The news this week that three Front Range men spent the night huddled by a campfire in Diamond Park while family members worried about their safety reminds us of the limits of modern communications technology and the unforgiving nature of the Rocky Mountains in all seasons.
Three men from Longmont and Fort Collins set out on snowmobiles Sunday for a wintry version of Gilligan’s proverbial three-hour cruise on Farwell Mountain north of Steamboat Springs. They learned the hard way that a spontaneous decision to diverge from a backcountry itinerary can lead to unexpected consequences.
Steamboat Today editorial board — June to December 2013
- Suzanne Schlicht, COO and publisher
- Lisa Schlichtman, editor
- Tom Ross, reporter
- David Baldinger Jr., community representative
- Lisa Brown, community representative
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The good news is that friends and family had a general awareness of their plans, they carried a critical piece of emergency equipment, and thanks to their clear thinking, once they realized they were in a jam, everything turned out all right. A search party from Routt County Search and Rescue met the Front Range snowmobilers Monday morning after they dug their snowmobiles out of the deep snow that had plagued them late the previous afternoon.
We can surmise that if the trio had it to do all over again, they would have stuck to their original plan to cut their backcountry snowmobile outing off in time to meet a friend to go ice fishing on Steamboat Lake. We also can guess that in the future, they will be better equipped to spend the night outdoors, even when they’re only planning on a half-day outing.
It’s reasonable to compare the Rocky Mountain environment to the ocean — people who venture into the surf or set out on the ocean in a small boat have to respect its power and unpredictability while recognizing their own limits if they want to be certain of a safe return. The same is true of the mountains.
Weather can change abruptly, people can suffer an injury at the least expected time, it’s possible to become disoriented and lost even in familiar surroundings and terrain features like steep drainages can lure a party into a predicament.
This is not the first time a party of snowmobilers has bogged down on the flanks of Farwell Mountain and needed help from Search and Rescue. It happened in 2009 and again in 2010.
We don’t know precisely what equipment and provisions this week’s snowmobile party brought along for their outing. But we do know they had an inexpensive space blanket and a saw, which, along with fire-starting tools, allowed them to stay reasonably warm next to a wood fire. We also know that they had the sense to stay put, once they realized they had used up the available daylight, and to burrow into the snow for shelter.
But the crux of this incident lies in reports that the party called their fishing friend once from the east side of Farwell’s slopes to say they were on time to keep their appointment, then called again to report they would be later than expected. Soon after, they reportedly gave into the temptation of untracked snow on the east side of the mountain and dropped out of cellphone range in order to pursue it.
The snowmobilers stayed too long at the fair, and when they tried to go home over the mountain, their machines became repeatedly stuck in deep snow. Anyone who has wrestled a snowmobile out of a ditch or swale filled with snow knows how exhausting that can be.
We repeat this tale not to shame the snowmobilers — they did a good job of taking care of one another through what must have been a long night. Instead, we take the opportunity to urge everyone to be safe in the backcountry.
One more critical mistake or a piece of bad luck could have transformed what turned into a benign night out in the woods into a tragedy. And understand that the people who come to your rescue are also jeopardizing their own safety.
Fire-making materials, a topographic map or GPS device, an emergency first-aid kit that includes splint-making materials, a heavier tarp that can be staked to block the wind, extra socks and gloves, and base layer clothing are at the top of a longer list that can increase survival rates.
We believe whether people are skiing within the bounds of Steamboat Ski Area or in the backcountry of the Medicine Bow Routt National Forest, it is incumbent on all skiers to behave responsibly when it comes to their personal safety.
At the ski area, take the time to know and understand the skier’s code. That includes refraining from skiing in areas marked as closed and from reckless skiing. When tree skiing, ski in a group, stay away from tree wells and stop frequently to check on one another.
When skiing or snowmobiling in the back country, avoid avalanche terrain, particularly if you haven’t taken time to ducate yourself on the dangers. Even on short outings, prep your pack to survive a night out in the cold. Always let friends and family know of your route and when you plan to return, then stick to the plan.