Hiking and Searching for a Plane Crash
By Steve Gillman
United Airlines Flight 409 crashed near the top of Medicine
Bow Peak on October 6, 1955, killing all 66 people on board.
It was the worst crash in U.S. history at the time. After the
bodies were recovered, explosives and napalm were used to destroy
the remains of the plane, although according to Wikipedia, there
are still parts of the plane scattered near the summit.
This is what I was looking for as I climbed to the top on
August 13, 2007.
Medicine Bow Mountains are in southern Wyoming, near the border
of Colorado. The heart of the mountains is the Snowy Range, which
can be accessed by taking Highway 130 west from Laramie, or east
from I-80, near Walcott. We came through from Laramie, camped
one night, and loved the area so much that we returned a week
later to camp at Sugarloaf Campground. The views here are amazing.
It was also surprisingly warm considering that the campground
is at almost 11,000 feet, and there were still large patches
of snow visible all over the surrounding mountains. In fact,
when I woke up at 5:45 Monday morning to climb the peak, I was
able to start out in a t-shirt. I had a sweater and a jacket,
but I never used either, even at the summit.
I thought it would take several hours to reach the top. It
did look close, but then mountain tops always look closer than
they really are. The map I had didn't have a scale, so I wasn't
sure how far it would be. I hiked down the road to Lewis Lake,
where the trail started. The sun was just starting to come up.
Less than an hour after I left the van, I was standing on
the summit, the fastest I have ever gone up a mountain, but not
because I was rushing. It just wasn't that far (a little over
two miles), and the trail was easy. I took my usual photo of
my feet hanging out into space from the top.
The plane debris? I didn't find any of it. What I did see
though, was a total of 26 beautiful alpine lakes, all counted
as I stood on one rock looking down on all sides of the mountain.
Lakes, rocky slopes, alpine meadows and dark green forests were
laid out in every direction. I made a mental note of where we
would backpack and camp on our next visit.
I rested and took in the view for 15 minutes or so. I met
three other hikers on the way down, all of whom pointed out the
fact that my wife and I missed the meteor shower the previous
night. Due to how early it was, one assumed that I had spent
the night on the summit of Medicine Bow Peak to watch the shooting
stars. Maybe next year I will.
Maybe I'll also find the pieces of that plane crash that eluded
me. In any case, we'll be back. This is one of the most beautiful
places we have camped.
Notes: If you stop at one of the visitor centers you
can get a map of the hiking and backpacking trails, but if you
are just day hiking you can use whatever map you have. It is
hard to get lost above timberline, where you can see everything
around you. The USDA Forest Service map, "Fishing on the
Medicine Bow - Routte National Forest - Snowy Range Area"
map lists a 102 lakes and streams along with what kind of fish
they contain. This is also a good map for hiking, with the numbers
of all the various longer trails listed.
Be careful here. You may encounter loose rock, rain, hail,
snow, and high winds. Rock fall is most common early in summer
and in the morning. Also people die here from lightning strikes.
Afternoon storms are frequent and can appear unexpectedly.
Update: I later found that the crash site was on the
face just right of Sundial Slab. And yes, there is still a lot
of debris up there according to a hiker who has been there recently.