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.
August 23, 2010. The rain has just passed overhead, casting cool, gray clouds over Mt. Trelease. John Putt squirms into his pack—the litter, the massive piece of metal that unfolds into a stretcher—as he stands along a road at the mountain’s base. The pack is crammed with 400 feet of bagged climbing rope, brake plates, and other gear. All told, the metal contraption extends a foot above his head and weighs more than 80 pounds. He’ll need none of this equipment today, but he needs to feel all of it.
He scrambles up this mountain because it is what he does now to chase the ghosts from his mind. And when he goes up now and the memories still don’t go away, he returns. Again and again. Five times up Mt. Trelease. And when those memories still haunt him, he returns once more, this time with 80 pounds strapped to his back because that weight is both his punishment and his redemption.
One hundred feet.
Coward. That’s what he’d thought of himself for nearly 40 years after the crash. On that night in October 1970, he froze and he failed his teammates. And he failed those folks from Wichita State, even when there was no one alive for him to fail.
One hundred and fifty feet.
Friend. That’s what the people from Wichita State call John Putt when they ask if he can take families to the site these days. That’s what they call him when a dead player’s niece stands among that debris and shakes Putt’s hand and tells him that he must have been a brave boy to go up that night. Twelve years old. Putt does not respond. But in helping these people, he knows he is helping himself, and perhaps giving final comfort to those who died on that plane almost a half century ago.
Two hundred feet.
But until he no longer feels as if he’s let himself and others down, he will climb. He will climb until those ghosts no longer follow him back down that mountain. So on days like this, when cool air sweeps through the valley and clouds shadow the sun from the pine trees below, Putt will climb and he will suck for air and sweat will run down his face.
Two hundred and fifty feet. There is still a ways to go.
He stops along a trail and leans against a tree. Putt takes off his glasses. His eyes are red and teary. He wipes them and looks up that mountain. And then he starts to climb again, hoping that one day when he comes down, he will feel a peace he hasn’t felt in 40 years. m
Robert Sanchez is 5280’s senior staff writer. He wrote about a first-year inner-city Denver Public Schools teacher in the September issue of the magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.