The Bomber Traverse-My Birthday Backpacking Trip!

1 09 2011

The Bomber traverse has been a trip on my list for years and I figured the best way to spend my birthday weekend was with good friends on an awesome 18 mile backpacking trip in the Talkeetnas! The B-29 Bomber crashed on a glacier (now known as Bomber Glacier) in the Talkeetna Mountains in November of 1957. There were four survivors, and six people perished in the crash. At the bottom of this blog I’ve included an interview with Calvin Campbell, one of the survivors and hero of the crash, that I found online. The traverse starts at Gold Mint trailhead in Hatcher’s Pass, heading 8 miles to the Mint Hut.

We started in some sprinkling rain that broke to blue skies and sunshine when we got to the hut. Sabrina hiking in.

Laura and I having a Toyota moment 🙂

The Mint Hut.

The mountains above the hut. Backdoor Gap is to the right of the peak in the middle.

From the hut you climb a boulder field to Backdoor Gap (5715 ft above sea level), then descend down to the Penny Royal Glacier.

Sabrina headed approaching Backdoor Gap. There are dozens and dozens of beautiful, turquoise alpine lakes littered throughout Hatcher’s Pass.

The crew at Backdoor Gap. Kasey, Laura-our token Canadian :), Sabrina, and Dan. I figured Dan is either very lucky or not so smart to go backpacking with four girls. After the trip, he said the jury is still out 🙂

The Penny Royal Glacier. We were treated to perfect views of Denali.

There is no shortage of talus fields in Hatcher’s Pass. Sabrina descending one of many.

Kasey and the bomber. Airplane parts are strewn across the glacier, but this is the main wreckage.

Laura on the 2000 ft descent down from Bomber Pass to Upper Reed Lake.

Sabrina hiking out at Upper Reed Lake. By the time we got to the lake, low clouds had rolled in, obscuring the pass. By the time we hit Lower Reed Lake it was raining cats and dogs with a little bit of hail. 30 minutes later, it was clear skies again. Got to love Alaska.

18 miles, 2 mountain passes, and 5,000 vertical feet later we finished the traverse. The best birthday weekend!

Here is the story behind the bomber. It was originally a radio interview on September 14, 2000 on local radio station  KLEF 98.1 FM.

Heroism High in the Talkeetnas

Good evening. Here’s a compelling story from yesteryear about bravery and heroism high in the Talkeetna Mountains, near Hatcher’s Pass.

On November 15, 1957, about 6:30 p.m., a B-29 bomber from Elmendorf Air Force Base with a crew of 10 was returning to base after a radar-calibrating mission farther north. Weather had deteriorated and the ceiling had dropped to below 4,000 feet as they made their way south past Talkeetna. A routine radio report from the aircraft reported no problems. The plane was scheduled to arrive at Elmendorf at 7 p.m.

Staff Sergeant Calvin Campbell, then 34, was assigned to the right scanner position, about mid-point in the aircraft behind the engines. One of his tasks was to monitor the two engines on the right side. Staff Sergeant Robert McMurray had similar duties on the left side. In the pilot seat was Major Robert Butler.

In a recent telephone interview Campbell, now 77, described what happened next

“We were descending toward Elmendorf at good speed, when we hit real hard with no warning. Everything went black…I mean real black. Then we hit again and it felt so cold. It felt like the wings tore off and when I crawled out, I saw that the fuselage was broken into two. We were on a snowy field—I didn’t know at the time it was a glacier. It was so quiet.

“McMurray was right below me, pinned between the fuselage and the observation post. I pulled him out of there. Navigator Lt. Claire Johnson had dragged himself out of the plane and collapsed in the snow nearby. I wrapped them both in parachutes and put Johnson in a sleeping bag that I found in the cargo hold.

“I could hear Sgt. Garza, the flight engineer, yelling from farther up the slope. He was still inside the nose section. It had sheared off and gone up the hill about 500 feet.”

“When I got up to Garza I soon realized he was the only other survivor—it was just the four of us. The pilot, Major Robert A. Butler and the five other officers had all perished. Garza weighed about 140 lbs…it was hard pulling him out. I placed him on a piece of canvas and dragged him down to the others. He had a broken arm and broken leg. I went back to the cargo hold and got more sleeping bags and then got us into the wreckage out of the wind—it felt very cold, but I had extra flight clothing to help cover us up.”

Air Rescue at Elmendorf began its helicopter search at daybreak the following morning, zeroing in on the B-29’s last known position. By 9:30 they found the crash site—on a broad glacial slope at fifty three hundred feet —about a mile northeast of upper Reed Lake. Thanks to Campbell’s decisive actions, the injured men survived the night. They were taken to the hospital at Elmendorf.

“I think we were about 17 degrees off course.” Campbell says. “Too far to the east—put us right into those high mountains.”

Campbell said that except for a scratch over his eye, he was unharmed. He later would suffer complications from frostbitten feet, however, and lose the use of several toes.

Calvin K. Campbell received a special commendation from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Soldier’s Medal, a decoration for valor in a non-combat situation. He retired from the Air Force in 1968.

“I didn’t feel like a hero or anything,” says Campbell. “I just did what I had to do. “The other guys would have done the same thing for me.”

Today, the broken bomber sits on the glacier as a quiet memorial to the six men who died there 43 years ago.

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5 responses

1 09 2011
300hikes

Wow, that’s beautiful. And 18 miles is really pretty manageable. If only I were closer…

18 06 2012
Craig Fuller

Not sure if you were aware, but this website: http://www.carbonated.tv/news/old-aircraft-wreckage-found-on-alaska-glacier is using one of your photos for a news article on a different crash site.

PS
Looks like a great hike that is on my to do list some day!

19 06 2012
amberejohnson

Thanks Craig! I sent them an email, waiting for a response.

7 04 2014
Chris

I am wondering if the trail is pretty obvious or if you needed gps and if you needed anything special for the glacier crossings? I have gone up the Reed Lakes side to the overlook but we didn’t have time to go down to the glacier, so it’s an unfulfilled hike.

7 04 2014
amberejohnson

The trail is obvious to the Mint Hut and on the Reed Lakes side. Beyond that a GPS or good map reading skills would be handy. If you are just going to the Bomber from Reed Lakes, hike on the left side of the lake up to Bomber Gap (just left of Lynx Peak). It’s one long boulder field up, then a short drop down to the glacier. I’ve been on the glacier twice, once it was mostly just soft snow almost all the way to the bomber, then got icy right before the plane. The other time it was a sheet of ice. Highly recommend bringing strap on crampons just in case. It’s not a steep slope, but enough it would be hard to self arrest without an ice axe if icy.

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