alter the tension in my gut. It wouldn’t likely be a problem until the next day so we decided to take a look Sunday morning and alter our plans if necessary. Alterations ran the gamut between leaving sooner all the way through staying in this safe spot a few days longer (allowing the fire to pass).
The view we saw Sunday morning made it obvious that our plans for Monday departure would be fine.
Then, Sunday night, another unexpected thing happened. Some people appeared at the rim of our scree valley. They whistled, and after Louie performed an impromptu evening ascent (timed well with our rice dinner) they were escorted back to the camp…it was his son-in-law Ethan and a new friend named Jake.
Some miscommunication at our departure led Denise, and others, to believe that we were set to be home by about Friday. They were worried, excited, and unsure enough to forge a recon mission. The envoys discovered rather quickly that, besides being worn-out, we were fine.
With Jake’s satellite phone Ethan called his worried wife (Louie’s daughter) Denise and assured her that we were ok.
An influx of new stories, perspectives, and some communication with folks back home made for a late night Sunday. It was warm-ish and very clear this night but our guests, wrapped only in emergency blankets of various sizes, didn’t sleep well.
The Milky Way was glorious until the near-full moon rose into the smoke-laden air to nearly wash it out.
Monday began with a hurried breakfast, departure of Ethan and Jake, and the start of an epic climb up the scree field by Hazel. In about 90-120 minutes she successfully ascended the cliffs which Park County Search and Rescue has claimed is impassable by foot – at 85. She continues to be an inspiration for anyone who has healthy fear but sets their mind on a goal; amazing.
I won’t lie – the one day out challenge was tough. Louie carried the (unbent/unscratched) propeller plus other possibles for a pack-weight around 90lbs, I had an airplane door, remaining food, and assorted other camping equipment and a pack-weight around 70lbs. BopOp’s pack wasn’t much lighter than mine perhaps 55-60lbs, full of airplane parts, clothing and a lot of water. Hazel carried her own pack for a short time but primarily focussed on keeping moving. We began between 8:00 and 9:00 AM and finished the slog 11H 20M minutes later.
But the adventure wasn’t over – we found ourselves locked behind the gate. Louie (aka Alley Oop) assessed the situation practically and promptly heaved a very large rock out of the way and began working on a rotted stump.
Ya think your van will fit between these two trees?
Yep – it should.
Under expert guidance from Oop – it did indeed.
The first place open with food was Cassies; we all hungered for a good side of meat or something else not found on the mountain and as the hostess seated our dusty, toasted, mussed-up selves she checked in with Hazel.
Are you going to be able to manage these steps?
(graciously) I’ll manage.
Did she ever.