To the untrained skier, it’s hard to believe that anything bad can happen on the picturesque slopes of Mount St. Helens. But those cheerful trees and craggy mountainside become much more sinister once night falls, and as generations of skiers and mountaineers learned the hard way, the real danger in the wilderness surrounding Mount St. Helens lurks in its darkest depths — the parts even the moonlight barely reaches.
There was only one word for how mountaineer Bob Lee felt the day he investigated the wilderness surrounding Mount St. Helens: “baffled.” Coming from a member of the exclusive Alpine Club and the future leader of a Himalayan expedition, that was saying something.
The Seattle Mountain Search and Rescue Unit were wrapping up one of their most confusing and thought-provoking investigations to date. All they had to go on was the story from one group of friends, who’d seen something — and lost someone — in a way they’d never fully understand.
They were searching for a man named Jim Carter, who had led his group of 20 mountain climbers up Mount St. Helens, only to disappear before their very eyes. The group’s story was a strange one, especially considering Carter’s impressive qualifications.
At 32 years old, Jim Carter was an experienced skier, climber, and mountaineer who knew how dangerous the wilderness could be. So when he offered to take a photo of his climbing group as they skied down the mountain from 8,000 feet, no one thought to worry.
But what happened next definitely made some of the skiers worry. Carter had skied away from the group in order to take the photo, but in the blink of an eye, he’d suddenly taken off down the mountainside. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Carter wasn’t leisurely skiing down the mountain, either.
He flew down at breakneck speed, throwing any skiing rules or regulations out the window as he careened down the mountainside. It was clear that he wasn’t falling; he was very deliberately skiing in a way that made it obvious that something was wrong. He was running from something.
Carter skied as if he was being chased, making huge, reckless leaps over crevasses and looking to everybody as if he was in a fight for his life. By the time the rest of the group got back to the ground, this hunch was confirmed: Carter had been fighting for his life.
The investigation team that included Bob Lee were at a complete loss as to what had happened to Carter. All they found of him was the box of film he’d dropped when he’d taken the photo of the group. What they did know, however, was where his mad dash down the mountain had started.
Carter’s tracks were discovered at Ape Canyon. Unusually, his tracks didn’t lead to a body at the bottom of the canyon, but into the complete wilderness, where they eventually disappeared. As the team broke through this wooded area, a strange feeling came over Bob Lee.
Every time the search party got ahead of Lee, and he was relatively alone, he felt as if “somebody was watching me.” It was “the most eerie experience I have ever had,” he described. Weirdest of all, though, was how his body reacted to the change.
“I could feel the hair on my neck standing up,” he said. “It was eerie. I was unarmed, except for my ice axe, and believe me, I never let go of that.” The search for Carter’s body continued for two weeks with up to 75 people involved, but Lee left the canyon with more questions than answers.
“There was something strange on the high slopes of the mountain,” Lee concluded. It’s no mystery what Lee and the countless others who followed the story of Carter’s disappearance were secretly wondering. After all, Carter had vanished somewhere near Ape Canyon, which has a sinister history of its own.
The aptly-named Ape Canyon is the setting of an unusual legend, one that’s survived in the dense wilderness of Mount St. Helens for over 100 years. It all started in 1924, decades before Carter’s disappearance put a spotlight on the region, when a group of miners found themselves face to face with a family of monsters.
Fred Beck, Gabe Lefever, John Peterson, Marion Smith, and Smith’s son, Roy, were at their cabin in the woods when they saw something that terrified them: four “gorilla men” lumbering through the trees. The creatures walked with huge, sure strides, almost as if they were human.
“They are covered with long, black hair,” one witness described. “Their ears are about four inches long and stick straight up. They have four toes, short and stubby.” This brief description of the creatures was all the group managed to notice before one of the men aimed his rifle at them and fired.
The bullet struck one of the creatures at least three times before it fell off the nearby cliffside. Then, the group ran like hell to their cabin, where they bolted the door shut. They were right to feel uneasy: that night, they woke up to the sound of small boulders hitting the side of the cozy cottage.
Suddenly, the boulders were replaced by a much more terrifying sound: that of giant, furry bodies slamming into the walls, door, and roof. A hole tore through the roof, and before any of the men could do anything, two rocks hit Fred Beck in the head, knocking him unconscious.
The attack lasted for hours. When the sun finally rose, the unseen attackers scattered back into the dark wilderness, leaving behind a badly-battered cabin and a petrified group of seasoned miners. A few days later, the men brought two rangers up to the cabin to prove that their outlandish story was true.
But when they led the rangers to where they shot one of the “gorilla men,” there was nothing there — just like with Carter. When the rangers saw the miners’ cabin, they shrugged it all off as a hoax. They scoffed at the 14-inch footprints around the cabin, claiming instead that the men had made them themselves.
No one could ever prove that what those miners saw was real, just like how no one could ever deduce what had really happened to Carter. But that doesn’t mean people didn’t have theories, and ever since the 1924 encounters with those “gorilla men,” one theory has risen above the rest.
Does a species of Sasquatch, or “Bigfoot,” really live in the dark wilderness of Mount St. Helens? People have wondered this since even before the 1924 sighting. Native Americans apparently reported a group of “skookums,” or cannibalistic wild men, living on Mount St. Helens as far back as 1847.
In his 1893 book The Wilderness Hunter, President Theodore Roosevelt toyed with the idea that Bigfoot exists based off of stories from his fellow American adventurers. By the time Carter disappeared in 1950, it was easier for some people to believe that the skilled skier had been taken by a monster than that he’d simply made a fatal skiing mistake.
But just because the legend has captivated generations of people doesn’t mean there isn’t a plausible explanation for what happened to the miners in 1924. In 1983, a man named William Halliday, director of the Western Speleological Society, offered up another theory.
It isn’t far-fetched to believe that the miners, whose cabin was at the bottom of the canyon, had looked up at whoever was throwing the rocks and had seen dark figures silhouetted by moonlight. Halliday claimed that these weren’t “ape men” at all, but teenagers whose outline and voices had been distorted by the tall, narrow canyon walls.
Maybe the monsters were simply bored kids throwing rocks into the canyon, unaware of the cabin below. But as anyone who’s heard the legend of Bigfoot knows, this is just another unproved theory. Still, stories of “monsters” aren’t isolated to Washington.
It was November 12th, 1966, when a Clendenin, West Virginia, gravedigger caught movement out of the corner of his eye. At first, he ignored it, continuing to lift his shovel. Then the dark mass whooshed by again; it wasn’t a trick of the light.
Maybe it was the darkness or the setting that sent a pang of fear through the gravedigger. But only a decade removed from stories of Ape Men in the country, he was no stranger to stories that seemed out of this world or downright mystical. Was he about to end up like Jim Carter?
He turned to see what could possibly be lurking alongside him in the empty graveyard. Leaping from tree to tree with unsettling speed was a creature that looked somewhat human, but also, not quite.
Cloaked in the shadows, the gravedigger stood rooted in fear of the uncertainty. He was the first, though hardly the last, to witness the strange creature, which he described as a “brown human being.”
Only three days later, two young couples were parked in a secluded lover’s lane. All semblance of romance vanished when both couples spotted a huge gray being presenting itself just out of reach of the car’s headlights.
Roger Scarberry and Steve Mallett gave quotes to the Point Pleasant Register, describing the blazing red eyes that had to be at least six inches apart. They noted the creature’s wingspan was around ten feet. It shied away from the light cast by the car’s high beams.
When they attempted to flee, the winged being gave chase, matching the highest speeds of the car’s odometer. To those who’d question their sanity, Roger noted, “If I had seen it while by myself, I wouldn’t have said anything, but there were four of us who saw it.”
The creature was christened with a name that embodied all its mysterious characteristics — hulking gray wings, nighttime appearances, undeniably human features, massive glowing eyes. They called it The Mothman. Soon, sightings were happening all over the place.
At first, locals joked over the headlines. As the number of documented sightings increased, the public stopped laughing. Reporting in The Gettysburg Times chronicled eight separate witness accounts of Mothman sightings; even two respected volunteer firefighters spotted the creature.
A man named Merle “Newell” Partridge experienced one of the most troubling encounters. At his home in Salem, WV, Merle was kicking back watching TV when the screen started zigzagging with a weird pattern, which was followed by a high-pitched tone.
His dog Bandit started howling in the direction of the shed. Merle grabbed his gun and stepped onto the porch, but saw nobody around. What he did see were two big red lights, resembling bike reflectors, that he knew were a pair of eyes.
Before Merle could stop him, Bandit bounded towards the woods, headed directly toward those glowing red lights. He never returned. In the weeks that followed, Merle scoured the surrounding wilderness but his beloved dog was gone.
Still, not everyone was convinced. Dr. Robert L. Smith, an associate professor at West Virginia University whose expertise was in wildlife biology felt strongly that all the eyewitnesses were crying monster. All they’d actually spotted was a sandhill crane.
The crane theory checked many boxes. First off, they’re pretty massive, reaching a max height of 5 feet tall. Dr. Smith suggested the red-eyed detail repeated by the witnesses had to be the crane’s distinct red patches surrounding its eyes.
Given that most of the statements described at least a ten-foot wingspan, this ruled out the sandhill crane. Others suggested the bird could be mutated by suspected radioactive remnants from World War II bunkers neighboring a wildlife preserve. Most believed in the Mothman.
There’s always the possibility that the Mothman was a big hoax. People hypothesized a prankster was behind some of the sightings, which generated a slew of false reports. Flashlights pointed into any animal’s eyes would reproduce a redeye effect.
In the year that followed the initial sighting, the Mothman was a hot topic among West Virginians statewide. The number of sightings coincided with a spike in claims of UFO encounters. All this paranormal hype came to a head on December 15, 1967.
Cars zoomed over Silver Bridge, which connected Point Pleasant and Gallipolis, Ohio, for nearly 40 years. Initially, the builders of the bridge accounted for vehicles of the time. These weighed about a third as much as the average car in the mid ’60s.
The strain of bumper-to-bumper wagons was too much on the frigid morning of December 15th. In seconds, an eyebar on the Ohio end of the bridge snapped from the excessive weight. All the people in their cars had no time, no warning before they fell.
Bystanders watched in horror as 75 cars dropped into the Ohio River. Parents attempted to free themselves and their children from the rush of the 40 degree Fahrenheit waters. Despite the first responders arriving quickly, 46 people died that day.
The Silver Bridge collapse devastated the people of Point Pleasant, the same people who’d swapped Mothman theories for the past year. Naturally, these two unfathomable events rocked the town and led to the conclusion that they were potentially intertwined.
Connecting the events caught on quick, spreading into the general consciousness of society beyond West Virginia. The parallels echoed in a popular book called The Mothman Prophecies by John Keel in 1975, which outlined the concept that the creature’s appearance was a form of caution.
John Keel’s book was adapted into a movie of the same name starring Richard Gere in 2002. It hammered home the message that the winged being was a savior sent to warn people of approaching tragedy.
These days, people have fun with the sci-fi legend. In 2019, the Mothman resurfaced in a wave of viral memes. Plus, every year believers from around the country, and a slew of undecided but curious fans flock to Point Pleasant for the Mothman Festival.
The citizens present during the peak of the Mothman hype don’t think it’s such a laughing matter. A statue was erected in Point Pleasant, and a museum was opened in its honor, a tribute to the herald of the most fatal bridge collapse in US history at the time.