Beech 18 AT-7 Navigator Copyright Museum of Flight - all rights reserved

August, 2008


a blog by Peter Stekel

FINAL FLIGHT is the story of four aviators lost in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks on November 18, 1942

FINAL FLIGHT, coming from Wilderness Press in 2010

Read more about FINAL FLIGHT here.


Coming August 31, 2008 from

The Fresno Bee


“Lost Flights: The Sierra’s deadly legacy,” a series of print stories and online reports by The Bee’s Mark Grossi and Cyndee Fontana.

Come with us Aug. 31-Sept. 17 and relive the stories of doomed flights. Examine the Sierra’s dangerous terrain and weather. Learn why there are so many crashes and why it's so difficult to recover lost planes.

In the center of the series, Grossi and photographer Mark Crosse will bring the Sierra front and center when they hike to Mendel Glacier in search of the remains of airmen who were lost on a training flight in 1942. Join them as they blog live from the mountain.

The series will package stories, photos, maps, charts, videos, audio clips and blogs for an in-depth review of Sierra plane crashes.

You can join the journey now; enjoy early blogs, galleries and more at

Be sure to bookmark the page so that you can keep up with the series as it unfolds in print and online Aug. 31 through Sept. 17, only in the Fresno Bee.

August 18
Mark Grossi, a reporter and columnist for the Fresno Bee, has begun a blog - Glacial Mystery - searching the ice for long-dead bodies, HERE. He and a photographer will be hiking to Mendel Glacier in September as part of a long feature story Mark is preparing for the Bee. We're planning on meeting each other in Darwin Canyon for an interview.

Mark has been following the Final Flight story very closely, dating back to 2005 when Leo Mustonen was found. His articles are well-written and accurate. Check out his blog! He is hoping to be able to make additions during his September backpacking trip by using a satellite phone. To paraphrase Eugene O'Neill [who borrowed the quote from the Rubaiyatt of Omar Khayyam] "Ah; Technology!"

August 11
Today I had the distinct pleasure of talking with Steve Johnson, a meteorologist in Fresno who knows Sierra Nevada weather from the ground and from the air. Steve runs a cloud-seeding company and has spent a lot of time studying Sierra weather. Steve has not only hiked in the Sierra but he has flown over it quite a bit in good weather as well as bad. And, like me, he has developed quite an interest in what happened November 18, 1942 when Lt. William Gamber flew his airplane over Kings Canyon National Park.

It has always been my assumption, based on the 1942 and 1947 US Army accident reports that bad weather caused the pilot to get lost. This has always been the assumption of everyone else over the last 66 years. True, I have evidence that at least one other training mission was forced to turn back to base on November 18 because they encountered bad weather.

But blaming bad weather is too easy. And too dismissive of Bill Gamber's training and experience. Too convenient also because, as an explanation, it ignores so many things.

  • If one plane [and presumably other missions that day] turned back [as no one else was lost], why didn't Gamber?
  • Why was Gamber flying so high? Probably because he knew there were mountains in front of him.
  • Why was he heading west when he crashed? Probably because the weather was clear in the Owens Valley?
  • What was he doing in the Owens Valley in the first place - after all, the flight plan in the 1942 accident report says he was to fly south down the Central Valley and then north. It says nothing about flying east. In one of his last letters to his mother, Glenn Munn wrote about a training mission coming up in early November to Phoenix and having just returned from Salt Lake City and hoping the next time they flew there [also in a couple of weeks] they would be able to land this time and look around.
  • The accident report was completed and filed in December, 1942. The page with the aircraft's flight plan was included in the report a week after Gamber and his cadets disappeared.

There is more. And having a better understanding of what the storm was doing, and at what time and at what place it was doing it at, will be an immensely important addition to Final Flight.

Steve is working on reconstructing the weather, not only for November 18 but for several days before when a tropical storm was hammering the west coast. As can be imagined, I'm really looking forward to what he comes up with.

I plan to meet with Steve Johnson in early October when I return from my trip to Kings Canyon National Park and Mendel Glacier.

August 6

I met with Michael Nozel and Hassan Basagic this afternoon. Michael is one of the two climbers who found Leo Mustonen in 2005 and Hassan is a geologist studying Sierra Nevada glaciers and why they are melting. It was a great pleasure to meet both of them.

Both were very interested in seeing the photographs of Mendel Glacier from 1947 and 1948 that I've obtained from Kirby West and the family of Capt. Roy Sulzbacher. Michael was jazzed by the amount of snow and ice in Ice 9 and the couloir beside it, Mendel Right. Hassan was excited to see photos of the glacier taken from ground level since these are hard to find.

Michael and his climbing partner, Mark Postle, intended to climb the Ice 9 [aka Mendel Left] Couloir in October, 2005. After making the long drive from Oregon and hiking over Lamarck Col in the dark, they got to upper Darwin Canyon. It was cold and windy and conditions didn't change the next day.

Nevertheless, the following morning they got an early start and made their way into Mendel Cirque and began working their way across the glacier. Michael saw something fluttering in the wind - it turned out to be a parachute. Attached to the parachute was the body of Leo Mustonen.

Putting their climbing plans on hold, the two friends hiked all the way out to Bishop - a snow storm at their heels.


In Bishop they reported their find to the Bishop Police Department and Deputy Paul Baldwin with the Inyo County Sheriff's Department.

Neither of the climbers were interested in talking to the media - they felt very strongly that neither of them had anything to do with the story. As Michael told me, "We had been there for recreational purpose and now we find, possibly, the remains of someone who had been entombed in Mendel Glacier for a long time. A lot of things start to come to your mind. Certainly, thinking that if this is the first time this discovery had been made and this person had been there for a long, long time... What ramifications is this going to have for the family members? What ramifications for the military to finally know for sure that this is where the person came to finally rest."

He had a humorous story to tell about someone from the TV show, "Good Morning America" being insulted and getting all hot under the collar because Michael and Mark had no interest in going on the show to talk about their trip to the glacier.

"They just couldn’t believe we weren’t interested!" he told me, while laughing at the memory. "That this individual had the audacity to get surly and tell us that this was bigger than the two of us. And that we had some kind of obligation - that we had to go with the news. This was the news! And the news is bigger and you can’t ignore the news!" He kept laughing as he told me this. "It’s a train that you can’t stop! And, indeed, it is bigger than us and that is why we’re not interested in being on the news."


Hassan Basagic has recently completed his masters degree at Portland State University. For his research about the incredibly shrinking glaciers of the Sierra Nevada he hiked all over Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks and Yosemite National Park. Part of his work involved taking photographs and comparing them to historic images - some of which are 100 years old. Hassan's work documents that Sierra glaciers are indeed shrinking.

During our interview I learned that Mendel Glacier is a bit of an odd duck. Neither a "clean" glacier [of ice, ice and more ice] nor a true rock glacier [where ice and rock are all mixed up together] the Mendel is something in between. It likely has an ice core [like a clean glacier] but is covered to some depth by rocks, boulders and debris.

Adding to its oddness is that the Mendel's bergschrund is not at the head of the cirque but is off to one side [the cirque faces east, the bergschrund faces north] which makes the glacier move downslope north and then turn right [east].

Some other things Hassan helped me to realize about the Mendel Glacier:


  • The glaciers we see in the Sierra Nevada reached their maximum between about 1850 and 1900 during a period known as "Little Ice Age."

  • The Little Ice Age [LIA] commonly (and roughly) refers to the cool period that lasted 800 - 1000 years ago (about 1200 - 1900). The Mendel cirque likely had ice prior to the LIA, which Douglas Hansen and his students at the University of Western Washington have shown in their studies making us of lake sediments. So, the glaciers are considered to be late-Holocene [beginning around 8000 BC.

  • The Mendel Glacier is probably deepest just below the bergschrund and could be between 50-80 meters deep.

  • Downslope movement is less in a rock glacier than in a clean glacier - perhaps a meter/year.

  • Any plane wreckage that fell, scattered, on the glacier's surface probably became incorporated into the glacier, especially given that the mid-1940s experienced heavy winters. Large pieces, once exposed by the glacier shrinking in size, will lead to that section of glacier preferentially melting - just as a rock placed on the surface would do. This could explain why the aircraft's engines were seen poking out of the ice in 1947 while nothing else was seen.

  • In a way, a rock glacier is like one endless moraine with an ice core.

  • Rock glaciers melt slower than clean glaciers because they are insulated by the rock inside them and the debris on top of them. This allows more debris to accumulate over time. The Mendel probably has an ice core and began as a clean glacier. It has turned into a rock [or debris-covered] glacier over time as it has been melting - with rock debris being added to the top and then being covered with snow which turned to ice.

  • Rock glaciers are more prevalent along the Sierra crest and they flow east.

  • Since the 1920s and 1930s Sierran glaciers have been shrinking though that process slowed down in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, in the 1930s, a Bighorn Sheep ram melted out of the Lyle Glacier in Yosemite National Park. Now, with increased temperature and decreased snowfall, it is likely that more objects will appear - melting out of Sierran glaciers.

  • Sierra glaciers will probably never completely disappear unless climate change becomes very severe. As the glaciers shrink, they recede up into more protected areas of the cirque. Here they can be maintained by winter snowfall, snow blowing off the peaks and avalanches during the winter.



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FINAL FLIGHT, coming from Wilderness Press in 2010



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