Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Hidden Tragedy in the Olympic Mountain Range

C-141 Peak from
Mount Constance, Olympic National Park, ca. 1923
Courtesy UW Special Collections (Image UW22290z)
            On March 20th, 1975 the weather was like any other March day in the Pacific Northwest. With a high of 47 and a low of 35, Port Angeles was having another grey, dreary day on the Olympic Peninsula. Only .02 of an inch of rain fell, a very typical amount in the rain shadow of the Olympics. In fact, the winter of 1975 had so far been a bust, but the local paper was telling residents that snow was finally on its way. Far above the city, a storm was whipping around with fierce winds and hurricane force winds, but the residents of this sleepy hamlet located on the Strait of Juan de Fuca had no idea what was going on.  With news like that, not much was going on in this small town on the north side of the Olympic Peninsula, but all that was about to change.

Air Force C-141A Starlifter over Tacoma, n.d.
Courtesy U. S. Air Force
            6,500 miles away a C-141 aircraft was leaving Clark AFB, in the Philippines. With a stop off in Japan to pick up a few more soldiers, this flight was a homecoming of sorts for all the troops Some were being transferred to different areas, but some we ending a long international deployment. 16 service men were onboard this flight, but the next 20hours would prove to be their last. At approximately 11:05 PM, their plane dropped off of radar and slammed into a peak located between Warrior Peak and Mt. Constance. All 16 service men were killed, though many of their bodies were not found until the snows had melted and rescue crews could go back up and search. The peak, being so isolated, and the weather being so difficult, made recovery of the bodies of this accident take nearly 3 months. The accident was due to human error, as an air traffic controller out of Seattle gave the wrong coordinates to the already exhausted flight crew. While this accident could have been avoided, it did bring a bit more attention and understanding as to just how remote and unexplored the Olympic Mountains are. Rescue crews battled weather, avalanches, landslides and pouring rain, just to locate the wreckage. It ended up taking until June 16th to locate the final bodies because of dangerous, unpredictable weather. In typical accidents at this elevation, rescue crews can be launched and find the bodies in a matter of day. Because of the rugged, unpredictable, hard to hike Olympic Mountains, it took early 2 full months.

The nose of the plane on the Peak, Courtesy of Google
            What is now known as C-141 peak was first climbed in 1974 by P. Carney, R. LaBelle, and M. Martin. Before that time, it was just a rugged outcrop that had always been assumed was a part of Mount Constance, however, after the 1975 accident, it was reclassified as it’s own mountain and named C-141 peak. At 7,339ft it is the 15th tallest peak in the Olympic Mountain range, but it is one of the hardest to get to. With approach routes up the Lake Constance trail (Link 1 or Link 2)  just getting to a place where you can climb proves to be difficult. C-141 peak is on the list of the top 15 mountains on the Olympic Peninsula, and had it not been for an unfortunate plane crash, killing all on board, even fewer people would know of its existence. C-141 peak needs to be climbed, needs to be remembered and needs to be respected.
Front page, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, on U.S. Air Force C-141A Starlifter crash into Mount Constance that occurred on March 20, 1975
Courtesy Seattle Post-Intelligencer

           Exotic Hikes will be climbing C-141 peak this year, in hopes to document the route and climb for the first time since 1987 (according to any internet searches). If you are interested in joining us on this historic climb, please contact us today! Finally, on March 20th this year, take some time and look at the Olympic Mountains. Remember that 37 years ago, the worst accident in the Olympic National Park’s history occurred. 
Mount Constance (center) as seen from Alki Point, January 22, 2008 photo by Daryl C. McClary
See you on the trails, 
Douglas Scott
Exotic Hikes

With thanks to

1 comment:

  1. Well written & I liked all the historic details. Interesting that it wasn't climbed till 1974.