|Today, 09:06 AM||#1|
Joined: Nov 2014
Location: South Central Colorado
Over confident and under prepared
Mid December brings lots of snow to south central Colorado where I live. My best friend, Bob Giacomelli, and I decide itís time for the first snowmobiling trip of the season so we put a date on the calendar. Our wives, also good friends, schedule a fabric play day while the guys are out playing in the snow. Our friends live about fifty miles away near Westcliffe, so with issues starting and loading a snowmobile for the first time in the season don't arrive until nearly noon. That doesn't bother us, because our favorite snowmobile mountain, Marshal Pass, is only about ten miles from my house so we will be able to ride for about three hours which is enough for our first outing.
I start my Polaris RMK 600 HO snowmobile the day before and am disappointed as the primary clutch locks up during the loading procedure. I winched it up on the trailer and took it to the All Seasonís Adventures, a local snowmobile rental shop that does mechanical work. The owner, Steve Criswell, a good friend of mine tries to free the clutch without success. Not wanting to disappoint my friend and our wives by rescheduling our trip, I rent one of Steveís Polaris RMK 550 snowmobiles for the day while mine is being repaired.
I am a serious GPS geek with handlebar mounts for these devices on the motorcycles, ATVs, and snowmobiles I ride. I have track logs of all my favorite trails stored on my computer and make it a policy to download the appropriate trail file to my GPS then mount the GPS to my machine of the day. I make a conscience decision to not bother with the GPS today because the rental snowmobile does not have a handle bar mount and it is going to be a short trip in an area where I've been in not less than a dozen times.
Back at the house after a nice lunch of Subway sandwiches brought by our friends, Bob and I head off to the mountain, snowmobiles loaded on respective trailers. Itís going to be a short day so only thing that goes in my backpack is a liter of water. Bob on the other hand has a fairly complete survival kit in his backpack. Iíve made fun of him for carrying all that crap on past trips. We unload near the ten thousand foot elevation near Grayís Creek. One of Steveís vans is the only vehicle there meaning there is a snowmobile tour in progress. As we head up the mountain, we meet one of Steveís guides with about a half dozen guests coming down the mountain. This means we have the mountain to ourselves unless someone came up the Sargent's side which is doubtful because timber cutting contractor recently plowed the road in from that way to get his equipment off the mountain.
We stop at the top of Marshall Pass which is also the Continental Divide to discuss our plan. There is a great trail system off to the south west that runs through trees and has a big meadow play area we like a lot, but Iím told the gate at the bottom of the Mill Switch trail is closed, so I ask Bob, what is the worst that can happen, we have to turn around and come back out the way we went in?
Several machines have broken the trail in front of us as we drop off the top of the mountain into the woods with me in the lead. This is our normal riding order because Iím the GPS geek, remember? Besides, I have a great sense of direction, so what can go wrong? The snow on top of the mountain is truly beautiful. There are piles on every horizontal space. The trees are flocked with snow as they do when there is little or no wind while the snow falls. Snow fell all afternoon masking the position of the sun. Iím following the trail through the woods looking over my shoulder occasionally to make sure Bob is still back there when the trail becomes unexpectedly steep over the bald nose of the mountain into a serious hole. The trail continues, so I follow it thinking we've been here before and didn't have any trouble climbing out then. Going down that hill was my second mistake, my first mistake being so sure of my own navigation skills. The alarm had not yet sounded that I might not be on the right trail.
I stop at a mid section bench in deep snow where other people have turned around to climb out. There are tracks going on down the mountain, but that section is ever steeper that what we just came down. This is the first time I get a clue we may not be on the right trail. Bob joins me and points out a jagged peak we know as Starvation Point just to the north east of our present location. I know we are in the Starvation creek drainage and miles from our intended trail. I know that unless somehow Starvation Point moved, we were in the wrong drainage and in trouble. We got stuck several times trying to turn around. We are both exhausted and sweaty moving these big machines around in deep snow. I finally get my machine pointed up the mountain, thinking I can get out, and go for help. Bobís machine has a shorter track and I know we need help getting it out.
Up the hill I go with all the power the 550 Polaris can generate, but it was not enough. I run out of power and momentum about five feet from the crest of the next bench. Iím seriously stuck in the big hole dug by the track. I turn to see Bob is also stuck about seventy yards away at the bottom of the hill.
We are both exhausted and decide it is time to call the Calvary. Bob already tried his AT&T cell phone from the bottom of the hill with no reception. Luckily my Verizon cell had a 1X signal from the top of the hill bouncing the signal off the Methodist Mountain cell tower near Salida. My first call went to Steve Criswell at 3:42 PM, his phone rolled over to voice mail, the second call went to 911 about three seconds later. I reported our location and situation to the 911 operator asking her to call my wife to report our situation and we would be late for the planned pork roast, squash, and yam dinner. The 911 operator was able to triangulate our exact position from my cell phone signal.
The 911 operator contacted my wife and the Chaffee County Colorado Search and Rescue South unit who mobilized their winter snow team. Within moments we had ten people and five snowmobiles headed in our direction. Six of those people were from the SAR team, two volunteers from Colorado Fish and Game, and two from Salida's Heart of the Rockies Snowmobile Club.
Back on the mountain, Bob wanted me to come down to join him to build a fire. I pointed out that I had cell phone reception at the top and needed to stay on top where we had communication. Understanding the importance of communication, Bob started the long and tedious climb up the hill in waist deep snow. I make it over to a small clump of Ponderosa Pines with lots of low dead branches offering both a modicum of shelter and fuel.
By the time Bob joined me the sun has set and the temperature is dropping fast. We knew it is important to get a fire going because we are both wet with snow and sweat. We scraped a fair sized hole down to bare earth and gathered a pile of dry wood. Bob broke into his backpack producing a lighter and some small wooden shingles impregnated with some type of flammable material. In no time we had a fire going in the small stand of trees. I am reaching for my Leatherman Tool to saw some of the larger branches when Bob produced a fold out eight inch saw from his backpack of miracles. Never again will I give anyone a hard time about carrying survival supplies. I'm a believer, already creating my own survival kit to be carried to the next adventure at hand. It starts with a GPS walkie talkie combination unit and includes food, fire making supplies, and space blankets.
I called the 911 operator back at 5 PM to get a status update on the SAR effort to find they were unloading snowmobiles near Grayís Creek where we unloaded earlier in the day. I told Bob the SAR Team would be in our location by 6 PM, missing it only by ten minutes. The team must not have been as far into the unloading process as I assumed, but their arrival approximately two hours and fifteen minutes from the first 911 call was pretty amazing.
The first SAR team member to show up at our warming fire site is a good friend of mine, Mike Gunderman, who owns Gunderman auto body in Salida. Mike taught me everything I know about painting the vintage motorcycles I restore as a winter hobby. I found out later that Mike was in the paint booth of his business when the page came in. He dropped what he was doing, made a quick trip to his home in Howard, loaded his snowmobile and was the first to the parking area at Grayís Creek.
The search and rescue team members were pleased that we are warm, hydrated, and relatively unscathed. They came in from the downhill side on big powerful powder machines with long tracks. All of these guys are expert riders able to ride through terrain I would never even consider. Within no time they had us unstuck and pointed down the hill. Bob and I both showed our relative inexperienced riding skills by crashing on off camber turns even after these guys made a path for us. Bobís shorter track machine really struggled in the deep power so one of the SAR team offered to ride it out, which Bob gladly accepted.
We climbed out of the drainage cresting near Starvation point to find another group of SAR volunteers, including my friend Steve Criswell, waiting to offer any assistance. We then rode down the hill to the parking area where another group of volunteers, including another acquaintance Mike Bondurant of Wag iní Tails Pet boarding and grooming in Poncha Springs, were waiting to offer any assistance we might need. All these people are all very professional, truly concerned with our well being, offering food, water, and dry clothing. They even loaded our machines and scraped our windshields. As a group, we stood around talking for some time. Iím sure Bob and I were being assessed to make sure we were fit enough to drive our vehicles down the mountain.
I canít say enough good things about this group of the Chaffee County Search and Rescue South Volunteers. They came together from all over Chaffee County to get a couple of older retired guys out of a critical jam. They live up to their motto, ďTake care of businessĒ. They are well trained, professional, helpful and very efficient. Iím sorry I canít list the names of all of the SAR Team, but I donít know them. This does not mean they were any less important, it is just a reflection of my ignorance. They didn't give us a hard time about being lost, in a place we shouldn't have been, or about our lack of riding skills. They just came to find us, got us back to safety, offering all the assistance at their disposal. This group of volunteers http://chaffeesarsouth.org/ deserves your consideration of financial assistance as they will get ours.
Bob and I were very lucky in many ways. Had my cell phone not worked, we would likely have spent the night on the mountain, in that little clump of pines, at below zero temperatures before anyone found us. Even with a fire, thanks to Bobís preparedness, it would have been a very uncomfortable experience. If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. I've been having outdoor adventures for about sixty years and this is the first time I've ever had to have someone come to get me. My advice that comes from this experience is purchase and use a GPS unit. Most of all have it with you as you go on outdoor adventures. Take the appropriate survival equipment, and support your local Search and Rescue operation. You never know when they may have to haul you out of the backcountry.
John Huggins Poncha Pass area
Bob Giacomelli Westcliffe area
|Today, 10:11 AM||#2|
Joined: Mar 2014
Glad you guys made it out ok.
Sounds like you learned some important lessons on the cheap ...ie...no one hurt.
I was ridding Moab once, forgot my 1st aid kit.....been carrying it for ever, never really needed it till that day.....but that is another story......BOTTOM LINE.......the one time you leave a survival gear, nav gear, or tool.....AFTER you have been carrying it ....THAT....is when you will need it.
I suggest you add a Spot or othet type PLB to ypur gear list.....you were lucky your cell had a signial.
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