Snowmobiler critical to rescue

Jason Cobb was the first person on scene and transported pilot to safety

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— Jason Cobb smelled the small plane crash before he saw the wreckage in the dense timber.

What he smelled was a mixture of aviation fuel and a campfire built by the three injured survivors in order to keep warm in a howling snowstorm.

"I actually stopped and whistled," Cobb said. "They started screaming."

When he pulled his snowmobile up to the site at 4:44 p.m. Sunday, Cobb was the first would-be rescuer on scene. And he wasn't prepared for the first words out of the men's mouths.

"They asked me, 'Got a beer? Hey, you don't smoke do you?"

Cobb quickly surmised the men were in a state of shock.

"They'd gone through one hell of an experience dropping through those trees," Cobb said. "Six inches to the right or left and the plane would have been torn apart by a tree."

Cobb's family owns Steamboat Snowmobile Tours. They guide vacationers on excursions in the broad meadows that flank the east side of Walton Peak. Jason is the manager of the business, and has spent a lifetime honing his skills on a sled.

Jeanne Power, a paramedic with the Steamboat Springs Fire Department, said Cobb's efforts were critical to the rescue effort. Power was one of three rescue workers flown to the crash site by helicopter after Cobb reached it.

"We would have never found the plane once it started snowing (without Cobb's help)," Power said. "It was a miracle he found it to begin with, and then getting (the passengers) out of there... It was really miraculous."

Cobb's first priority was to use his high-powered sled to begin packing out a trail that emergency medical personnel would be able to use to reach the wrecked plane, near the top of a steep ridge.

"I handed them my cell phone and told them, if it rings, use it," Cobb said.

He then began steering his snowmobile through the steep terrain. The snow is nearly four feet deep on Rabbit Ears Pass, 15 miles southeast of Steamboat Springs.

When Cobb and his buddies fired up their sleds earlier in the day, they had nothing in mind but tearing up the untracked snow. The gathering snowstorm was still over the horizon and Cobb didn't know he was about to be thrust into a rescue operation.

"We were just out playing and Search and Rescue showed up at our cabin," he said.

Cobb and his friends were already southeast of Walton Peak when they got the radio call that a private plane was down. He remembers the time as 3:45 p.m. Sunday, and the sun was already getting low.

When Routt County Search and Rescue personnel caught up to Cobb, they pointed down a drainage toward a small bald patch of snow, and asked Cobb to head straight for that spot.

Cobb had an advantage over other snowmobilers -- his Polaris 800 had the power to stay on top of the deep powder snow. Finding a route to the wreckage would take all of his skills. "The main problem was crossing open creeks," Cobb said. "We actually had to jump the creeks."

The weather had also deteriorated into a near blizzard.

Cobb received some unexpected help as he began to draw near to the crash site -- a large military helicopter was visible circling over the downed plane. Cobb knew the terrain and realized he would need to steer his snowmobile up a steep, timber-covered slope to reach the victims.

"It was a very good climb," he said.

Cobb said he was surprised at how calm the three conscious victims were (one victim, the only woman, was trapped beneath the fuselage and unconscious). She was alive when transported to Yampa Valley Medical Center, but later died.

"They didn't say much at all about what had happened," he recalled.

Cobb left to rendezvous with Search and Rescue personnel. In the meantime, Cobb's colleagues at Steamboat snowmobile Tours, Chuck North and Matt Stamm, were summoned to lead the Search and Rescue snow cat to the vicinity. They also brought warm clothing and supplies towed behind them in a sled.

"Steamboat Snowmobile Tours was a lifesaver," Sheriff John Warner said at the crash scene Monday afternoon. "What (Cobb) did was amazing."

Cobb said he was impressed with how efficiently Power, Jamie Neault and Dave Hesselton -- the three rescue personnel flown by helicopter to the crash site -- began treating the victim's injuries.

"They did a hell of a job getting up there," Cobb said.

Cobb said the rescuers on the scene briefly discussed attempting to lift the fuselage off the unconscious woman, but quickly realized it couldn't be done.

"It just wasn't an option," Cobb said.

It was Cobb who transported pilot Lloyd "Skip" Moreau off the ridge on his snowmobile. Moreau had sustained an injury to a shoulder, and was unable to hang onto Cobb for the ride out.

"We strapped him to me," Cobb said. "You could tell he was hurting. My friend Chuck (North) hung onto the tail of my sled on the way down the hill, to keep it steady."

Cobb was clearly weary on Monday afternoon, and the implications of what had transpired Sunday night were sinking in. But when he and his sled were needed Sunday, he never hesitated.

"You do what you've got to do," he said, "to get where you've got to get."

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