Killer

A group of men climbed a mountain on January 17, 1942. Men had been climbing mountains for thousands of years before that, but these men were special. They were in a rush. They didn’t know exactly where they were going, and they were underequipped, underdressed, and underfed for the climb. History forgot these men, but I had a feeling they had a story worth telling. Brother was I right.

Ron Kantowski, a writer for the Las Vegas Tribune-Review, reminded me this week about these men when he climbed Mt. Potosi to the site of the crash of TWA Flight 3, where Carole Lombard and 21 others died on the evening of January 16, 1942. I hadn’t met Ron when I was researching Fireball in the Vegas area or when I stopped there on the book tour last year. I wish I had, because Ron gets Fireball. He took inspiration from Fireball and decided to make the climb himself.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Mt. Potosi as seen from Ninety-Nine Mine Road. The outcropping at center-right is an hour’s hike/climb away up a boulder-strewn dry wash. Then you cut left along the line of green at the right edge of the photo, which is where the loose shale begins. Then you go UP. The outcropping seems to be the peak but no, it’s just a foothill.

Ron documented his climb in a Review-Journal piece that to me was validation. Mt. Potosi kicked my butt the day I climbed it and left me bruised and bleeding after falling and bouncing off rocks onto other rocks, with enough cactus embedded in my arm to make a hairbrush. I could feel cactus needles in my arm for a year after the climb; there will always be cactus needles in my arm. “Something to remember me by,” I can hear Potosi saying.

Guess what? Kantowski’s experience was similar, like reporting cuts and bruises and torn clothes. Like getting mired on all fours in shale, which doesn’t sound like peril but try it on a 45-degree mountainside with a drop of a couple thousand feet behind you. The oddest thing about the Potosi climb was going up facing the mountain, focused on each branch to hold on to, choosing rock ledges carefully because some were solid and some weren’t. Going up occupied my brain so completely that I didn’t think much about getting back down until I started the descent. Then the realization: holy shit, I can see all the way down. Thousands of feet down.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

After 2.5 hours of climbing, you reach a ridge. Across a valley you can make out the destination, visible through trees at lower-center.

There’s a way to access the crash site along the ridge that calls for driving and then hiking, but it’s the long way and first responders to the plane crash followed a more direct route. The leader of this group was a Clark County deputy sheriff named Jack Moore; the group also contained a former high school football star named Lyle Van Gordon who climbed into the morning sky like a rocket that day and reached the crash scene, in two feet of snow, long before the others.

I’ve been told that the most powerful moment in Fireball is when Van Gordon climbs up to where he can first see gleaming silver aluminum from the plane and believes that it has crash landed; that he can smell wood smoke from a campfire built by survivors. Van Gordon was an uncompromising man, not the friendliest in the world, but in this moment having just made that climb his intentions were pure. He represented the best in all men. Because he did smell a campfire, because the aluminum gleamed silver in the morning sun, he believed in a happy ending. It becomes chilling because of what happens next.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The plane, in a million pieces large and small, ended up in a ravine. This is the lower end of the ravine, where Lyle Van Gordon climbed 73 years ago until he could see gleaming airplane ahead. The first pieces of debris that I saw that day were spotted here, far below the impact point.

Ron alluded to this passage in his column—he and I both understand that moment, having stood where Van Gordon stood in a place that I guess is beautiful for a limitless view toward the north, with Las Vegas spread out 30 miles off like Plasticville. To me Potosi is a harsh place. A savage, unforgiving place. It was harsh prior to the crash, and it was harsh after the crash. It will always be harsh. Brittle, brown desert that goes straight up. Potosi is a killer—that’s the truth of it. Anyone who scales its heights is lucky to come down more or less intact.

The crash site is about to grow a lot less accessible in coming weeks, as the heat takes over, bringing with it all the trappings of a desert summer. Round about October nature will unlock the peaks of Potosi again for the next adventurer. I know I want to go back one of these days to pay my respects to the 22 lost there, and 6 men who scaled a mountain.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

This photo of a random spot of ground at the crash site shows the amount of debris on the mountain. The more you study the photo, the more pieces of airplane you can find.

9 comments

    1. Knowing how he felt about that piece, there’s no doubt he would have wanted it to go to the grave with him. The only question remaining is, were his wishes carried out?

  1. I had read..was it in Larry Swindell’s 1975 Screwball that the site had been looted before rescuers got there. Was this true?

    1. Absolutely not true, Mike. This is one of those rumors that has been repeated but never verified (and I’m a big fan of Swindell’s work). The first man on the scene through unbroken snow cover was Lyle Van Gordon. Right behind him was the rest of his team. Two of those men guarded the wreckage that night (in a spot of mountainside that is brutal to access) and the next day were relieved by Army guards who were there for the next six weeks. Round-the-clock 24-hour guards encamped on scene at great expense to the U.S. Army. Looting would have been fruitless anyway because the plane exploded and to find anything like jewelry would have been next to impossible–jewelry is so difficult to find there that it’s still turning up 73 years later!

      1. Amazing…this is Mike responding here as Tinrusts..I mean you have been there and I thank you profoundly for the extraordinary and sensitive treatment you have accorded this wreck and the memory of Lombard and the people who died with her…I’m glad to know that the wreck was not looted, and indeed, what could have been found in that appalling tangle and yet..was Swindell’s mentioning of a young boy who had scrambled up there and then later disciplined a fabrication?

      2. I didn’t find evidence of anyone wanting money for retrieved jewelry. Quite the contrary, just recently I found evidence of a searcher finding jewelry and making sure it was delivered to Gable’s hands and not wanting anything in the way of a reward.

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