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Sparrevohn AFS

1953 to early 1980s*

Name of Ski Area: Sparrevohn AFS (Air Force Station)
Location: In the middle of nowhere, 200 miles west of Anchorage, 20 miles south of the tiny settlement of Lime Village (a village so small it didn't get a central power generator until the late 1990's).
Type of Area: Ski Hill (actually a mountain with access roads and a tram between the base and top camps).
Dates of Operation: 1953 to early 1980s* (* - in 1984 this site was rebuilt as a minimally attended Log Range Radar Site, which is still in operation.  Only a very few people support this site, compared to the over 100 folks that were stationed here prior to 1984)
Who Built It?: The United States Air Force made the radar installation, camps, access roads and tram on this mountain.
Base/ Vertical Drop:

Base: ~1500' / Top: ~3300' / Vertical: ~1800'

Lifts: Truck or tracked vehicle up access road from Bottom Camp to Top Camp.  Or by "Kitty", an aerial tram that would swing travelers between base and top camp.  The tram was the preferred mode of transportation.  
Facilities: Two Air Force full-service remote camps: Base Camp, elevation ~1500, next to the airfield and Top Camp, elevation ~3300', up either a 2 1/2 mile "road" that "even the mountain goats hesitate before using" or 3 1/2 mile more mellow access road.  The shorter and scary road was shut down in 1962 after 13 deaths on this road.
Miscellaneous: Like most all AC&W (Aircraft Control and Warning) remote radar sites, servicemen signed up for one year hitches.  That meant one year at Sparrevohn - without any leave time.  And like most of these Cold War radar sites, recreational options were offered to boost moral.  Apparently this site had skis for personnel to use.  And there is evidence that they were used.

Based on an email from Jim Harkins (see below), "crazies" sledded the mountain from top to base camps.

Sources of Information:

The Online Air-Defense Radar Museum - www.radomes.org/museum/, Jim Harkins; Dick Estep; Gary Bashline; Ron Ingram; Gerald Hill; Dennis Habbershaw; Gary L. Blackwell; Lawrence Myers; Paul J. Pickard; Jerry Hill; Larry W. Maletta; Robert Trotter; Ken Howell

~  PHOTOS and DOCUMENTS  ~

(All Courtesy of The Online Air-Defense Radar Museum, www.radomes.org/museum/)

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The 1955 newspaper article to the left explains the military's push to build radar sites for a defense shield in the 50's.  The map gives one a relative idea where Sparrevohn is ... in the middle of nowhere!

The document on the right is from the 1962 "Guide to AAC Remote Stations".  This was a "promotional brochure" in helping servicemen decide what station to apply for.  Check the map of the access road.  Crazy !!

 

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Below are two interesting articles about Sparrevohn.  The left two pages are an article by Paul R. Cochran that appeared in a March 2003 Air & Space Magazine.  I particularly like the section about riding down the Sparrevohn access road with a driver that was out to set the descent record.  And did it !!  On the right is a 1968 Air Force Times article about Sparrevohn. 
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As the Sparrevohn Air Force Base was being built, and before the tram was constructed, winter transportation up and down the mountain was by Weasel (a tracked vehicle). SparrevohnAFSAK53-4.jpg (14408 bytes) SparrevohnAFSAK53-5.jpg (11936 bytes)
On the left is a picture of Top Camp, and the hallway that connected the barracks to the radar installation.  The picture on the right shows Base Camp and the tram leading up to Top Camp.  SparrevohnAFSAK53-d.jpg (13783 bytes) SparrevohnAFSAKlcamp61.jpg (14488 bytes)
Looks like "eats" were superb - by the looks of the quonset hut based kitchen and mess hall pictures to the right.  SparrevohnAFSAKkitchen55.jpg (9759 bytes) SparrevohnAFSAKmesshall55.jpg (10547 bytes)

On the left is a shot of the Top Camp and radar dome.  The low building on the right-hand side of the installation are the barracks.  These structures are not there now.

Sparrevohn personnel might only see one or two women a year.  Thanks to USO shows.  The woman on the right looks like a skier.  I wonder if she skied Sparrevohn Mountain?

 

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On the left is a shot of the radars at Top Camp - with a beautiful snowfield that is BEGGING to be skied !!

At right is the Sparrevohn AFS patch.

 

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Dennis Habbershaw Photos from 1966-1967
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 Many more photos by Dennis Habbershaw can be found here.

~  MAPS  ~

This large scale topo map shows where Indian Mountain is relative to Lime Village (a village of less then 100).  Other than that, this remote radar station is not close to any town or road.

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A zoomed in view of this 1957 topo map shows Base Camp next to the landing strip and Top Camp.  It also shows the wildly switch-backing early access road.  And the new access road to the south that was built after 13 people died on the original road.

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Research Correspondence 
[Jim Harkins - 28 December 2004 emails]

Yeah we had a couple of morons try to ski and damn near froze to death [1966]. But they were "topped" by the crazies (such as yours truly) that used to slide from top to bottom camp (we used sleds to 'belly-flop' and when the sleds broke we 'body slid' our winter clothes)  --- much to the anxiety of many.

Hi Jim,
What radar site did you do the kamikaze sledding at ?
Thanks,
Tim

Sparrevohn -- naturally!

[Gary Bashline - 16 May 2006 email]
Tim   I was stationed at Sparrevohn between 1971 and 1972 at the lower camp where I was a boiler plant operator.  That year for New Years four of us skied from the top camp to the bottom at mid night  We each had a road flare in each hand and we skied an 'S' pattern the whole way down.  Everyone at the bottom camp said it was a great New Years show (By the way the weather was perfect and the moon was full or near full which made the skiing great  Thanks for the pictures it sure brings back some great times.
Gary B
[Dick Estep - 7 July 2005 email]

I was stationed with the 719th during 1968 and 1969 as site electrician. It was a rough year weather-wise.
Major William (Bill) Short had to pull strings more than once to get our supplies flown in.
We used to sometimes recruit (grab) a dog to hold in our lap before we slid down the mountain from the Power Building. It made for a wilder ride.
Thanks again for the memories.
Dick Estep

[Ron Ingram - 16 January 2007 email]

Howdy – I was stationed on Sparrevohn (hilltop) from Sept 13th (Friday) 1963 to Sept 13th 1964. 36 of us were assigned to man and maintain the radar operations center. We didn’t have skis, bowling alley or any other luxury. We did have a fair library and chow was as good as could be expected – powdered milk and eggs, no fresh vegetables (rarely).

Late winter 63-64 we received new mattresses – the empty boxes were the closest thing we had to ski boards. Several of us went outside and launched ourselves off of the west facing slope of the mountain – very steep and very high - several thousand feet. One of our maintenance lieutenants hit a pipe (also used as a dump) and cut his stomach severely. This put an end to that.

During the summer we were allowed off of the mountain to visit a one room camp site down at a creek below the runway. Fishing was good – bears (grizzly) were plentiful. We had to travel in pairs and carry a weapon. One trip I was picked to cook – so I heated up some lard from a coffee can – cleaned the fish and fried them in what we soon learned was hand soap. So it was a hungry night.

I was manning the scope when we first got word of JFK assassination – I was the first and we had to authenticate the info via top secret procedure. We then went on Operation East Wind – we got to man the perimeter of our mountain top with carbines without ammo. Long before we could have seen an enemy our radar would have seen them – or if on foot we would have seen them days before they could reach us.

I was there during the Good Friday Quake – March 27 1964 – the ground started shaking like it never had before. Terrible.

So much paranoia – us looking at them looking at us looking at them.

Most memorable moment – about every three months we were visited by a circuit chaplain – Christmas of 63, Father DeAngelo visited our site – I worked the evening shift and attended midnight mass when relieved. Father DeAngelo spoke of the dangerous times that brought us to worship under an instrument of war – in order to preserve peace. I wish I could remember the words – the moment is still with me.

When you use the word remote – remember – 1964 was a leap year – so I got to spend 366 days on a windswept frozen mountain top with 35 other men – tough – primitive and living on the edge. Rarely did we get a flight into our lower (support) base – even that didn’t ensure we could be provisioned – the tram broke and fell off in August ’63 right before I arrived so we depended on the switch back (13 deaths) or the long way via White Alice.

This has brought back memories.  Thanks.

[Gerald Hill - 01 June 2007 email]
 
I was at Sparrevohn from 2/54-1/55.  At that time, skiiing was STRICTLY prohibited!!  We only had a S/Sgt medic on site so it was considered far too dangerous to allow skiing.  That was about the only strictly enforced rule there at that time.  We were out of uniform, grew beards, etc., but NO skiing & the CO meant it!!
[Dennis Habbershaw - 07 July 2007 email]
 
Hi... I was stationed at Sparrevohn AFS from Feb. 1966 to Feb. 1967. I was a heating Spec. stationed most of my hitch at top camp but the remaining 3 or 4 months at bottom camp, and enjoyed every second of it. The attached photos are some pretty bad B&W's. I also have boxes and boxes of slides that I haven't looked at in decades. I never skied before in my life but me and a couple guys tried to ski down the road, unsuccessfully, not enough snow and too many rocks.
[Gary L. Blackwell - 03 December 2007 email]

I can’t remember the exact dates that I was stationed at Sparrevohn, but it was probably around October or November 1965 to July 1966.  I was the Supply Officer on the site at the time, but my tour was cut short because I was accepted into Pilot Training.  My memories of Sparrevohn were good ones.  In the spring and summer several of us fished down at fish camp on Thursday night and caught enough fish to feed both camps.  We would come back early Friday morning and clean the fish for the cooks.

My big adventure came around Memorial Day 1966.  Major Harding, the Commander agreed to let six of us go on a trip about 20 miles north of top camp to visit one of the Indian villages (we had to take radios) close by and do some lake fishing.  One of the officers from top camp cut his leg open when we were cutting down pines for a lean to.  Major Spaulding drove a track master out to pick him up and take him back and they had a plane come in and take him back to Anchorage.  We had a great fishing trip.  I remember in one three hour span that we caught 60 Northern Pikes.  We gutted them and hung them over a fire.  One of the best fish cookouts ever.  We gave the balance of the fish to the Indians.  We spent the last couple of days in tents with wood burning stoves made out of 55 gallon drums.

I found some ski’s in one of the building where supplies were stored.  I did a little skiing up by the weather station above the air strip.  The snow was so crusty that the ski’s wouldn’t cut into the snow.  I can remember going into a drift head first and being buried clear to my ankles.

I enjoyed my time there.  The NCOs always let us into their club and we had some talented country musicians.  Inter-site bowling competitions were fun.  We had one USO show.  I remember Doreen (one of the Mickey Mouse Club gals) used my room to change for the show.  The perfume lasted for days.

I am attaching a couple of shots of the air tram.

[Lawrence Myers - 28 May 2008 email]

I was attached to the 5040th Civil Eng. Sq.(Off Base Facilities or “OBF”) from Anchorage. We would fly to the various sites throughout the state and do repairs. Generally we would spend 90 days and move on depending on the jobs. I arrived at Sparevohn in 1966 and remember seeing all the wrecked aircraft lying in the creek next to the runway. The thing that caught my eye was the large sign painted on the end of the runway, on a rock face as I recall, it simply said “DEAD END”.

After the 90 days TDY it was off to Indian Mtn. 708th with only 2 days at the fort (Elmendorf). Most of the guys doing time at the site were not happy to see us come and go, it was quite understandable under the circumstances. After a year of radar site travels, I changed my AFSC and was the guy sending those poor fellas remote ! I only spent enough time to get my 3 level and then was off again to Vietnam (31st CES, Tuy Hoa). I left Alaska in Nov. of ’67 about 10 degrees and landed in Vietnam just in time for tet and 114 degrees…………

[Dennis Habbershaw - 11 September 2008 email]
 
Hello from Dennis Habbershaw again. I posted several photos on PhotoBucket from Sparrevohn, most are of the guys I was Stationed with. Just an FYI, weather they are posted or just linked to.
http://s168.photobucket.com/albums/u180/idoweddings/Sparrevohn/

Enjoy
Thanks again; Dennis Habbershaw
[Dwain Cox - 22 October 2008 email]
 
I was at Sparrevohn Top Camp for 13 months.  Nov '73 to Jan 75.  Ran the scope.  Went to Fish Camp every chance I got.  Took a load of photos, they are around here somewhere.  I remember making several "Bag Drags" attempting to get in from Elmendorf.  Those Guard pilots took one look at the remains of a C-130 by the landing strip and declared "Sparrovohn this is MUCH 29, we are experiencing turbulence, we're RTB".  Couldn't get a supply plane in for almost 3 weeks, had to eat the emergency supply of hot dog wieners, black eggs and lumpy milk for a while.  Everyone was an expert at pool and ping pong.  My roomy was Rex from Hawaii, he would put on his fat-boy pants, mukluks, parka and pile cap, go outside, lay down in the snow and watch the northern lights. It was just like "MASH" but in Alaska.  
 
[Paul J. Pickard - 28 July 2009 email]
 
I was stationed at Sparrevohn in 52 & 53 and there was no such thing as skis at the time. In fact it was a joke because I later was transferred to the 705 AC&W at Naknek in the Islands which was flat as a pancake and they had lots of skis.  I was wire chief in charge of communications and all they had were field phones which Col. Kelley hated, so when we put in a switch board and desk phones he thought that was great.  I brought the wire from the dome by tying the wire to my waist and sliding down the valley on my Parka to the base.  I would like to hear from others who were there.
Thanks,
My E-Mail is Topchief@earthlink.net
CMsgt Paul J.Pickard

 

[Bob from Anchorage - 11 August 2009 email]
 
Just another story.
 
I too was part of the OBF team From Elmendorf and arrived at Sparrevohn in late March of 1976.  I joined a few others already there at the bottom camp.  First day there I was wrangled into using 2 new sleds that had arrived earlier but nobody had ever used.  These where the metal and wooden slat models that were almost big enough for two people to ride provided they did not have artic gear on which we did.  I'm well over 6' tall.
 
We got a ride up to top camp and split up.  Two guys rode their sled down the tram line while another guy  (forgot his name) and I rode down the road.
 
The road had fresh snow on it. When you got going fast it would kick up and into the "tunnel" or snorkel of the parka completely blocking your view and stinging your eyes.  We would bounce off the ice berm or rock face on the side of the road and crash, laughing all the way.
 
We switched back and forth "driving" as we really did not have control of this rocket on short skies.  We came to a steep section of the road.  Well, steeper than the rest of the steep road anyway.  It was my new buddies turn to drive and I got on the back.  We were flying!  Blind of course but really making good time, gathering more and more speed as we went.
 
I happened to get a view of what was up ahead and knew we would not make the turn at this speed  and we would go over the ice berm that had a drop off of about a thousand feet down into a steep ravine. 
 
I grabbed the hood of the his parka and pushed off the sled taking him with me.  We hit the ground tumbling and sliding a ways before I saw the sled bounce off the berm and go around the corner and straight into the bumper of a truck coming up the hill.
 
Oops.
 
Got to meet the station commander after that.  I also got to meet him a few more times but those are other stories.  Something about a stolen snow cat and a toilet.
 
The other two guys were not so lucky.  The hillside is very rocky, not good for skiing or sledding.  They blew apart the sled almost immediately and got a lot of bruises in the process.  They had a long painful walk down the mountain.  They were lucky nothing got broken.  They said it was great until they hit the first rock which was just about the first thing they did!
 
Thanks for the memory
 
Bob
Anchorage, Alaska
 
[Jerry Hill - 31 August 2009 email]
 
My name is Jerry Hill (Lt. Hill when stationed at Sparrevohn in the mid-60s).   I was a Weapons Controller stationed at Sparrevohn for a year, July 1964 to July 1965.  I remember 45-M ("Four-Five Mike"), the C-46 that brought us there and took us home, and brought the mail, food, and goodies for the Officer Club and NCO Club bars.  Then there was 16-C (Sixteen Charlie), the Super Connie that brought in our fuel and various necessities.  We lost two guys to exposure that year on those little trips to off the west side of the mountain - sometimes as far as Lake 606 and Lime Village, some 20 miles to the west.
 
I can't remember many names any more, but I worked for Capt. Julian Bland and had a Staff Sgt. on my crew, Sgt. Nix, who had spent some time in a prisoner of war camp in North Korea.  I believe he had been shot down in his F-86, but the details are hazy at this point.  He must have been RIFed or something, which I found very odd, since to me he was a hero.   I also remember Lt. Bill Dawe, and Lt. Bob Conlin (who later went to pilot school and wound up flying B-52s in Vietnam - then became a pilot for Delta).  Then there was Mike Matheny, an Airman on my crew, with whom I developed an "off duty" friendship, as it had to be in the military.  Another nice guy, of whom we had our share.
 
There was a tribe of Native Americans (we called them "Indians", of course), who lived over by Lime Hills.  They were some of the homeliest people I had ever seen (eye of the beholder, of course) and the friendliest.  And they really loved us, since we made sure that when they brought their dog sleds to the site, they returned with all the canned evaporated milk and other staples they could muster, as gifts from us.  They would bring their sleds over from wherever they were.  They were nomadic, occupying Hungry, Lime Village and Stony River, depending on what time of year it was, so interestingly, those three villages are all populated by the same people.  Their Huskies (and mixes of dog and wolf, whatever that is called) would drag the sleds over the tundra to the site, snow or no snow. 
 
There was a ridge leading about a half mile north of the Radar site to a place we called "Opportunity", maybe three or four hundred feet lower than us.  This was the only "safe" way down the west side of the mountain.  Not many were hardy enough to make the trip west to Lake 606 and Lime Hills, but that was the way to go, if you entertained such a notion.
 
I went on one of those trips to the "Bobby" Tribe near Lime Hills.  I went over with a couple NCOs I worked with - really nice guys - and met the Chief, Ignatti Bobby (I don't know about the spelling, but that is how it sounded).  They fed us some Caribou steak, but I can't remember what we had with it; probably potatoes.  It was REALLY good.  They made sure we had a tent to sleep in.   I can't remember the exact month, or even the year, but it was probably May '65, so not terribly warm.  Our tent was furnished with some most fragrant pine boughs and a 55 gallon drum cut in half, with an attached stove pipe, to furnish heat. 
 
You could smell the place (Lime Village) for miles on the hike over.  They used fish traps to trap Northern Pike (huge 30 inches plus) and dry them on racks constructed for that purpose.  They used them for dog food, which was a relief, since my fear was that the foul smelling fish would be offered to us to eat and we would have to eat some, to not offend them.  Thankfully my fears were unfounded and we were served some delightfully tasty meals.  I caught a 36" Pike while I was there, which would have been the largest Pike ever caught in Michigan, my home state. 
 
To paraphrase Dickens; it was the best of times; and it was the worst of times.  I made good friends on that mountain top, but it was awful being away from the family for a year. 
[Larry W. Maletta - 23 November 2009 email]
 
The first group of Radar Operators landed in Sparrevohn in December 1951 I was in the second group arrived in May 1952 and left May 1953. Before going up to the mountain we help build Kitty. What a mess. Mixing the cement for Kitty we add several empty cans of beer. While I was there it only worked a couple of times. I went up the mountain in August of 1952 and came down to base camp in April of 1953 to replace the barber. While up the mountain the CP-5 worked off and on. It was not protected for the weather. Thanksgiving  of 1952 we had the worst storm while I was there. Winds over 100 MPH the temperature dropped to 65 below zero. I was up with my radar crew for about 20 hrs dressed in heavy flight suits. Those sleeping in sleeping bags (no sheets in those days) on their cots were not able to get up. The pot stoves had been blown out. The latrine had a cut off 55 gallon drum with fuel oil to kill the smell. In was in a small room which had a urinal  with a pipe extend out the side over the edge of the mountain. We could use it during the winter so we built a snow igloo to take a leak outside. Too wash up most of us had a half lard can to melt snow in during the winter. During the winter we could not use the drinking water that was locked in melt trash cans.  In March of 1953 a S/Sgt from Korea was assigned to the mountain top. He said he would rather be in Korea getting shot at than this Hell hole. Sparrevohn was not fun in those days, even though we got combat pay for being stationed there. If you would like some early pictures let me know.
Former A/1C Larry W. Maletta
[Robert Trotter - 17 December 2009 email]
 
I was stationed at Sparrevohn as a Weather Observer from Oct 1975 to Oct 1976. I did sled down from Top Camp to Bottom Camp on a night with a full moon. There was a group of six or seven of us that used plastic delta shaped sleds that we got from MWR. I remember this one really crazy guy that took off ahead of the rest of us. With the snow berms and curves on the road, there were a lot of shadows. Well we all took off after this guy and about half way down, I hit this bump in the road in the shadows followed by the other guys. It turned out the bump turned out to be the first guy that took off. Fortunately his was just a little bruised, surprising when you consider how many sleds ran him over.
I also remember Thanksgiving day that there were a group of us, including officers, sitting around thinking of something to do. I made a suggestion that we go toobin down the back side of weather hill. Everyone thought this was a great idea, so we went to transportation and got the inner tubes. I was the first one to go down the hill. From the initial scouting of the hill I hadn't been able to see beyond a certain part of the slope. Well let me tell you, once you got past the point that I could see, the slope became about a sixty degree drop! I was sitting on the tube holding onto a rope tied around it. when I hit the steep slope and started going really fast (faster than the road from TC to BC) a ways down I hit a bump and went airborne and the hat I had on (Arctic issue) had a snap chin strap. When I landed I hit so hard that my hat unsnapped and flew off my head, but I didn't fall off my tube. On subsequent trips down the hill I laid across the tube. Other than nearly breaking my neck on one trip, that was a Thanksgiving I will never forget.  Rob Trotter
[Ken Howell - 30 December 2009 email]

Hey! I was stationed at Sparrevohn in ‘71 – ’72. I was at Top Camp, a “scope-dope”..  It was an eventful stay as I was hit with appendicitis during my time there. The site medic diagnosed me and called for a medivac. Never so happy to see an airplane as I was to see that C-130 out of Elemendorf….   Don’t know who you guys were, but a really big “Thanks” from me. Doctors said I had about 2 to 3 hours before my appendix would have burst… Thanks also to the doctor who gave me 21 days convalescent leave after he found out I was remote…   J
Really sucked being out there, but great food and good personnel made it bearable. We used to ride trash bags down the mountain when the snow crusted… just be sure to bail off BEFORE you reach the switchback road….
Thanks for the memories!
Ken Howell, (Sgt then..)

 

 

Do you have further information, stories or pictures that you would like to contribute about this ski area?