Helen Klaben and their make-shift tent in the clearing, taken right after rescue.
The message written on the plane in paint by Klaben just before leaving for the clearing.
Helen had lost forty pounds and had to have the toes on her right foot amputated. Ralph lost 58 pounds. Doctors examining each said that Ralph and Helen had maybe four days and a week left in them respectively.
Helen Klaben was a 21-year-old from Brooklyn who’d never seen or done anything. She was afraid of the dark and of animals, and yet, she decided she needed an adventure. While all of her friends were “going to Europe” she decided to head west and see America. This way, when they all came back from Europe she could ask them about it and she could tell them about America. She found a personal ad in the New York Times from a woman looking for a companion to share the costs of a road trip to Los Angeles, but when those plans fell through, she met Sue Beehler, also looking for a road companion, this time to Alaska.
On August 25, 1962, the two left behind Brooklyn for the wilds of Fairbanks, Alaska. What she found on the way caught her completely off guard. “We met no robbers, sex maniacs, murderers or con men,” she wrote in her book Hey, I’m Alive (1964). “As we had been assured was practically inevitable.” Instead, she found equal fascination in the usual tourist attractions as well as the mundane like cows in pastures.
After seventeen days on the road, they arrived in Fairbanks where Sue and Helen split company, and Helen went to off find a place to live and a job. Eventually, she found work with a photography studio and then with the Bureau of Land Management as a draftsman.
By February, Helen was ready to move on to another adventure. Her options: Either move into a friend’s cabin outside of Fairbanks and write poetry and paint, or join with a group that was headed for Mexico. Mexico sounded enticing, and much warmer than mid-winter Fairbanks, and Helen rationalized that after Mexico she could continue her travels to Hong Kong.
She planned on taking a commercial flight from Fairbanks to San Francisco but had heard a radio advertisement from a private pilot looking for someone to split the cost of a flight from Fairbanks to San Francisco. Helen couldn’t pass up yet another adventure, and the cost was half that of the commercial ticket.
Ralph Flores, 42, was between jobs as an electrician in Fairbanks and decided to fly his single-engine 1941 Howard down to his wife and kids in the Bay Area. Though he’d flown in the Arctic, he had no instrument flight training, limited navigation skills, and didn’t know how to properly work the radio, but he felt confident in his ability to follow the Alaskan Highway south.
Do You Trust Me?
When the two met for the first time, Ralph wanted Helen to be sure she had complete trust in him before she got into his plane. Despite reservations from Helen’s friends who told her that it was a bad time of year to fly over such desolate country with a pilot she didn’t know, she told Ralph that she did trust him. He took her four bags she’d pack and told her he’d pick her up the next morning. “How about food?” she asked. “Should I bring some sandwiches?”
“If you want, you can bring something. Just in case.”
The Yukon. An area that conjures up images of daring bush pilots, rugged miners seeking their fortunes, and hearty explorers testing their mettle against the harshest conditions nature can conjure. It’s a region that is littered with both the wreckage of these dreams and the stories of survival and hardships.
Together, they flew out of Fairbanks on a clear, cold February morning. Their first leg was an uneventful flight to Whitehorse. Along the way, Ralph pointed out lakes and rivers and had Helen try to locate them on the maps.
Though the weather in Whitehorse was clear and beautiful, every report Ralph got for further south indicated that the weather was below safe minimums. So, they spent two days in town, watching movies at the theater or talking in their hotel room. On Monday, February 4, reports showed that the weather was moving north so Ralph and Helen boarded his little plane and took off in the -43-degree cold, under clouds and a light snow fall. Ralph flew a spiral pattern from the airport to get above the clouds. Though she trusted Ralph, Helen chewed nervously on her gum and reminded herself, “He’s the pilot, he’s the pilot. He knows what he’s doing.”
After what felt like forever, they broke out and Klaben could breathe again, but less than an hour later, they were in the thick clouds again.
The air grew turbulent, and for the next two hours, they flew in and out of bad weather. Lost in the clouds, unable to track the Alaska Highway visually, and unable to utilize his instruments, Ralph continued to climb and descend, looking for an opening in the clouds so that Helen could try to match the terrain below with the maps in her lap. Their only other option was to try to find the radio beacon that ran from Whitehorse to Watson Lake, Fort Nelson, and on to Fort St. John. They’d found it for a moment only to lose it again, forcing Ralph to swing the plane around trying to relocate it. All his climbing, descending, and circling ate into his fuel reserves. Helen, watched anxiously as the needle on the gauge vibrated towards empty.
Around 3:00 in the afternoon, lost in the thick clouds, the fuel gauge hit bottom. They were drifting. Slowly gliding to the earth. When they broke out of the clouds, Helen could see a tree-covered mountainside about three hundred feet below them.
“This is it,” she told herself, wondering how one prepares for a crash. How should she sit? Should she just hang on? The last thing she remembered thinking was, “What should I do with my feet?”
Klaben and the Crash!
Helen woke first, maybe a half-hour after the airplane clipped a tree and crashed onto the side of a mountain somewhere in the vastness of the Yukon. Her left arm was broken, her right foot wedged between the side of the plane and the seat, and her face was bruised and cut.
Klaben looked over to Ralph, hoping that he was still alive.
His seat had broken loose and he was crumpled against the front of the plane. The baggage had come loose and thrown him forward against the instrument panel. His face was a bloody mess from cuts and deep gashes. His jaw and ribs were broken. But he was alive.
Despite his injuries, Ralph was able to climb out of the wreckage, get a fire started, and help pull Helen out of the plane through a broken window. They spent the first night in the plane trying to get comfortable and sleep.
The next morning, Helen wasn’t sure if the -48 on the thermometer was the correct temperature or if the gauge had broken during the crash, but she knew that it was bitterly cold outside.
Ralph worked to build a shelter within the wreckage of the airplane. Together, they tried to build a space to sleep in the rear section of the cabin, but work on that took all day since they were both in miserable pain. While Ralph tried to repair one of the two broken radios, Helen took inventory of their supplies. They had:
- 4 small, flat (3 ¾ -ounce) cans of sardines
- 2 seven-ounce cans of tuna fish
- 2 one-pound cans of mixed fruit salad
- 1 one-pound, 8-pack box of saltines
- Some multivitamins and protein pills
- A few pieces of chocolate
- 2 tablespoons of Tang
Looking over their meager rations, she asked Ralph where the emergency rations and survival equipment were. His answer was stark. “We don’t have any.”
“Why not,” she asked him. He replied that they took up too much space and added too much weight.
For water, they took empty oil cans, filled them with snow, set them beside the fire, and drank the barely melted, cold water. Eventually, they worked out a system to filter out the tree sediment. They melted a small amount of snow, then added more until the oil can was full. That was boiled again for a few minutes and then strained through one of Helen’s dresses, and boiled a third time. The result, according to Helen, was a “warm, good-tasting drink.”
No More Food
After 10 days, their rationing of the food supply had come to an end. They were down to eating Ralph’s protein pills. Ralph tried to hunt for rabbit by first tying his hunting knife to a spruce branch and using it as a spear. To no avail. He tried to fashion a slingshot from the fork of a willow branch, some rubber from the plane’s tires, and leather from one of the seats. For ammunition, he dug through the snow to find a rock which he broke into smaller pellets with his hammer.
Finally, Ralph tried to build a snare from one of Helen’s suitcases and some wire. “As a trap,” Helen wrote, “that suitcase made a very good suitcase.” His traps would become more and more elaborate as their hunger grew worse. For Helen, it was okay that he wasn’t a successful hunter since she wasn’t too crazy about killing and eating the rabbits.
Ralph did everything in his power to help them survive. And his determination and stamina never ceased to amaze Helen. Despite his multiple injuries, he made sure there was fire wood at the campsite, built a shelter out of the Howard, using tarpaulins to cover the holes in the fuselage, and stamped out SOS messages in the snow. They slept in the plane buried beneath all the clothing, jackets and blankets they could, but there were still bitterly cold at night and slept fitfully. At one point, Klaben wondered why they shouldn’t just start a forest fire; that was sure to get the attention of rescuers. They tried but the campfire refused to spread to the other trees.
While Ralph did the physical labor, he made sure that Helen, who’s foot was now gangrenous, stayed at the plane and tended to the camp. Whenever she heard a plane overhead, she’d use the radio and call out May Day over multiple frequencies. After a few weeks, she stopped bothering with the radio and whenever they’d hear a plane, she’d limp out into the small clearing and flash the mirrors up into the sky hoping the pilots would see them.
And then the planes stopped coming altogether.
To pass the quiet time, they’d read—The Bible and Book of Mormon—recited poetry, and prayed. Ralph even tried to convert Helen to Mormonism. They did what they could to maintain some semblance of sanity and humanity even though both of them had frostbite on their hands and feet and had gone without food for so long. They’d lined the fuselage with spruce boughs and made what Helen called a nice little cabin despite the cold.
Ralph had figured they’d be able to survive fifteen days without food.
When those fifteen days passed, he decided that they’d be better off if he struck out and searched for someone, anyone. He reckoned that there had to be a mining camp, trapper’s cabin, Indian village somewhere near.
After eight days alone, Klaben prayed for Ralph’s safety but worried that something had gone wrong.
And then a voice called from the empty, cold woods. Ralph had come back as he’d promised and told Helen that he’d found a better campsite about two miles away in a large clearing that would make it easier for planes to find them. The biggest obstacle in their way was how to move Helen with her right foot all blisters, frostbit, and gangrene.
Ralph set to building a toboggan from parts of the fuselage and spruce boughs. The sorted through their belongings and decided what they could bring. The plan was to have Helen ride the toboggan and Ralph push it. But after it was loaded and Helen climbed on, they found that it was too heavy for Ralph to push or pull. So, they cut the toboggan in half, reloaded it with half the stuff they’d planned on bringing and set out. Before they left, Helen used some of the paints she’d brought and marked the direction they were heading, distance, and date on the fuselage.
Since Ralph, in his makeshift snowshoes made from willow branches and wire and string from the plane, couldn’t push/pull Helen and the loaded toboggan, they wrapped extra canvas around her feet and together they walked toward the clearing. Sinking, struggling, and knocking over the toboggan a few times, they finally made it to the clearing. Five hours. Five hours in the -40-degree cold. Five hours to travel what they believed was two miles, but later learned was just short of 3/4s of a mile.
All But Forgotten
They settled in to the lean-to that Ralph had made on his eight-day reconnaissance trip. Despite her nervousness about being out in the open, Helen found that the lean-to made for a warmer, safer campsite than the plane. They could keep a fire close to where they slept and she was certain that an airplane flying anywhere nearby could see them. Once Helen’s feet were tended and the camp established, Ralph set out again to find help. He’d stop at what he believed was a frozen lake and stamp out an SOS in the level snow with an arrow pointing toward the new campsite.
After four days alone, Klaben heard yet another plane. But this one sounded closer.
She scrambled out of the tent, grabbed her mirror, and the canvas she’d painted with the identification number of Ralph’s Howard—N5886—and made her way into the clearing.
Flying above Helen in his Piper Super Cub was Chuck Hamilton who was on his way to deliver supplies to a hunting lodge on Terminus Mountain. He was watching for landmarks along his route when he spotted what he thought was an SOS in a clearing. He circled his plane lower and saw Ralph, exhausted, leaning on a pole and flashing a mirror. Chuck thought he was an Indian out hunting, but also could see that he was in trouble. He was too heavy to land so he climbed and flew back to the SOS thinking there might be another person out there with him. This time he followed the arrow in the snow and that’s when he came upon Helen. She was obscured by thick smoke from her campfire and Chuck believed that she was a squaw in need of supplies.
He decided he’d fly on to the lodge, deliver his cargo, and then fly back to the camp.
It was on this return trip that, to his surprise, he learned who was down there.
He was shocked to read the painted N5886 and that’s when he realized that the people who’d all been forgotten were still alive. After 49 days in subfreezing temperatures, lost in the inhospitable Yukon.
It had been nine days since the search for Ralph and Helen had been called off. The planes that they’d heard flying over them for two weeks had been the searchers, but the thick trees obscured the plane’s wreckage, their campsite and the smoke coming from their fire.
Helen had lost forty pounds and had to have the toes on her right foot amputated. Ralph lost 58 pounds. Doctors examining each said that Ralph and Helen had maybe four days and a week left in them respectively. And had their famished conditions not gotten to them, weather forecasts for the day after their rescue indicated -45 degrees. That would probably have been the end for the both.
Helen Klaben went on to live a few years as a minor celebrity. Her books read almost like a jovial account of a camping trip gone a bit awry. Ralph Flores was grounded by the FAA as the crash was determined to be caused by pilot error, and because he’d flown without proper survival equipment and training. He resumed flying in 1966. They kept in touch with one another long after the accident and until Ralph’s death in 1997 of heart failure.
Eat snow or not in a survival situation? On one hand, you're getting much needed...
by Ryan Lee Price / Mar 22, 2018