Stuck snowmobilers built a fire to weather a night in Diamond Park north of Steamboat Springs

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Farwell has snared other snowmobile parties

Sunday night's search for missing snowmobilers wasn't the first time a party of backcountry adventurers has been lost on the 10,824-foot Farwell Mountain, which is a familiar landmark on the way to Steamboat Lake.

A party of seven men from Nebraska who were not familiar with the area became stuck in a steep drainage there in 2010, and Routt County Search and Rescue helped to dig them out after searching for them all night. In 2009, a Steamboat man and two companions from Wyoming were stranded in Beaver Basin near Farwell and eventually spotted by a helicopter.

— Three Front Range men who set out Sunday morning on what was supposed to be a short snowmobile tour of Farwell Mountain north of Steamboat Springs rode out of the backcountry on their own shortly after 10 a.m. Monday after spending the night by a campfire.

Russ Sanford, incident commander for Routt County Search and Rescue, said a search by snowmobile on the ground and a helicopter in the air was underway Monday morning when the three men were contacted safe and sound.

Undersheriff Ray Birch, who responded to the scene, said the men included Gary Dreher, 61, of Fort Collins, and son Gary Dreher, Jr., 26. The third member of the party was Frank Kolodzieg, 50, of Loveland.

“They were not in need of medical care, and for that, we’re really grateful,” Birch said.

The trio had begun its day on the west side of Farwell Mountain, not far from Hahn’s Peak Village, intending to return by noon. But ultimately, their snowmobiles bogged down repeatedly in deep snow as they attempted to reverse their course over the mountain. With a saw and the means of making a fire in their packs, the men decided their best option was to wait until morning to resume their efforts to extricate themselves.

“They self-rescued on all three machines,” Sanford said. “One man admitted they just made a bad choice when they decided to go play (in the powder). When they went to get out of there, they got stuck over and over again.”

With the arrival of dawn on Monday, the men were able to dig out their snowmobiles and finally get moving again. Search and Rescue members Del Bostock and Jason Weber were headed up the mountain to resume a search that Weber had begun the night before when they ran into the men. At the same time, pilot John Witte, of Zephyr Helicopter Company in Steamboat, was already in the air preparing to join the search.

Sanford said after postponing their fishing date once by text message, the three men became tempted by the sight of a large powder field on the northeast side of 10,824-foot Farwell Mountain and dropped out of cell phone range in what must have been lower Diamond Park.

“The situation was, they were due to meet a friend who lives here to go ice fishing and called from the top of Farwell around 11 a.m. and said, ‘Hey, we’re on top, and we’ll meet you as planned.’” Sanford said.

A little later, a member of the party texted their Steamboat area friend, Christian Karch, to say “Make it 1:30 (p.m.).”

“That was the last anybody heard from them,” Sanford said.

Sanford said the worried spouses of the two older men had reported them overdue at 5:30 p.m. What the stranded men could not tell their wives or searchers was that they were safe and hunkered down for the night.

“I interviewed both wives and at first wasn’t sure what to do. They were both upset and imagining the worst,” Sanford said. "I tried to reassure them snowmobiles get stuck easily and that most times (people lost in the snowy backcountry) reappear on their own between 9 a.m. and 10 am. the next morning. They just knew that (the men) were planning to ride around Farwell and return to the area near Hahn’s Peak Roadhouse. That’s not enough to go search on. It was dark. I wasn’t going to deploy teams with that little information.”

Sanford sought to triangulate on their location through any pings available from their cell phones. But Verizon Wireless could only obtain a single “low confidence” ping off of one of their three phones that placed them miles away from their starting point in the vicinity of distant King Solomon Falls, which struck Sanford as being very unlikely.

It was a subsequent interview with Karch, in which he said the men had told him their plan was to ride directly up Farwell and directly back, that led Sanford to launch a limited search Sunday night.

Sanford said Weber, Shara Ludlum and John Daschle were in the field from about 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. on snowmobiles without finding the missing men. Sanford instructed the searchers not to stray far off of a trail that had been groomed by North Routt residents after the missing snowmobilers had set out earlier on Sunday.

Just as Sanford had told their worried spouses the night before, the hungry, but safe, snowmobilers reappeared by mid-morning Monday, with a crew of S&R ski/snowshoe searchers forming, and North Routt Fire Rescue assembling another team of volunteer snowmobilers.

Sanford said aside from the decision to change their backcountry travel plans without telling anyone, the men were reasonably prepared and made some appropriate choices.

“They did some good survival things," Sanford said. “They had fire capabilities. They had a saw, and they cut some decent-sized limbs for the fire. They had water and also drank out of a nearby creek. They had some decent clothes, so they felt fairly warm and dry.

“They dug into the snow and put pine boughs to make a place to lay down. They even got a little sleep.”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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