Don Warsavage - Person to Person

The ‘Suicide Trail’

The following was originally published in the 2016, Issue-1, of the CO/WY Retiree Guardian. It is published here with the permission of the author, Don Warsavage.

Don Warsavage’s ‘Person-to-Person’

The ‘Suicide Trail’

The following story submitted by O. A. (Bud) Ham exemplifies the telephone company worker’s tradition – and how rugged the jobs were that gave the nation ‘Bell System-quality’ service. Bud left Mountain Bell after 20 years of service in 1972, and embarked on a successful career as a consultant and lecturer. We thank him for his success and his story.

Telephone people who worked during the era of the Bell System have every reason to take pride in their history. On Christmas Day and Mother’s Day, telephone operators left their families to handle the high volume of calls of all the other families across the country. They also were the emergency lifeline, connecting people with the help they often desperately needed — before the existence of 9-1-1. Our country, ‘back then,’ was connected together by communications equipment maintained and repaired by craftsmen; often facing difficult, sometimes dangerous conditions.

Back in the early ‘60s, when Bud Ham was a central office technician, he and his partner, Ken Rude, were responsible for the maintenance of a TD-2 microwave repeater station perched atop a mountain overlooking Monarch Pass in Colorado.

The microwave station was the main east-west carrier of the major TV networks. U. S. Highway 50, over the pass, rises to 11,000 feet on the Continental Divide, connecting the mountain towns of Gunnison and Salida. The pass is a seven percent grade, and is often closed in winter, due to severe storms. The microwave station, equipped with two bunks, a hot plate and provisions, was nearly 1,000 feet higher than Monarch Pass.

“In summer, we could drive our truck from Highway 50 right up to the station. Not so in winter. This was before the development of snowmobiles. Early in winter, before the snow became too deep, our transportation was a vehicle called a Snow Cat. It was a huge ungainly monster with four tracked pontoons, like you see on a bull dozer. My partner and I were going to the station in the Snow Cat, when an early blizzard enveloped us. We were restocking the station for winter with about 200 pounds of equipment and supplies.

“There were two routes to the station. The safer one was open until after the first major snow — the other was called the ‘Suicide Trail.’ On it, there was a stretch for about 50 yards on the side of a cliff where it was barely wide enough for our vehicle. The drop-off was about 500 feet.”

Bud was driving, and because of the blizzard, the only chance of getting to the station was the ‘Suicide Trail.’ It was slow going, progressing only a few feet at a time. The gusting wind caused white-out conditions so bad visibility became zero. When the wind eased, it cleared enough to inch forward a few feet. After waiting in the blizzard, Ken opened his door to get a better view. he slammed the door immediately while he yelled, “Bud! Back straight up! Now!” The right front pontoon was hanging loose over the precipice.

They had no choice but to abandon the Snow Cat, and snowshoe up to the repeater hut, carrying the hundreds of pounds of equipment and supplies on their backs. Arriving there meant a one-way trip, as the storm raged on for three days, making it impossible for them to safely leave the hut.

When the storm finally moved out, leaving a cold, clear morning for them to trek back down to the Snow Cat, Bud carefully backed the machine down off the ‘Suicide Trail,’ starting the long three-mile drive back down the mountain.

About half way down, the Snow Cat hit a frozen snow drift, and tipped over on its side. Unhurt, they put on their snowshoes again and hiked out, sometimes sinking up to their buttocks in the new snow, but making it back to safety.

The Snow Cat? Still up on the lonely mountain, assaulted by the waves of winter storms, it was gradually covered by drift after drift, as it lay quietly on its side for the entire winter.

Panorama from the summit at Monarch Pass. Photo by Sean Butler

A good bit of Retiree history2016, Issue-1, of the CO/WY Retiree Guardian

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