Black Hawk Down
Monarch Mountain was packed with skiers enjoying the fresh snowfall when a Black Hawk helicopter burst through the clouds overhead. The rotor slashed uncontrollably before the aircraft fell silent in a dense stand of trees leaving only the smell of jet fuel in the air.
An inky sky dumped heavy snow that obscured the mountains along the Continental Divide on a Spring day in 2009. Nick Sylvester, was in his third season as a patroller at Monarch when “Black Hawk Down” went down. The story of the crash has become mountain legend with questions of the incident still lingering.
Sylvester was outside the patrol shack at the top of the Breezeway lift when the helicopter roared over the mountain. “It sounded too low,” he said some years later as he recalled the event. He knew right then something had gone wrong.
On the opposite side of the ski area from where Sylvester was standing is Gunbarrel the run. It was the first run cut at Monarch Mountain and one of the first runs ever in Colorado when the ski area was established in 1939. The slope falls north from a high point on Gunbarrel ridge straight into the parking lot below and is one of the most prominent ski lines visible from the base of the mountain.
In an emergency maneuver the pilot of the Blackhawk jettisoned the fuel tanks over the ski area as the helicopter pummeled into the ground just beyond the rope that designates the ski area boundary at the top of Gunbarrel.
Nick radioed patrol headquarters after hearing the crash. Other patrollers had also heard the helicopter in its final moments in the air and were already preparing a search and rescue. Driving their snowmobiles through the thick snow they approached the accident site. Treetops had been shorn by the spinning rotor blades.
The hulking fuselage listed on the ground like a whale on a beach, trapped outside of its normal element. Scott Pressly, the assistant patrol director arrived as well as Caswell Rico-Silver, the director and Eric Miller arrived on scene and peered inside fearing the worst.
They saw a cockpit that had been destroyed but nobody was inside. A six-inch tree stump had pierced the bottom of the cabin and driven up through the seat where one of the three flight crew members was sitting. The pilot, co-pilot and crew chief had all extricated themselves from the wreckage and left the helicopter behind.
The crew was from the Alaska Army National Guard and were in route back to Alaska from Fort Carson after having completed a maintenance inspection prior to departure.
Shortly before 1 p.m the helicopter went down over Monarch Mountain. Once on the ground, the crew managed to hitchhike to Salida where they notified National Guard officials.
Despite limited visibility and heavy snow during the time of the crash, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Guard at the time said the weather was not believed to be a factor in the accident. In the days following the crash a special team of Army investigators visited the site to examine the wreckage and determine the cause of the crash.
The cause of the crash has not been made public but I have made a request to the Army National Guard through the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the accident report. After several months the request had been handed off from one department to the next. The information requested has not yet been granted and was still unavailable ten years after the crash.
If the weather was not a factor then what could have caused the accident. Were there last minute actions by the pilot to intentionally crash land the helicopter away from the resort and avoid a far worse outcome? Was the pilot off course in the mountains?
After ten years questions remain but the legend of the Black Hawk down continues to live on.