1958 Trip to Redding - Really Tall Trees!
by Wild Bill Yensen (McCall '53)
from the January 2001 edition
After serving Uncle Sam in Germany for my two years as a draftee, I returned to McCall for my fourth summer of jumping. I brought my wife, Arlene, and we lived in the trailer court.
When the call came for help from Redding, we flew down on the DC-3. In Redding we loaded up the Lockeed Loadstar with Grant Landers (McCall '58), Rocky Stone (McCall '57), Bill Weaver (McCall '58), me, and "Paperlegs" Peterson as the spotter. Our fire was named Dutchman's Peak and was up near Mt. Shasta.
Our jump spot was oval shaped and in a stand of big sugar pines. Landers and I were the first out. I remember planing my FS-2 to clear the last tree and getting ready to hit the ground. But I kept going and going - we had jumped from 1,000 feet and one quarter of the jump was from tree top to the ground!
We all made it to the ground except Bill Weaver. Bill had a Mae West and had to deploy his reserve. Naturally he landed in the top of one of those huge sugar pines.
After Bill settled into the top of that tree, he hollered "I'm coming down!" I realized that he only had a 90-foot letdown rope and told him to stay put. He managed to lower his reserve tied to the end of the letdown rope, but was still at least 60 feet short of the ground.
I put on the tree spurs and climbed up that monster and tied on a fanno saw and three other letdown ropes so that Bill could pull it all up. After he cut his main out of the limbs, Bill tied the letdown ropes together and attached one end to his chest strap. He dropped the other end over the lowest green branch that would hold him. I held that end around my back and ass and eased him down to the ground. When Bill hit the ground we had 20 feet of rope left of the four 90-foot letdown ropes.
Our fire had burned out a cat face in the huge sugar pine - big enough for all four of us to get into. We used the tools from the two fire packs, which made it to the ground, but the cross-cut saw was attached to the two packs that were hung up. We needed the saw to drop our tree.
When I first looked at the tree with the cargo, I thought that since the limbs went clear to the ground, it would be an easy climb. That 24-foot cargo chute sure did look small up there, though. When I went toward the tree, I found out that the "ground" was just a canopy of 30 feet of brush and it was a Douglas fir about 15 feet in diameter at the base. The lowest branch was up there about 50 feet.
In those days all we got were climbing spurs - no belt and no climbing rope. The cracks in the bark were six inches deep so I used them to carefully reach the lowest limb. Once I got over the enormous lower limb, it was a piece of cake to get to the top, as the branches were thick all the way.
When I got up there, I drained a canteen from one of the elephant bags and ate a can of beans. I had taken three 90-foot letdown ropes up with me and tied them together to let the cargo down to the ground. It didn't reach the ground! I had to climb down 20 more feet to get that saw on the ground.
As I worked in the top of that tree, nearly 300 feet up, I got to thinking of the wonders of nature. I had been hired to teach biology at Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, Calif. that fall. I marveled that capillary action and osmosis could get sap or water that high. When I made a letdown from the lowest branch, the ground never felt better.
We sawed down the monster fire tree and dug 13 chains of line around it. It took until the next evening to complete the mopup and we hiked out to the road where we were picked up. It was nearly dark when we arrived at the little town of Hiller. As the driver needed to fix the headlights, we, being good smokejumpers, headed for the nearest bar.
We were wearing our jump jackets as it was kind of misty and cold. We were on our first beer when a guy asked what kind of jackets we were wearing. We told him that we were smokejumpers and had just put out a fire up near Mt. Shasta. He started putting pitchers in front of us as we told him jump stories. Several pitchers later, the driver returned and took us back to Redding.
When we got back, we were told that chutes needed to be rigged as there were more fires to be jumped in the morning. I wobbled up and down the table for a couple more hours packing chutes.
The next morning, my partner (a Redding jumper) and I were off in the Loadstar for the El Dorado Forest east of Auburn. We made the first fire jumps on that forest. It was a memorable jump for me as I had my first and only Mae West. By the time I worked the lines off the canopy, I was so low that I had a choice between a rock pile and a big oak tree. Needless to say, I took the oak tree.
When I hit it, the upper branches stopped me, but the canopy and lines then fell over me. Then I fell ass over tea-kettle down through the tree. When I finally stopped, I was hanging about five feet above the ground with two shroud lines wrapped around my left ankle. If I cut the lines, I knew I would fall and kill myself.
Rather than that, I did some upside down gymnastics and somehow got loose. My jump partner was about a half mile away and couldn't hear my screams for help. I'll never forget the terror of falling through that tree!
The fire was easy. After spending the night, we hiked out 14 miles the next day. Seven miles up the dry river bed surrounded by poison oak big enough to climb. The remaining seven miles were up a trail to the road. I knew that I was susceptible to poison oak, so I bought three quarts of rubbing alcohol to wash my body. I washed all my clothes and still spent the rest of the summer scratching that *@$% poison oak. In the next 15 years or so, I turned down all the trips to Redding or Cave Junction.
John "Tex" Lewis (McCall '53) jumped one of those chutes that I had packed and had the gall to blame me for his Mae West. Could packing cause a Mae West? Nah! It's bad body position!!
"Wild Bill" Yensen taught and coached in Southern California for 35 years and jumped at McCall for 30 seasons. Bill has contributed several great stories to Smokejumper magazine and we're looking for more.