I awoke this morning feeling an emotion I wasn’t expecting. I opened my eyes. No pain. I can see just fine. My body is sore and tired. I have a small cut in one of my fingers. My hands are stained with sort of a yellow color. I even scrubbed on them for a while last night, but they still look yellow. No permanent damage. I stand up and with some creaking and popping. Standing there, I’m happy I escaped with no permanent damage, but I can’t ignore the embarrassment and shame that I feel.
Friday, January 5th started early. Out of bed at 4:00, drive to Cancun International Airport, return the rental car, go through customs, get on a plane and by noon or so my family and I were standing in one of the DIA parking lots, waiting on a jump for my dead pickup truck. We’d been out of town for nearly two weeks, so I needed to get some work done, so to my office I headed. What I though was going to be a quick check in turned into working until nearly midnight. During the day, a friend had texted and inviting me snowmobiling and snowboarding the next day. I had not been out this season yet, and I was excited to go. There was enough snow in Wyoming to make it happen. I finally got home and prepped all my equipment. The season was starting, and I was stoked.
Saturday started early as well. I was up at 6:00 and on the road shortly thereafter. I met two friends outside of Fort Collins and we headed to the mountains of Wyoming. We have been riding this spot for several years and it is a group favorite. It’s good snow and interesting terrain make it a special place. After a stop to purchase some two-cycle oil and register my snowmobile in Wyoming, we were ready to take off into the backcountry. The sun was out, and even though it hadn’t snowed in a week, I was confident we could find some fluffy snow. Off the three of us went to hunt it down. Three guys on snowmobiles with snowboards in tow.
We found a bit of nice fluff and some fun wind lips on our way to our intended destination. The day was starting out just fine. The sun was shining and there was surprisingly little wind for southern Wyoming. Also, the snow was better than expected. We arrived at our spot. It was slightly tracked up, but there was still plenty of fresh snow to play in. We proceeded to the base of the run we were going to snowboard and dropped off a sled. Three guys went to the top of the run on two sleds.
We all snowboarded the first run together. Having all three bodies on the first run makes sense. The avalanche danger was relatively low, but it’s better to be prepared. The first run was good. Better snow than expected and fewer tracks as well. The snow was stable. We switched to our standard operating procedure of just running one sled up and down and taking turns with two guys snowboarding and one guy riding the sled back down. We would head back up with two guys on the machine and one guy on a tow rope. We completed a full rotation (each guy had a turn bringing the sled down). It was about 3:30 at this point. We decided to start another rotation with the understanding that we might not have enough daylight to complete it. The first run of this rotation went smoothly. Myself and a friend snowboarded. My other friend rode down and picked us up. We went up the hill again. It was my turn to ride the sled down.
I have the tendency to wander off looking for fresh snow. I knew a shortcut down the hill. Over the years, I’ve ridden the shortcut plenty of times. It offered more fun than just riding back down the bumpy trail we had been coming up on. So off I went. It didn’t take long for things to go South. The area we were in is a mixture of open spots and forested areas. In the past, I’ve made some navigational errors here. Nothing like this. The trip down the hill should have taken less than five minutes. I had been riding for about that long when I realized I was lost. The terrain didn’t look right.
I was lost in the woods. I had two friends waiting for me to pick them up. I was losing daylight quickly. The sun from earlier had turned into complete cloud cover. There were tons of old tracks, leading in every direction. I decided my best course of action was to find the most travelled path, and it would lead me to somewhere that I recognized or a marked trail. I had left my helmet and snowboard back the top of the run. I still had my backpack on. I tend to pack my backpack heavy, so I had some helpful stuff with me. I had my shovel and probe. I had a little bit of food. I had a down vest and down mittens. I had two extra pairs of goggles. I had two lighters and the trash from my lunch. I had left my water bottles back at the top of the run. The tow rope was attached to my sled. I still had more than a half tank of gas.
I rode around for what seemed like forever. I had forgotten to charge my phone the previous night, so it’s battery was long dead. I didn’t know the time. At one point, I decided that I had seen the area I was in before and I needed to turn the sled around 180 degrees. I ducked off the packed trail, into the early season powder, swung around in a big arc, and attempted to rejoin the packed trail. To my dismay, I got the sled stuck. Very stuck. I pulled out my shovel and went about excavating the sled. It ended up being three separate excavation projects. The early season depth hoar would support no weight. I finally freed the sled. I was nearly dark. I decided to keep trying to find my way until I lost all daylight. Again, I started looking for the trail most travelled. I rode for a while and I was feeling confident. I was thinking the way out was just around the corner. I was about to see something familiar.
That is exactly what happened. I came to the spot when I had gotten the sled stuck. It was now confirmed, I was riding around in circles and I had no idea where I was. I was in trouble. I was in for a night out in the elements. In Wyoming. In January. My friends were going to have to hike back up to retrieve their sleds. My family and friends were going to be worried sick. I had no other choice at that point. I didn’t know which direction to ride. I would have to hunker down and try to get out on Sunday morning. My careless wandering had led me into a true survival situation. I couldn’t just sit on my sled and wait for morning. I assumed that would mean freezing to death. I needed to build a fire.
I selected a spot between two trees near my sled and began to dig. I dug down to the dirt between the trees. I had created a hole about five feet deep and uncovered two logs that were laying down on one side of the hole. I moved more snow. What I ended up with was a hole with five-foot walls on three sides and two logs laying across the open side about a foot off the ground. I wasn’t worried about dying. The pine beetle epidemic of a few years ago killed a lot of trees, so I had plenty of dry, dead branches I could just break off by hand. I had a least five gallons of exploding liquid at my disposal. I began to gather branches of various sizes. That’s when It began to snow.
Even with gasoline, the fire was not easy to start. I was building a fire on frozen ground with snow constantly falling on it. I had to restart the fire continuously. Getting the gas out of the sled’s tank was proving a bit difficult. I first used a goggle bag soaked with gas. Then I sacrificed a pair of goggles, soaking the foam in gas. Then I soaked the goggle strap with gas. I had a bagel left over from my lunch, so I used the other goggle bag to dip it into the tank and soak it with gas. These techniques started the fire, but with the snow, I was having to constantly restart it. After some restarting, I perfected my technique. I would dip the tow rope in the tank, lay it on some kindling, add some kindling on top of it and light it. I would let it burn for a few minutes, then pull the rope out so I could use it again. I was having to constantly gather more wood. I would start my sled and use the headlights to see. Eventually, the snow slowed, and I was able to keep the fire going more easily.
When dawn broke I was in pretty good shape. It had snowed about six inches on me, but I was warm and mostly dry. I had been melting snow in a pop can and a beer can I had on the sled. Drinking hot water, even though it had ash and twigs in it, was the nectar of the gods. It was now time to get out of here. I needed rest. I needed to tell my friends and family I wasn’t dead. I got on my sled and pulled the cord. She started on the first pull. She started, but wouldn’t run. Any time I hit the throttle, the motor would quit. I wasn’t sure what the problem was, but I knew the sled wouldn’t move under its own power. I still needed to figure out where I was. So, I set out on foot.
I started by going uphill first. It had snowed, but I could still make out the old tracks. I walked about a half mile uphill, punching into the snow up to my ankles with each step. I learned nothing with this hike. I saw nothing familiar. I turned around and went back to camp. Then I went downhill to figure out where I was. The old tracks were fewer, so the going was even slower. I worked my way downhill, still desperately trying to figure out where I was. I must have gone a mile when I was finally able to get a good view of the valley stretching out below me. It did not look right. I had learned nothing. It was not the valley I expected to see. I had spent hours post holing through knee and sometimes waist deep snow. I was soaked. I was thirsty. And I was still lost.
I turned around and retraced my steps to camp. I had heard sleds all morning, but I know they were looking in the wrong place. I was going to need to prepare for another night outdoors. I knew the weather wasn’t calling for snow for a few days, so I assumed the second night would be better than the first. I was going to spend the afternoon improving my cave, gathering wood, drying clothes and melting water.
I arrived at camp totally parched, so I got one of my cans, filled it with snow and set it next to the sled’s muffler. I started the machine and went to start the fire, to knock off the chill I had developed. I went back to the sled to check on my can of melting snow. It hadn’t melted it at all, but with a couple of taps on the throttle I could tell she was back to running normally. Six inches of snow had fallen on the sled, so I think something was frozen and it took all morning to thaw out. I was mobile again. I was going to ride out. Before I could do that, I needed to get warmer and dryer and I needed water. I gathered some branches and stoked up the fire. I set up my cans with snow in them.
I had been hearing snowmobiles all day, but at a distance. I was in my cave when I finally heard snowmobiles close. I stood up and about ten snowmobilers rode into my camp. I was going to be guided out and I was relieved. As relieved as I’ve been in my whole life. The guys gave me some much-needed water and food, as well as a pair of dry gloves to wear. I gathered my stuff and we rode out.
We rode uphill, picking our way through the trees and we came out on the main groomed trail, Highway 30. We were several miles from where I had initially gotten lost. A few miles later, I was pulling up to the parking area. My wife and friends were waiting. So were a bunch of other people. I then learned that some 70 people had been scouring the woods on snowmobiles looking for me. My friends had been searching for me most of the night. There were search and rescue people from two counties. There had even been air searches conducted. Literally hundreds of people had been involved. Everyone was happy I was alive and had ten fingers and ten toes. I thanked everyone I talked to. The mood in the parking lot was jovial, but I was beginning to see how many people were affected by my careless mistake.
I have so many people to thank. I’m truly flattered by the people who gave up their Sunday to help search for me. I’d like to thank as well as apologize to my wife and friends first. Thank you, Nona, for your ability to inform so many people so quickly. You are a wiz with social media and people in general. I’m very sorry I scared the hell out of you. Thank you, Rodney and Marc for riding around all night searching for me. Thanks for getting the people of nearby Centennial informed and involved. Thank you, Phil for getting up in the middle of the night and coming out for the night search. Thank you, Korey for figuring out where I was. Your knowledge of the area found me. Thank you, Shawna for making good decisions regarding the kids. Thank you, Jared and Jamey for making phone calls to get more people involved. Thank you, Keith and the Colorado Snowmobile Group on Facebook. Thank you, Heather and the Snowy Range Snowmobile Club. Thank you, sheriff offices and search and rescue teams from Carbon and Albany counties. Thank you, thank you to everyone involved. I am truly flattered and humbled by your selflessness.
I’m standing looking in the mirror. The agonizing snow blindness from last night has mostly disappeared. My eyes are still very red. I have some sunburn on my face. My hands are a bit beat up and they are stained yellow. I’m fine. I had survived a real life “survival situation”. I have amazing friends and family. I need to make some changes. I realize that mistakes happen and playing in the backcountry is inherently dangerous, but I made a stupid mistake that could have killed me or someone else.
After something like this, it’s natural to think back on where I went wrong. Clearly, getting lost in the first place was my biggest mistake. That requires a little more examination, so more on that later. Here are the other mistakes that I have identified. And again, it’s important to note that none would have been had I not gotten lost in the first place. Our group did not have radios or any form of communication with us. Had I been able to let someone know I as soon as I got lost, a lot of misery could have been avoided. I did not have a GPS device of any kind. I even had an “in reach” at my house. If I would have had it with me, I wouldn’t have stayed lost for long. Possibly no one would have even noticed. I am planning on using one for any and all future outings. We also made the mistake of leaving the extra sleds at the top of the run. We should have left them on the bottom. This would have saved my friends from walking two hours back to the top.
When I was walking around on Sunday morning trying to get my bearings, I did not have sunglasses on. These I typically carry with me, but I forgot them. This where my case of snow blindness came from. I should have been more mindful of this. I made another mistake on my hike. I pushed too hard. I got myself soaked, thirsty and I burned a lot of energy. I should have slowed down. Finally, it would have been nice to have a tarp or a space blanket to create a roof to keep the snow off me. I will be acquiring one.
I suppose I should allow myself the opportunity to share what I feel I did right. I had a few key items with me that were critical. First and foremost, the lighters, the gas and the tow rope. Without those, starting the fire would have been considerably more difficult. Without my shovel, digging my fire area would have been a miserable task. I was lucky to have aluminum cans with me. I’m going to always carry something for melting water in the future. My extra down vest and mittens were also important to staying warm.
So why did I get lost in the first place? Was it just bad luck? Was it bound to happen eventually? Well, you make your own luck. And that is just what I did. I was tired from coming off a long trip. I was tired from my first day riding this season. I was tired after a stressful December. I got careless chasing better snow. That is why it happened, but it doesn’t make it right. The people closest to me suffered and I can’t have that happen again.
I have only myself to blame. A certain portion of myself, to be more specific. I’ve always had a high tolerance for risk. I think people that share my passions tend to have that. Just two seasons ago, I got stuck in bad spot while snowmobiling and had to walk out. I was out that night, but just like this incident, I had people worrying about me. I look back upon my life and can pick out a few more examples of this. A large cornice fell literally inches from me back in the 90s. I can think of two times over the years that cars have come within inches on hitting me while skateboarding. There are more. The fact is that I’m 46 years old and I’ve used the majority of my nine lives. I have a wife and kids, as well as family and friends that care about me. They would be hurt by my death. I have too great a responsibility to let that happen. I need to reel in that piece of my personality. Just being aware and identifying it is an important first step. Couple that with the harsh reality of what can happen and you have a nice place to start some real change.
It’s an experience that changes you. It’s a mental roller coaster of fear, hope, and rejection. It’s a physical test with plenty of uncomfortable moments. It gives me confidence that I was able to make and keep a fire. It gave me the fear that getting lost happens fast and in areas you think you know. The most profound thing it gave me was the realization that the worst part was not spending the night in the cold with no rest, or the constant fear that you will never get out. Far and away the worst part is knowing that the people closest to you are suffering. They are up all night, working hard and worrying harder. I had no right to put them through that. No one does. The thing that I can do now and into the future to properly thank and apologize to everyone involved is to be more careful. To be more mindful of the situation. To be better prepared. To make sure the lesson is not lost on me.
So, thank you to everyone involved and effected. I apologize for the worry that I caused. I can say with confidence that I’m not going to let this happen again. Words are cheap, so I will show you all the depth of my gratitude (and shame and embarrassment as well) by changing my actions.