Forty years ago, a plane slammed into the Rocky Mountains and killed 31 people. The rescue squad sent to find survivors was comprised of 18 teenagers, Colorado boys with something to prove to themselves and to one another. What they’d discover would haunt them for the rest of their lives.
This article was selected for inclusion in the Best American Sports Writing 2011 anthology. It was part of Robert Sanchez's finalist portfolio for the City and Regional Magazine Association's 2010 writer-of-the-year.
They all heard it: the buzz of the propellers , like a swarm of angry bees flying low over U.S. 6 through the central mountains. The plane was so low that it cast a gigantic shadow across the pine-covered landscape, and made people stop what they were doing and stare. The plane went right up to where that asphalt ended and 12,000 feet of rock stretched to the sky. // That was the plane that changed John Putt forever. // It was October 2, 1970, and the perfect, crisp fall morning had given way to an afternoon of endless blue sky. A snow had fallen earlier and the tree line around Evergreen was touched with spots of white. It was one of those Rocky Mountain days that made you glad to be alive. Thank God for Colorado.
And thank God for a reason to cut class early. Wasn’t that what 12-year-old John Putt thought when that voice boomed over the loudspeaker at Evergreen Junior High School? Members of the Alpine Rescue Team, you’re needed. Now. There was a mission, and Putt was determined to be in on it.
Anticipation, excitement. That’s what Putt felt. The joy of the moment. Whatever had happened, it must have been big. The folks at Alpine didn’t call the youngest members out of class when grandma got lost hunting mushrooms in the woods. No, this was special—momentous. He could feel it.
He’d trained six months for his first call to action, for an opportunity to prove himself to the roughly 50 teenagers and adults who made up one of Colorado’s only mountain-rescue outfits. Putt had tied knots behind his back in dark closets, searched for water, slept in snow caves, hiked until his feet bled.
Putt shot out of the classroom door. He was just a kid, really, a prepubescent boy heading to…well, who knows what? Honor? Glory? Yes, that’s what it felt like to Putt—all 5 feet 3 inches and maybe 100 pounds of him, a sliver of a boy with a tuft of unkempt brown hair sticking from his head. He headed down the hallway proud, his head held high.
He pushed open the school doors. It was nearly two miles to his house, and Putt ran the whole way. It was as hard and as fast as he’d ever run before. He reached home, but no one was there. Mom won’t understand this, Putt thought to himself. He called his dad at work. I’m going on a mission, he said. I don’t know when I’ll be back.
Stay safe. That’s what Putt’s dad told him over the phone. But what did that mean? He grabbed his pack, and soon he was back on the road, running again. Three minutes, five minutes. A car passed and Putt waved it down. He hitched a ride to the Shack, the shed attached to an Evergreen church where the Alpine crew was mounting up. The last vehicles were blazing out of the lot. A National Guard helicopter had taken off. What about me? Putt asked, desperately. There was room in the back of a Suburban. Putt’s heart leapt. Hop in, someone called to him.
March 26, 1969. The thump-thump-thump of the propeller blades boomed across the Spanish Peaks northwest of Trinidad, Colorado, as the pilot lowered his helicopter onto a windblown patch of earth.
Chuck Burdick, a 17-year-old from the Evergreen-based Alpine Rescue Team, was aboard, along with a handful of other rescuers, including Alpine members and several from a search unit based in Boulder. The early-morning fog had lifted, and Burdick found himself 200 miles from home, prepared for the worst.
Sturdy with thick shoulders and blond hair, Burdick was a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver and the burgeoning leader of Alpine Rescue—an all-volunteer mountain-rescue unit founded nearly a decade earlier. Among the younger members, Burdick was an unparalleled mountaineer. Although he wasn’t from Evergreen like most of the other teenagers, he was a folk hero of sorts to the kids in the group. His technical knowledge was unmatched: He could tie any knot in seconds; he could read the most complicated topographical maps; he could rappel like a spider fetching its prey. One time, he zipped 70 feet across Bear Creek, just to show the newbies how it was done.
Burdick lived Alpine Rescue. When Alpine called in the middle of the night, his father would ring a doorbell attached to Burdick’s room to wake him up. His Toyota Corolla was a rolling rescue unit, packed with a rucksack, a sleeping bag, a tent, extra batteries, and all sorts of radios. On those nights when he left home, his parents knew better than to ask if he’d be back for breakfast.
And now here he was, flying among the Spanish Peaks on a helicopter heading toward a narrow ridge. Atop one of the peaks was a Cessna 308 that had crashed five days earlier and killed everyone aboard. The recovery squad approached the wreckage. An hour or two later, someone found the Cessna’s tail 300 feet below. Some of the men hustled down and found a gruesome scene. Burdick saw part of one man’s frozen torso. None of the remains were recognizable.
The teenager worked quietly for the next few hours, removing remains and loading them. He hiked back eight miles with the rest of the team to the dirt road where they’d parked their cars. By the time Burdick was on the road home, it was early the next morning. Six bodies, only 250 pounds of remains. The road signs zipped past. Burdick was certain it wouldn’t be the last tragedy he’d see.