Grand County Search and Rescues saves snowmobilers on Gravel Mountain
January 5, 2017
For the past three days Grand County has been inundated with snow. Upwards of four-feet on Berthoud Pass Wednesday night into Thursday morning while the high country of the Grand Lake Snowmobile Trail System was swamped with two to three-feet Wednesday afternoon.
Conditions like that are tempting to snow sports enthusiasts but they can also be imminently dangerous. On Wednesday Jan. 4 three snowmobilers discovered just how dangerous those conditions could be.
At about 2 p.m. Jan. 4 Grand County Search and Rescue (GCSAR) and the Grand County Sheriff's Office (GCSO) were called to the Gravel Mountain area, northwest of Shadow Mountain Lake, on a report of a stuck snowmobiler. The man was not injured but was trapped with his sled in deep snow and was unable to walk out. According to County officials the snow near the snowmobiler was waist deep when rescuers arrived.
When the call came in authorities rushed to the area to initiate the SAR operation. With darkness just a few short hours away officials were concerned about losing the light. Officials were additionally concerned about the potential for finding the stuck man because of the snow depth, storm intensity and low visibility in the area.
As local first responders were mobilizing to rescue the man on Gravel Mountain another emergency call came in reporting a snowmobile crash on the Stillwater Pass Trail, which is in the same general area as Gravel Mountain. The crash resulted in injuries for one adult male who sustained cracked ribs from the accident.
Because of the already initiated SAR operation On The Trail Rentals, a snowmobile rental business based in Grand Lake, agreed to retrieve the injured man and bring him down to the Idleglen Staging Area, where the SAR operation was being staged, and where medical care was waiting.
At the same time On The Trail Rentals was bringing the injured man down the SAR operation was heading up the mountain to find the stuck snowmobiler. Luckily the man's wife sent rescuers his GPS coordinates as they were approaching the search area. "They [GPS coordinates] were spot on," said Lieutenant Dan Mayer, Public Information Officer for the GCSO.
"About half way up the mountain though they found out there were actually two guys stuck up there."
The second man was riding with the first on a separate sled when they became stuck. The second man, who is a more experienced rider, was attempting to circle back to the first and help him dig out when he also became stuck.
Because the snow in the area was waist deep and because the two men were separated neither was able to help the other dig out. They were however in communication with each other via text messaging. The low visibility in the area also hampered their ability to find each other in the storm.
According to Greg Foley, Public Information Officer for GCSAR, there were five-foot deep snowdrifts in the area, 40 to 60 mph winds and avalanche conditions that were rated as "high" by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The operation was conducted at about 11,000 feet at treeline in avalanche terrain. One Sheriff's Deputy who was involved in the SAR operation joked that visibility on the mountain was, "a good six inches".
Mayer said the two men were very happy when rescuers arrived and that one of the pair told first responders he had expected to die during the night on the mountain. Mayer added that several members of GCSAR said they also believed the pair would not have made it through the night.
In an additional stroke of luck for the two men, first responders, a team of five including two GCSAR members and three Deputies, were able to help dig their sleds out.
"That is rare," Mayer said.
"We don't recover property, we recover people."
However, since both men were uninjured the decision was made to dig the sleds out and have the men ride down on them.
The operation exited the field about 6:30 p.m., Wednesday night.