Routt County Search and Rescue saves 7 snowmobilers in 19-hour mission

In the middle of the night amid heavy snowfall last weekend, Routt County Search and Rescue embarked on “one of the most physically difficult missions” that Search and Rescue President Jay Bowman has seen in 10-plus years.

The harrowing rescue of seven snowmobilers who weren’t prepared to spend the night took 19 hours and relied critically on the response of a Routt Powder Riders volunteer groomer. 

On some occasions, Search and Rescue will wait until daylight before commencing or continuing a search, but they didn’t have that option this time.

“When we heard they could not get a fire going, we began to get concerned with the conditions out there that we needed to go get them out of the field,” Bowman said.

Friday, Jan. 27

6:12 p.m. 

A call came into Search and Rescue about seven snowmobilers who had been separated. The call came from a friend, so there was no exact location and responders weren’t able to get out into the field right away. 

Soon after, someone from one of the groups contacted Search and Rescue and confirmed what the original caller reported, Bowman said. However, the phone died before Search and Rescue was able to ping its location. 

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8 p.m. 

A member of one of the groups had a Garmin device and pressed the SOS button. That finally gave responders a location. They were in between Long Lake and the second bridge on the Fish Creek Falls Trail. They were about halfway between Buffalo Pass and Dumont Lake on Rabbit Ears Pass. 

A crew of 12 people ascended Buffalo Pass to begin the rescue with five snowmobiles, a side-by-side and three ski team members.

“They were about as far away as you can get,” Bowman said. “We went in that direction because we were able to get a groomer, a snowcat, from Routt Powder Riders to go in. They were a huge help.”

9:30 p.m.

Scott Scherer, a volunteer with Routt Powder Riders, got a call from Search and Rescue. 

Routt Powder Riders is a local club responsible for grooming about 100 miles of snowmobile trails between Buffalo Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass. Scherer and Rob Thvedt are both volunteer operators of the groomers.

Thvedt said Routt Powder Riders is called upon usually a couple times a year when Search and Rescue need better access to an area, or a smoother ride for an injured person. 

10:15 p.m. 

Scherer leaves Dry Lake in the snowcat and begins grooming the approximately 14 miles to Long Lake, a section that was groomed just one day earlier, but the snow was already chest deep in that area, according to a Search and Rescue Facebook post.

“There were a couple places from the Summit Lake bathrooms up to the tower where he had to go over it twice to get it packed down more, because it was so deep it won’t compact in one pass,” Thvedt said. 

The 8-foot trail markers were no help along the way, as about 90% of them were buried by snow, according to Thvedt.

“Without Scott in the groomer in front of them, it was hard to tell where the trail was,” he said. 

Saturday, Jan. 28 

2:30 a.m. 

Scherer wrapped up grooming and got back to Dry Lake. 

Search and Rescue had already zipped up the cleared path, set up a base at Long Lake and a team was moving west to find the lost snowmobilers. 

3 a.m.

A group of three snowmobilers were brought back to Long Lake. Ahead of moving toward the ping in Fish Creek drainage, rescuers found the group of the three lost people, as they were closer to Long Lake.

“That party of three had stayed together. One of their snowmobiles had run out of gas, but the other two still had gas and they were able to start a fire, so they were in good shape,” Bowman said.

Routt County Search and Rescue 10 essentials
  1. Navigation: Topo map, compass, GPS/GPS app
  2. Sun protection: Sunscreen, sunglasses/goggles, hat
  3. Insulation: Extra layers, wool hat, gloves/mittens, buff, hand warmers
  4. Illumination: Flashlight, headlamp, extra batteries
  5. First aid: Bandages, antiseptic wipes, splint
  6. Fire: Lighter/waterproof matches, fire starter, saw
  7. Tools: Knife, zip ties, duct tape, whistle, multi-tool, cell phone, avalanche gear
  8. Nutrition: High energy snacks (jerky, trail mix, etc.)
  9. Hydration: Water/filter/purifier, cup to melt snow
  10. Shelter: Sleeping bag, tent/tarp/bivy/space blanket

Despite whiteout conditions, Search and Rescue crews returned to the field to locate the remaining four people, who were not in as good a position. They were walking to stay warm.

“(They) had all abandoned their snow machines. They were stuck, so those four were on foot,” Bowman said. “They could not get a fire started in the conditions because it was snowing heavily and there was no visibility. So, they kept moving.”

Normally, rescue teams recommend the opposite approach of staying in place when lost. However, Search and Rescue was able to contact the group and advise them in which direction to move.

“Since they had that Garmin tracker with them, we could see where they were going,” Bowman said. 

6 a.m.

Conditions made getting to the group of four extremely difficult. It took the team of two skiers and four snowmobilers almost eight hours to reach them. 

“We had to send two skiers out to ski in front of the snowmobiles with headlamps. The snowmobiles, with no visibility, kept getting stuck,” Bowman said. “Once we got the skiers in front of them, it actually sped things up, which is counter intuitive.”

9 a.m.

Rescuers and the four people conclude the three-hour trek back to Long Lake during which they sometimes struggled to find the tracks they made on the way in, and another three hour endeavor to Dry Lake. The team had a rough trek back to Dry Lake as wind and continued heavy snowfall resulted in 4-foot drifts across portions of the trail that was groomed just hours before.

1 p.m.

Thanks to the efforts of Search and Rescue and Routt Powder Riders volunteers, all seven snowmobilers were finally brought to town by midday Saturday.

“Everybody was fine,” Bowman said. “There were some cold folks, but everybody was fine.”

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