It was a clear bright day in early February, the first in a while, and though the sun was blinding it was still a nippy 43 below zero. Ralph Flores the owner and pilot of the five seater aircraft had already fueled up and was ready to go. Ralph lived in the San Francisco area with his wife and six children, but he worked on the North Slope of Alaska on a project for the US Government. This aircraft provided him the means to visit his family during the infrequent time he had off.  He had advertised in local media in Fairbanks, for passengers desiring to make the trip to San Francisco for the price of sharing part of the fuel cost.

A Brooklyn girl in her twenties, Helen Klaben, who had never been anywhere, but had recently relocated to Alaska just for the sake of adventure and to find some meaning in her life answered his ad, she thought it would be fun to see California and San Francisco in particular.

After leaving Fairbanks they went to Whitehorse to stop and refuel. They wound up being laid over there a couple days due to bad weather. Finally it was good enough to take off. At eleven a.m. the plane lifted off headed for Fort St. John, British Columbia some six hundred miles away. During this leg of the trip the weather turned on them and while trying to find a way to get clear, the plane crashed in the vast spruce forest, the wings were ripped off and the plane was violently battered before coming to a stop. Helen’s first thoughts once the commotion was over, was the realization that they had survived, and she thought to herself, “Hey, I’m alive.” Little did she know what lay ahead for her and Ralph.  Both of them had sustained injuries that limited what they could do and their mobility. Helen’s arm was broken and her foot injured. Ralph was severely cut and bleeding.

Once they took care of the first aid needs, they started to assess their situation. For one it was stormy and forty below zero. Below is a list of what they had to work with.

  • 4 cans of sardines
  • 2 cans of tuna fish
  • 2 cans of fruit salad
  • 1 box of saltine crackers
  • 1/2 bottle of protein pills
  • 1/2 bottle of multi-vitamins
  • 5 pieces of chocolate
  • 2 tablespoons of Tang
  • 1 box of matches
  • 3 books of matches
  • Helen’s suitcase of clothes
  • 2 mirrors
  • 1 Binocular
  • Several quart oil cans (in those days the cans were metal)
  • 3 small knives

There was no survival kit of any kind on the plane, although there were a few tools, like a hammer and a chisel. Helen had brought only clothing for California weather. There were no sleeping bags or blankets, no boots, no snowshoes, no tent. The second day after the crash the temperature dropped to 48 deg below zero. They felt it was best to use the plane as shelter, which meant that they could have no fire while in the plane, due to fire hazard.

Helen and Ralph were rescued 49 days later!!

The only pots they had were the oil cans, that is what they used to melt snow in for drinking. As you can see from above there was little food available. They went the final five weeks with no food at all, after the first two weeks with very little. Helen said the hunger pains went away after about three days without food. When she was rescued and offered food, she was not hungry and had to make herself eat.

The hammer and chisel were used by Ralph to get firewood. They made crude mukluks by wrapping their feet in sweaters, then they took canvas they ripped out of the plane and  tied it around to make a covering. They were pretty resourceful in making use of what they had.

Two things that really hurt them were staying in the plane for shelter and Helen had decided to limit her water intake since she hated to get out of the plane in the bitter cold to go to the bathroom. In the last two weeks before they were rescued Ralph made snowshoes and started exploring; he found an area with an open meadow where he stamped SOS in 75 foot tall letters. During his eight days away exploring he found a nice spot to move to and built a lean to. He went back and got Helen, he made a sled out of fuselage metal, and hauled it piled with all the gear they could fit to the new location. To Helen it was like heaven being in the lean to with a fire going all the time in front of her, she could finally actually sleep.

The mirrors they had were the means of attracting planes and finally the rescue.

The story is interesting, there are so many things they did wrong and they had so little in terms of food and gear to help them. Helen says she never once thought she was going to die, and Ralph was always on the go, persistent, positive, and never giving up.

After their rescue, while being checked out in the hospital, it is amazing that they were found to be very healthy, except for the result of their injuries. Helen had lost about 20% of her body weight, Ralph lost almost 60 pounds.

The book is an interesting read, I had read it probably 20 years ago and recently got a copy and read it again. The first time I read it in kind of a sterile manner, just searching for the survival facts, this time my experience was more organic, I was drawn very much to their feelings and attitudes. One can conclude that the mental state of these two is what got them through it all, really they should have died many times, but did not, they pushed through and kept trying. Helen’s part in the experience was very emotional and mental, while Ralph seems to be the one working hard physically to improve things and to find a way out.

If you find a copy of the book, get it, it is very worth while to read, there is much a person can learn from what Helen and Ralph went through.

Until next time this is Perry Peacock, “Simplifying Survival”

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