The Mann Gulch Fire, 63 years ago this week, took the lives of 13 smokejumpers. Norman Maclean’s 1992 book Young Men and Fire recounted the story of the most deadly event in smokejumper history at that time. Of the four survivors on the fire, only three managed to reach the ridgeline above them and escape the deadly fire.
Norman Maclean re-visited the gulch, in rugged northern Montana, when he was in his 80s. He was accompanied by the two living survivors, Walt Rumsey and Robert Sallee, and they tried to re-create the smokejumpers’ run for safety; Rumsey and Sallee tried to find the “crevice” at the ridgetop where they’d escaped. Maclean concluded, though, that the spot they identified for him on the ridge was considerably east of where they actually were in 1949.
H. Wayne Phillips of Great Falls, a former smokejumper, along with two other former smokejumpers and a former paratrooper, recently hiked Mann Gulch looking for answers to Maclean’s questions. The Great Falls Tribune today ran a feature on the hikers’ quest to find the spot where Sallee and Rumsey crested the ridge.
Thanks to John Maclean for use of the 1949 photos.