Lost snowmobilers located

Group of six spent the night in subzero temperatures on Rabbit Ears

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— One man suffered frostbite, but otherwise, six snowmobilers escaped serious injury after getting lost in a snowstorm and being forced to spend Sunday night on Rabbit Ears Pass.

The snowmobilers were rescued early Monday morning by Routt County Search and Rescue. They survived subzero temperature by digging a snow cave and huddling around a fire.

Mark Rochford, Peter Balzer, Tim Vermerre, Greg McKinney, Terri Schunk and Jeff Smith were rescued at about 9:15 a.m. in a drainage area about two miles south of Mount Werner. The group was first spotted by helicopter, which led the rescue team to the group.

The 21-year-old Vermerre, who lives in Summit County, was treated for frostbite at a Steamboat Springs clinic.

Balzer, 39, of Keystone, was treated for a broken thumb at Yampa Valley Medical Center and released Monday afternoon.

The snowmobilers five men and one woman survived the night by pulling together.

"There was so much work to do I don't think we would have made it with just three people," said Smith, who was snowmobiling with his fiancee, Schunk, and friend, McKinney.

Smith, 36, of Lakewood, said his trio was lucky they met up with a group of strangers Rochford, Balzer and Vermerre at about noon on Sunday and stuck together.

On Sunday afternoon, the two groups got caught in a driving snowstorm that included a stiff wind.

"We were near Long Lake about two hours before dark," said Rochford, 42, of Dillon. "There was heavy snow with zero visibility. We were trying to get through deep powder."

As daylight dwindled and fuel gauges on the snowmobiles approached empty, the two groups decided to stay put for the night.

"We couldn't keep making mistakes," said Schunk, 36, of Lakewood.

Just before 5 p.m., search and rescue started to field numerous 911 calls that were reporting the lost snowmobilers.

"We kept receiving spotty reports of six people lost off of Rabbit Ears Pass," said Joe Stevens, search and rescue incident commander.

Finally, search and rescue officials were able to talk directly with a member of the group on a cellular phone.

"Because of the bad conditions and the poor visibility (Sunday night), we decided it would be ineffective to field a search team," Stevens said. "The group was prepared to spend the night outside, so we decided to attack it early in the morning."

To protect themselves from the weather, the group dug a five-foot-deep pit into the snow.

The group then used ropes to pull down a couple of dead trees for firewood.

As the group collected firewood, Schunk tended to Vermerre, whose feet got wet when his snowmobile got stuck in a creek.

"She probably saved his toes," said McKinney, 39, of Morrison.

Once the pit was dug and a fire was blazing, all the group could do was wait until daybreak.

"Everyone was calm," Rochford said. "We knew the night would be unpleasant but survivable."

The group sat around the fire and talked about numerous issues and topics, Smith said.

"We talked about football, jobs, stocks anything we could to take our mind off the situation," Smith said. "None of us slept much, and we would switch off to get firewood."

After midnight, the temperatures started to drop, but members of the group said they were not cold until about 3 a.m. when the temperature reached minus 10.

Some members of the group said they had a hard time finding the right distance to sit from the fire.

"If you sat too close, you got too hot," said McKinney, whose ski pants melted around his right knee. "If you were too far away, it was too cold."

The 21-member search and rescue team began its search around 6 a.m.

"We had different teams attacking the situation in different directions," Stevens said.

Stevens dispatched a ski team, a snowshoe team and a snow machine, which carried numerous rescuers. The six-member ski team was taken to the top of Mount Werner by the Steamboat Ski Area's ski patrol by 8 a.m.

"Their help saved us a ton of time," Sheriff John Warner said.

From the top of Mount Werner, the ski team waited for the helicopter crew to find the group.

"We were really feeling good when we heard the helicopter," Smith said.

Once the skiers had the coordinates, the team skied down to where the group was.

"They got in a bad situation and handled it well," said Jim Linville, the ski team leader.

The snowmobilers followed the rescuers out of the wilderness by riding their snow machines.

After each was checked by medical personnel at the scene, members of the group were questioned at search and rescue headquarters before being released.

"Now, I am going to go home and go to sleep," Smith said.

Smith, who proposed to Schunk about a month ago at Rabbit Ears Pass, said he is hopeful he will return to the area soon.

"This was one of her favorite places," Smith said of his fiancee. "But I don't know if she will want to come back."

Because the snowmobilers each had permits, the cost of the search will be reimbursed by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, Stevens said.

Stevens estimated the search cost between $2,000 and $2,500.

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