During the first few days, planes had been seen and heard overhead near the site of Adgate Schermerhorn’s crashed Douglas B-23 “Dragon Bomber.” Flares launched by the men had gone unnoticed, however.
On the third night, realizing they were trapped in what could well become a wintry mass grave, the men decided on a plan: Lieutenant Schermerhorn and two others, Staff Sergeants Ed Freeborg and Ralph Pruitt, would undertake a literally do-or-die effort to find help.
Said Adgate: “This time there would be no coming back, we said. We swore to make it or bust. Pruitt and I were chosen because of our experience, Freeborg because he was just out-and-out crazy to go along. Early in the morning of the fourth day after the crash, the three of us set out for the northeast to a ridge where we believed we could get a good look at the country. We carried hunting knives, rations of chocolate, and a shotgun. We debated a lot about the shotgun. When it got heavy, we transferred it to the other guy. But it surely came in handy. Just before noon we reached the summit. It was a heartbreaking sight. The country was beautiful, but so rugged that one look was enough, so we started down the southeast slope.”
It was an extremely difficult, slow descent down walls of rock, but near the bottom of the ridge came the first hopeful sight in days: blazes on the trees, and a sign saying, This Marks the Border of Old Stockmen’s Trail. Markers Face the Trail. Still, they had no maps and, in Adgate’s own words, “We didn’t know where we were, even what state we were in.” They could only guess whether they were in Oregon or Idaho.
After following a creek for some time, they reached the Secesh River, where a well-kept bridge suggested it was used by hunters or sportsmen. But there were no signs of recent use, and, continuing in the dark, they used flashlights to follow the tree blazes. At midnight, the three of them crawled under a rock shelf to sleep for three hours—and nearly froze to death.
But the suffering and difficulties already endured were merely a prelude of the cold hell that awaited, described here by Schermerhorn: “Next day we went on again, trudging and pushing through a heavy snow and rocky country, with more and more snow falling constantly. We couldn’t build a fire for a couple of nights because the snow piled up on the trees would fall in the fire and put it out. We could only dry out evergreens to sleep on.
“It took us six days to follow the Secesh River. We talked in whispers because the vertical walls were heavy with snow, and any vibration in the air might have started an avalanche. We dug toe holds with sticks and hung on by our fingers. Once when we were inching our way along, I held my breath—Freeborg slipped. But he fell in the drink and just got his feet wet. The temperature was very cold, but the men were as wet from perspiration as from snow. None of us stopped to think about our plight.”
Near the mouth of the Secesh River they found two signs, one saying Mt. Call, 30 Miles, and a smaller one that said Willow Creek Ranch. Then they noticed telephone lines, which they followed downstream to a cabin and the promise of food.
Inside were what appeared to be scraps of bear meat. As Adgate noted, “Not very appetizing, we agreed, but a bit more rummaging brought forth flour, cocoa, a bit of coffee, and some baking soda. I remembered how my mother used to load me up with flour and baking soda for a tramp in the woods when I was a kid, and I remembered too how to mix flapjacks. In a short time, after wood had been found and a fire built, we soon were dining on flapjacks fried in bear grease. We ate sparingly, however, for we didn’t want to get sick out in the middle of nowhere.”
The structure, known as Slick Rock Brown’s cabin, yielded something nearly as valuable as the food: a forest-service map only five years old. They used it to choose a goal promising at least some link to civilization, and after two days of resting to regain strength, they set out once again. Without the food, they probably couldn’t have done it, for the chosen path required ascending a long, high ridge.
Schermerhorn again picks up the narrative: “We packed up all our flapjacks we thought we would keep, drank plenty of hot cocoa, carried some in a tin can, and started up the ridge from Slick Rock Brown’s lonely cabin. For three days we ate one flapjack in the morning and one at night. Then they began getting pretty moldy so we had to double rations and finished them up.”
“It took five days to go up Lick Creek to the summit. We spent one night on the summit where the snow was 14 feet deep and the cold sharper than needles and more deadly than fire.
“We picked out a shallow place under a clump of trees, and with our hands dug out a fancy bedroom. It was about four feet square and nine feet deep, and we had to boost each other in and out. We dried off evergreens for the bed, but there was no room in our bedroom for a fire.
“We killed a squirrel with the shotgun that morning, and skinned it and stewed it in canteen cups for the evening meal. We drank the broth, then spitted the meat and roasted it over the fire.”
Next: Defying the Odds.
Photo: Idaho—Loon Lake near top; Snake River to left marks border with Oregon; Boise at bottom near center.