Build the fire before you talk it over
Routt County Emergency Services Manager Chuck Vale is a snowmobile enthusiast and a member of the Routt Powder Riders. One of the most critical decisions that members of a lost party can make, he says, is to acknowledge their predicament early and build a fire before they do anything else.
Build a fire even before the members of your group hold a pow-wow to decide whether they need to spend the night in the woods, Vale urged.
"If you wait until you're almost hypothermic, you may not be able to think clearly enough to build a fire," he said.
Steamboat Springs Play around in the rugged backcountry of the Rocky Mountains long enough, and it's almost inevitable that someday you'll have to make an unexpected bivouac.
It's not so much a matter of whether it will happen, but whether or not you'll be prepared when it does happen, Delbert Bostock agreed this week.
Bostock and a group of lifelong snowmobile buddies spent a frigid night Dec. 29 at 9,200 feet elevation on a mountainside above Diamond Park. The story of how they got in a jam and were forced to spend a winter night in a crude shelter serves as a cautionary tale for everyone who thinks they know their way around the woods.
"There was no mechanical problem," Bostock said. "We were not stuck. This was the first time this had happened to any of us. If you're prepared, it's no big deal. We got out in good shape. There was no frostbite. No one was dehydrated. Everyone was absolutely fine."
So what happened?
After a day of banking their snowmobiles through deep powder in the backcountry of North Routt County, the men were caught in a blowing snowstorm that severely limited visibility.
"There were no landmarks anymore," Bostock said. "That was the kicker. Normally, we can see Farwell Mountain and we know where we are. But it was timber and parks and blowing snow."
As the light faded at 4 p.m. the afternoon of Dec. 29, the five men were unable to make out a narrow slot in the timber that would lead them into the drainage of the North Fork of the Elk River and back to the relative safety of the Wyoming Trail. Their vehicles were parked just off the trail on Seedhouse Road (Routt County Road 64).
Aware that the 13-gallon gas tanks in two of the sleds were running low, they decided to conserve fuel and stay put until visibility improved the next morning.
After brief calls to their wives on shaky cell phone connections, they reluctantly made preparations to spend a night in the snow.
If it can happen to Bostock and his friends, it can happen to you, veteran Search and Rescue member Darrel Levingston said.
Bostock, 35, is a former volunteer EMT in South Routt. He makes his living as a mechanic for the Steamboat Springs Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services Department. About a year ago, he joined Routt County Search and Rescue to help the volunteer organization come to the aid of people who get in trouble in the woods.
"I'd helped out over the years, and I figured this was a chance to give back to the community," Bostock said.
He wasn't planning to make that call to Search and Rescue himself.
Setting pride aside
Levingston said he admires Bostock's willingness to go public with the story of how a veteran outdoorsman got in a jam and was left to conclude his best option was to spend a long night in the backcountry.
"There's always a certain amount of embarrassment attached to any mishap in the woods," Levingston said. "There's a misperception that if the woods win, you've lost. These guys did everything right. They had the skills, they had the equipment, they had everything going for them, and they still spent a night out.
"There are a lot of guys who have been snowmobiling for 20 years and think they'll never spend a night in the woods because they're such good riders. They're the guys who are at the most risk. This can happen to anyone, no matter what their skills are."
Bostock said he and his companions set out at about 9 a.m. Dec. 29 for a day of riding in an area they know well. They parked on Seedhouse Road and headed almost due north along Wyoming Trail 1101.
The day went perfectly until they returned to the area above the confluence of Trail Creek and the North Fork. In addition to Bostock, the party included three men he grew up with and one of their employees.
"The four of us grew up together, and that worked really well," Bostock said. "Two of the guys wanted to set out on foot, but we all respect when someone else says, 'Hey, I don't think this is a good idea.' We're taught in Search and Rescue to stay as a group, so we decided we'd better build a snow fort."
It was a piece of good fortune that the men were hunkered down on the edge of an area known as The Great Divide Blowdown, where almost 10 years ago a freak windstorm decimated thousands of acres of trees.
Not all of the trees were flattened, and Bostock's party quickly located a cluster of three skeletal evergreens with bar branches bowing downward until they contacted the deep snow. The branches formed a ready-made frame for a shelter.
Search and rescue members are required to keep a large survival pack ready at all times. The packs are large because they contain enough extra clothing for both the rescuer and a victim.
Typically, Bostock would not carry his Search and Rescue pack on a personal snowmobile trip. But he had prepared his own pack for the winter season, and when he struck out with his friends last Saturday, he grabbed the larger pack. It would come in handy.
"I had dry clothes, socks and hats for two people," Bostock said. "The pack has all kinds of stuff in it - food, maps, a compass, a GPS, a rescue whistle and a fire starter."
Bostock had a single headlamp and spare batteries. There were two flashlights in the party, but they were not that useful, Bostock said, because the men needed to have their hands free to accomplish their chores.
Bostock's steel cup allowed the group to melt snow for a hot beverage.
Tried and true fire starters
Bostock favors specially made rings of cardboard impregnated with wax for use as fire starters. Other members of the party had film containers stuffed with cotton balls that had been soaked in petroleum jelly.
Levingston swears by the cotton ball technique.
"You can light them and put them on the snow and they'll keep burning no matter what," he said. "They'll burn a hole in the snow right down to the ground."
All the members of the group had rescue shovels, some with avalanche probes in the handles. Two of the shovels stored saws in the handle. That allowed the men to cut extra boughs for their shelter and the tramped down floor. The remnants of the blowdown also provided abundant firewood.
"The saw was one of the major things we used the most," Bostock said. "It gave us something to do."
Bostock's pack contained two space blankets, but they were the flimsy foil type, not the more rugged heat reflectors backed by vinyl. He has since restocked his pack with the latter.
The men built a fire just outside the entrance to their hut, and Bostock draped one space blanket over the frame where it would reflect heat back down onto the men. He gave the other blanket to two men who huddled inside it.
Two of the snowmobilers slept intermittently through the night, but three, including Bostock, remained awake and used the activity of cutting firewood to stay warm and occupied.
"I didn't want to go to sleep because I was afraid the fire would burn down, and we'd have to start from scratch," he said. "It was a very long night."
No help at sunrise
When daylight finally arrived, they set out at about 6:45 a.m. to find the trail, but the visibility had not improved. Bostock had not thought to use his GPS the day before to set a waypoint for the all-important slot in the trees. But by morning, all the men had programmed the precise location of their survival hut in their GPS units.
"If anything, Sunday had gotten worse," Bostock said. "I knew within 500 or 600 yards where we were, but our tracks from the day before had blown in completely."
The men searched in vain for the path home, but even in daylight they could not make out the details of the landscape. By 9:30 a.m. they knew they needed help, and Bostock made the call to Search and Rescue. They did not know that their wives had alerted other friends of their predicament and those friends were already on their way to the vicinity.
The cold snowmobilers kept busy. They parked one snowmobile a few hundred yards from the shelter on the edge of an open park. They logged its position in their handheld GPS units, then tied pieces of surveyor's tape on tree limbs leading back to the shelter. They still had granola bars and some Pepsis, and by noon they began making preparations in case they faced a second night in the woods.
It wasn't long, however, before the search party of other friends discovered the parked snowmobile and came to their aid.
"We played too long, that was our consensus," Bostock said. "We had seen the storm coming and could have gone back to the truck instead of waiting until it was too late."
Routt County Emergency Services Manager Chuck Vale said organizations such as the Colorado Snowmobile Association, Routt Powder Riders and Steamboat Lake Snow Club do their best to educate the public about emergency preparedness, but too often they reach only their member base. However, he said, the local clubs use monies remitted to them from snowmobile registration fees to make the woods safer for all snowmobilers.
The clubs groom long trail stretches on Rabbit Ears Pass and in North Routt so riders will have safe routes to enjoy. But even grooming broad trails with large snowcats isn't always enough to ensure safety.
That leaves backcountry users to pack their survival kits and be prepared for the inevitable.