Tragedy at 12,950 Feet

Crash location on the edge of the cliff
Photo by Pete KJ

If you know where to look, you can spot it from miles away: a glittery speck near the ridgetop leading to Navajo Peak. But you could easily mistake it for a tiny patch of snow.

Whether or not you are prepared for it, the ascent of Navajo Peak takes an emotional turn as you cross a high basin and begin climbing toward a gully through talus and scree. Depending on your approach, you might see a fragment or two of aluminum lying among the rocks. Or a tail beam. Or one of the two propellers, its blades bent but still gleaming 70-plus years later.

It was a blustery winter afternoon, 4:02 pm on January 21, 1948, when the Douglas DC-3 took off from Denver. On board the 32-seater were three crewmen only, on a patrol mission for the Civil Aeronautics Administration. The flight plan called for a 14,500-foot-elevation crossing of the Rockies to Grand Junction. Twenty-two minutes after takeoff, the pilot reported via radio that they had achieved cruising altitude and were flying 500 feet above the clouds. He added that the turbulence was either “severe” or “unexpected” (accounts differ). Then the radio cut out.

Pete KJ at the crash site
Photo by Pete KJ

From the edge of the basin, the continuing ascent of Navajo Peak returns to feeling like a standard steep mountain scramble for a while. Then, as you near the top of the gully, you come to it. You can’t miss it. It’s right in the middle of the path of the most standard route up Navajo Peak, bucket-list beauty of the Front Range Continental Divide. Above the main wreckage is the impact site: on a slanted wall only 50 feet beneath the ridgetop. If you look carefully you can still see oil stains and scars in the rocks.

This was not a small airplane, in both size and stature. It had a 95-foot wingspan and a robust design that revolutionized commercial air travel in the 1930s and 1940s. In it you could get from New York to L.A. in about 15 hours, with three refueling stops. Before that you had to settle for shorter day hops coupled with overnight rail travel. Though commercial DC-3 production ended in 1942, hundreds are still flying today in numerous niche markets. A common saying was and still is, “The only replacement for a DC-3 is another DC-3.”

Yes, this plane was a good one. But it was not powerful enough to overcome the fierce downdraft that afternoon, a common feature of winter storms here, which likely forced it from its cruising altitude to meet this rock wall at 12,950 feet. Fifty feet less of a drop, and the plane would have cleared the ridge and gotten across the Divide.

Whether or not I’m tired, I always have to pause my climb and pay homage to the three men who lost their lives. The pilot was Fred Snavely, age 38. Copilot Warren Lungstrom was 28, and had a wife and two baby sons, ages 1 month and 13 months. Also on board was aircraft inspector Ross Brown, age 40, father of a 4 year-old girl and an infant boy. Their bodies lay frozen here for months; heavy snowfall in the days following the crash thwarted search and rescue efforts and covered up the site. It wasn’t until May 23 of that spring that a continuing air search spotted the silver pieces sticking out of the snow.

Shiny hydraulic rod among the wreckage
Photo by Pete KJ

It is difficult to describe the experience of being up here. Sad, yes; and beautiful, and spiritual all at the same time. The mangled wreckage sits in a breathtaking location amidst dazzling, soaring alpine wonderlands. The most remarkable thing, to me, is how clean the wreckage looks all these 70 years later. This is not a horror site, to me. The aluminum gleams brightly in the high altitude sunshine, and the rest of the pieces are mostly silver and shiny, not dirty or rusty. Look closely and you’ll see an ultra-polished steel rod of a hydraulic mechanism that can positively blind you in the sunlight. It looks like it was manufactured yesterday!

As I sat with the wreckage a few days ago, a faint breeze began to blow. With the breeze, an unfamiliar rustling sound emerged out of the usual alpine silence. I figured it was wind passing through metal pieces: a pretty, gentle, metallic whistle; definitely something you don’t normally hear in a place up high like this.

I stood and went closer, and discovered the source of the sound. It was a small hinged piece of fuselage, waving back and forth in the breeze. A hinge! And not a rusty hinge either. It was functioning perfectly well, moving cleanly in its attachment. It had been waving back and forth in the breeze for 70 years, and it looked set to keep on waving for at least 70 more.

Pete KJ

Pete KJ

Pete KJ began explorations at age three in the wooded ravine that was his backyard in Seattle. He also began a lifelong writing habit. Backyard expanded as Pete stomped all over the Cascades and Olympics as a youth, and headed onward to the Pyrenees, Alps, Himalayas, and Andes. Peace Corps service in Africa cemented his deep desire to always be out in the world, and when he finally sat in a cubicle as a chemical engineer, it was in places like Puerto Rico and India. Long absent from cubicle, he moved on to raise kids, travel the world with them, and write about it (and also write three novels). Career brought Pete to Colorado in the 1990s, its gravity and beauty pulled him back. Pete's "Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes in Colorado's Front Range" will be published in April, 2019 by Imbrifex Books.

One thought to “Tragedy at 12,950 Feet”

  1. This reminds me of the memorial to the cold war warriors memorial at the Spring Mountain Visitor Center near Las Vegas. More photos and information here.

    Over the years, I have come across other plane crash wreakage sites in a number of places and twice assisted in the recovery of remains and debris from air crashes during my years with the USFS. I well understand the respect that most people exhibit when they happen upon such a place. Beautiful article. Thanks for sharing.

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