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WAR IN THE WASATCH MOUNTAINS

Little Cottonwood Canyon, Wasatch Mountains, Utah

In the summer of 1970 we arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah.  A company transfer brought us back to the West from eastern Pennsylvania and we were eager to explore this new territory.  Right behind our house, the “Wasatch Front,” westernmost range of the Rocky Mountains, loomed up with its peaks scraping the clouds at 10,000‑plus feet.

These mountains held history‑‑the high canyons were dotted with old silver mines.  Now the mines were closed and skiers zoomed through the powder snow all winter while summer brought out the wildflowers and hikers, like us.

One sparkling summer day the next July, Glenn and I set out for the high country of Little Cottonwood Canyon, home to the famous ski resorts, "Snowbird" and "Alta."  The pavement ended just beyond the Alta resort but we drove farther, to the end of a rough road leading into Albion Basin, high above the ski resorts. We slipped on our day packs and started up the steep switchbacks of a trail.  Not yet used to the thin air of the Rockies, we had to stop often to catch our breath as we trudged ever higher.  On one stop we spotted a flower‑studded meadow, ringed with Alpine Fir and decided to wander through it.  Under a little fir tree, I noticed a metal cylinder, about the size and shape of a fire extinguisher. Rolling it about with the toe of my hiking boot, to get a better look, I called to Glenn, “hey, I think I found some old mining artifact‑‑maybe a fire extinguisher.”

Glenn came over to see my discovery, took a long look at the cylinder and, with the benefit of his experience in the U.S. Navy, pronounced, “Barb, that’s no fire extinguisher‑‑that’s a 3‑inch, 75mm artillery shell and let’s get the hell out of here!”  We beat a hasty retreat out of the meadow, and finished our hike, thinking little more of the shell or why it should be resting beneath a fir tree high in the Wasatch mountains.

When Glenn casually mentioned my find to friends at work the next day they took it very seriously.  Apparently, in shooting down potential avalanches above the ski runs, the Forest Service artillery men sometimes got the range wrong, and errant, unexploded shells had been found in other parts of the canyon.  Their advice:  “Have Barbara call the Forest Service right away.”  

This I did, and two days later, I found myself trudging up that same steep trail with two Forest Rangers‑‑one, who was middle‑aged and assigned to a desk, was puffing even harder than me.  The other, a young man with a wired explosive charge in his back pack moved up the mountain as though this were a stroll along the beach.   I had assured the older ranger that “oh yes, I know right where I saw that shell” but in actual fact‑‑I didn’t.  We crawled all over the side of the mountain and the desk‑bound, out of shape ranger was getting a bit cranky with me, when to my great relief, the younger man said “I see it.”   Both men confirmed that this was indeed a 75mm shell, but they had no record of ever aiming the avalanche howitzers at this area.  They surmised it had been up there for several years, and its trajectory had been such that instead of blowing up on impact, it just made a soft landing in the 20‑feet deep powder snow.

While it might be old, they suspected it was still very much “alive” and the young man carefully and oh, so gently slid his board, with its assortment of dynamite charges and wiring under the shell.  Then, he unrolled about 200 feet of attached wire, we all crouched down in a distant gully, and as he set off the charge, the young man yelled, “Fire in the Hole!” And wow, was there ever fire in that hole!

My “fire extinguisher” came to life with a bang and a roar, blew up the little fir tree that hovered over it, and excavated a new gully of its own.  As the dust settled, we gingerly walked back to the crater and examined the bits and pieces of the tree and the many shards of ragged, evil‑looking shrapnel scattered about the explosion site.  In far‑off Vietnam many young men were being hit with shrapnel from this same type of shell and I suddenly had a new empathy for those fighting that nasty war.  Had my boot toe kicked that shell just a bit harder, I too, might be part of the litter surrounding the explosion site.

The Forest Ranger asked me to stand next to the shell crater while he took my picture.  He never said, but I suspect that they have a “fools photo gallery” in some back hallway of the Forest Service office in Salt Lake City and I am there for posterity.  But, being a lucky, live fool certainly is preferable to being a fool of many parts!


                                                                                         Some of the many beautiful wildflowers we found in Albion Basin

Hymenoxys grandiflora
[Old Man of the Mountain]


Primula parryi
[Parry's Primrose]


Aquilegia coerulea
[Columbine]



Epilobium angustifolium
[Fireweed]


To view a wonderful 3-D Panorama of Albion Basin's wildflowers
by Martin van Hemert, Utah wilderness photographer,
go to his website, Utah3D.net







With thanks and appreciation to Martin van Hemert, who gave me permission to provide a link to his website, Utah3d.net

Unless otherwise noted, text and photos are the property of Glenn and Barbara Halliday, 2014

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