Finding 5 snowmobilers just part of Routt County Search and Rescue’s busy weekend
Routt County Search and Rescue is coming off one of its busiest years in the past decade, and with five calls for service last weekend, 2023 is ramping up to be another banner year.
“I think the word is out that Routt County and northern Colorado has an incredible amount of snow, and we’re just seeing an influx of recreators that are aware of that and want to take advantage of this amazing snowpack,” said John Williams, equipment director and a member of the Routt County Search and Rescue board. “In recent memory, this is one of the busiest weekends we’ve had for sure.”
While all of this weekend’s missions resulted in positive outcomes, Williams said they should serve as a reminder for people headed into the backcountry. He said avalanche conditions, which have killed four people in Colorado since Dec. 26, are severe right now, and he expects them to be upgraded by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center this week.
“We always say that people need to be prepared for the backcountry,” Williams said. “That means they need to be prepared for flat light conditions, they need to make sure that they’re prepared to spend the night and they need to make sure that their cell phones are charged.”
He added that backcountry enthusiasts also need to be aware of where they are and should tell people where they’re going out and when they expect to be back.
Out of gas
The biggest mission of the weekend was called in at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 7, when Routt County Search and Rescue was dispatched to find a group of five snowmobilers who were running low on gas somewhere west of California Park.
“The call came in from a concerned wife that had not heard from (the group) since they had called in around five,” Williams said. “The story was that they were out of gas and they were trying to make the guard cabin in California Park.”
Search and Rescue teams came from Steamboat Lake, via Routt County Road 42 into California Park, and then searched to the south and east. Also, a team from West Routt Fire searched along Routt County Road 80, which leads to California Park. The crews called off the search and turned back after a Classic Air Medical helicopter found the group of snowmobilers at the Lost Park Ranger Station.
“I am not sure how Classic Air located them,” said Sergeant Todd Wheeler, emergency management coordinator at the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office. “I know Routt County had launched Classic and was able to locate them. … I’m sure they probably saw the heat signatures from their snowmobiles parked at the cabin, and went ahead and landed, and made contact and confirmed that it was the parties.”
The snowmobilers had started the ride near Steamboat Lake Outfitters before heading west into California Park and the Bears Ears and Black Mountain areas.
“They were really ill prepared for the ride that they had taken,” Wheeler said of the snowmobilers. “They didn’t monitor their fuel situation, didn’t monitor their travel, were unaware of trail conditions and then basically wound up playing a little longer than they should have, and ran themselves low on fuel.”
The group was able to reach the Lost Creek Ranger Station, where Wheeler said they had heat but no food. The snowmobilers spent the night at the station, and Moffat County Search and Rescue brought fuel to the group Sunday morning, Jan. 8, and escorted them to the Black Mountain Trailhead, where family and friends had additional fuel along with the trucks and trailers needed to take the group back to Steamboat Lake.
“We want to give a big call out to Moffat County Search and Rescue because they were able to come in from the east side,” Williams said. “We also had assistance from Hayden and the West Routt Fire Protection District, which came in on Routt County Road 80 into California Park, and Classic, who was also working with us and, in the end, found them at this cabin.”
The start of a busy weekend
The California Park mission was just one of several for Routt County Search and Rescue this weekend starting with a call at 4:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 6, when a pair of snowmobilers got lost north of Dumont Lake.
“The good news was that they called early, and we were able to guide them out by phone,” Williams said. “They were unfamiliar with the area. They got stuck a couple of times and they got concerned.”
Williams said it was helpful the snowmobilers called early and that their phone was charged.
“The nice thing was they had 85% battery,” Williams said. “We could text them maps and location information, and actually give them guidance into a safe area back to the road.”
Another day, another mission
Routt County Search and Rescue was also called at 3:20 p.m. Saturday for a snowmobiler who fell into a drainage and suffered a suspected concussion about a half mile east of Fish Creek Reservoir. Williams said the reporting party had a Garmin InReach, and Search and Rescue members were dispatched to the exact location shortly after the 911 call.
The incident commander also determined the situation required immediate medical attention and dispatched a Classic Air Medical helicopter. The helicopter reached the snowmobiler while rescue crews were responding and made the decision to go directly to the hospital.
“Because of the flat light, you couldn’t see very much of any relief,” Williams said. “The individual was unable to see well enough and fell down into a small drainage.”
A few hours later, Search and Rescue crews returned to the backcountry to search for the five stranded snowmobilers in the California Park area. Williams said that mission wrapped up just after 3 a.m.
The 911 calls kept coming in on Sunday, Jan. 8, with authorities fielding a report of a snowmobiler stuck north of Hayden on Routt County Road 78 just after noon. Shortly after that, another call came in at 1:30 p.m. for a skier on Buffalo Mountain who had taken a wrong turn.
“The call came in Sunday afternoon that a skier had gone off of Buffalo Mountain down into the north fork of Fish Creek,” Williams said. “His buddy on a snow machine was up top, basically near the Steamboat Powdercats cabin, and was in radio contact with a subject that was down in the drainage.”
Williams said Routt County Search and Rescue sent two members to the top to establish a relay for communications, and Classic Air helped establish the exact location of the skier. At that point, rescuers determined the area was too dangerous to get a team in from the top.
“We had very serious concerns over avalanche risk on that whole southeast slope of the drainage,” Williams said. “So we sent the team in from the Uranium Mine trail on skins to meet up with the subject kind of deep up in that canyon.”
The crew skinned up the drainage roughly four miles and reached the skier at about 6:30 p.m. The skier, who was in Alpine boots, was then walked out about three miles before being placed in a toboggan for the final mile of the journey.
President of Routt County Search and Rescue Jay Bowman said the Steamboat-based organization normally averages about 60 calls each year. In 2022, Search and Rescue had 77 calls to service.
“Last year was our busiest year in over 10 years,” Bowman said. “It has been a busy start to the year, and in January, we’ve already had at least six calls.”
John F. Russell is the business reporter at the Steamboat Pilot & Today. To reach him, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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