An operation that resulted in the rescue of two Uintah County men concluded early Monday morning after the pair's snow machines got stuck in a steep canyon near the Wasatch-Duchesne County line.
Wasatch County Search and Rescue Captain Cam Kohler said the 29 and 31-year-old men were snowmobiling in the Soapstone area of the Uinta Mountains.
Search and Rescue received word of the missing snowmobilers at about 6:30 p.m. Sunday night. The men were in a steep canyon when their snow machines got stuck. The terrain was too steep to go back or proceed down the canyon. The men left their snow machines and began to walk out, but the snow was so deep, they gave up and built a fire. It was a delayed text that finally went through to alert rescuers of their condition.
"Very often, you could get a text out where you could never make phone calls, and that's important for people to remember because you can send a text, and your phone will just keep trying to send that text and then all of a sudden, it goes through," Kohler said.
Kohler said it took about four hours to rescue the men from a steep, heavily wooded area. The SAR helicopter searched for a couple of hours and was about to turn back when its crew spotted a campfire burning in a deep canyon. A second Department of Public Safety helicopter equipped with a hoist was brought in to lift the men out. Fifteen volunteer search and rescue team workers from both counties waited on the Soapstone Ridge above the canyon where the men were stuck. If the helicopter rescue became impossible, they would snowshoe down the canyon to bring the men out.
"It was probably about 10 below zero with a little bit of wind chill,” Kohler said. “And once we determined that we couldn't snowmobile into these guys, then we knew we’re going to wait for a while. So, we lit a big fire so we could keep everybody warm while we're waiting for the other helicopter to arrive."
Kohler said anyone going into the backcountry to recreate should always prepare for this type of emergency. Warm clothing, food, and water are critical. He said building a fire can save your life if forced to spend a winter night outside.
"If you're prepared to build a fire, and you're able to pull that off, it does two things--keeps your spirits warm, and it also is a good signal because we would not have found these guys without a helicopter."
Kohler said avalanches are a big concern, especially this year.
"I wasn't concerned about where the people were stuck because they were in a heavy, heavy timbered canyon,” he said. “But when we go into the backcountry, especially in the dark, we always have to be concerned because this year is the worst possible scenario for avalanches. Several times, where we were coming into a canyon, we had to turn around and go a different direction, just because it put [them in] what I call the danger zone."
Kohler said there is no charge to those who get lost and are rescued from the backcountry. Eleven volunteer rescuers were from Wasatch County, and four were from Duchesne County. They use their privately owned snowmobiles and typically can respond to emergencies within minutes of getting a call. The weather was cooperative for using the helicopter.
"We have a businessman that helps Wasatch Search and Rescue by providing use of his helicopter,” he said. “And his pilot happens to be on our Search and Rescue team. This is actually donated and provided by an anonymous businessman from Heber."
The Wasatch County man who owns the helicopter has allowed Search and Rescue to use the equipment for years. Kohler said they've saved lives because of his generosity.
"This chopper has saved a lot of lives over the years in Wasatch County,” he said. “And it's all anonymous donor [who] doesn't want any notoriety. He just wants to be able to help. That's amazing to me."
Kohler said they had everyone off the mountain by about 1:30 a.m. Monday. He commends the volunteers who have jobs and obligations outside of responding to backcountry rescue emergencies.
More photos from the rescue can be viewed at the Wasatch County Search and Rescue Facebook page.