It was Matt’s first mission, and all things considered, I thought he was hanging pretty tough. He and Mike James and I stood in a football huddle, bent over, hands on knees, resting our aching backs. The wind howled and snow blew sideways. It seemed like a long time ago when the sun had still been shining and we’d been running in excited circles, thinking we were on the verge of finding the lost snowmobilers.
I pulled out my radio. “Command, this is snowshoe team one. Do you have shuttlers you can send to pick us up?”
“Snowshoe team, stand by.” I could hear a lot of noise in the background.
I waited a few minutes, then put my radio away. “They’re swamped down there,” I told Mike and Matt. “I think we should just keep walking.”
“We’ve got a long way to go to reach that base camp where the fire pit is,” Mike said.
“I know,” I answered. “But I think things are too hectic down there for them to even realize where we are right now.”
We walked in silence, each of us thinking about the men who had just been picked up by the National Guard Blackhawk helicopter a few minutes ago. How many had been picked up? Were they all alive? Was the search called off, or was one of the three men still out there? We knew that there were too many journalists and family members listening in for command to give us that information over the radio, if they even knew the answers themselves. The Blackhawk had no radio frequency that could communicate with us. And even when I’d left to come into the field, many hours ago, command’s staging area had been completely swarmed with TV cameras already.
“Did you set a waypoint for that fire pit?” I asked Mike.
He nodded, pulling out his GPS. “I don’t think we’re going to need it though. I think if we keep following these snowmobile tracks they’ll take us right there.”
We’d been sent out to access the areas that snowmobile teams couldn’t reach, like the steep gulley where we found one of the lost party’s machines, but now we were on the easier route along Elliott’s Ridge, where all the snowmobile teams had traveled in. I didn’t know how far out we were, but I thought maybe a good ten miles into the remote north end of the Gore Range. Maybe more.
The walk stretched interminably. No one complained, but I knew all three of us were feeling the same thing. We were cold, tired, and discouraged. We’d come off an adrenaline high, thinking we were going to be the ones to make the find, and now realizing we had a long way to go on foot and we were the last ones out in the field. Everyone else was staged at the fire pit, about five miles from command, waiting for final orders.
“Matt, I don’t want you to think it’s always like this,” I told him.
“Yeah. Sometimes it’s worse,” Mike wisecracked.
After what seemed like hours, we finally saw the glow of the fire pit through the trees. I breathed a sigh of relief. Eight or ten snowmobiles were parked outside the clearing in the woods, and there were about 15 rescuers milling about, some from Grand County. The fire pit itself was quite a masterpiece; evidently constructed by recreational snowmobilers that frequented the area, it was a huge pit with snow benches around the fire in the middle, so once down inside it you were completely sheltered from the wind. The three of us climbed into the pit with the others and sat, grateful to be off our feet. Ben Molina offered me some water; my bottle had frozen a long time ago.
“What’s going on?” he said by way of greeting.
“Not much, we’re just glad to be here,” I said. “Do you guys have any idea what’s going on down there?”
Everyone shook their heads.
“There’s been complete radio silence for the last hour or so,” Chad Watson said. “I don’t know why they’re not calling us back; it must be that there’s still one of them out there, or maybe they just don’t know.”
“We thought we had them for a while,” Mike told everyone. We really did, too. One of the lost men, separated from his two buddies, had had the ability to send text messages from his cell phone. His messages were confusing and had been reported from many different sources, including the Coast Guard in Florida, but one of the messages had said that he saw people on snowshoes go by. We were the only snowshoe team in the field at the time, so we believed we were close and began to backtrack frantically. We’d never found any sign of him though.
Tim Faust pulled his Blackberry out. “I’m going to see if I can find out what’s going on,” he said. We were all quiet for a few minutes, thinking about the absurdity of us trying to find out from the media what was happening on our own rescue. After a few minutes, Tim began to read from the Summit Daily. “Two men were picked up by a National Guard Blackhawk in Eagle County. They reported that the third man had died the night before, and they had left his body propped against a tree.”
“The coordinators must already know this,” Chad mused. “It must be that they’re trying to keep the family members down there from hearing it over the radio.”
“Yeah, but why don’t they just pull us back in?” Ben asked.
“I don’t know, but it can’t hurt to try and find out,” Chad answered. He radioed command. “Command, Rescue 42. Should we start organizing snowmobile shuttles to get everyone out?”
Mark Svenson’s voice came back over the radio. “Rescue 42, stand by. We’re sending some ranchers up with a snowcat to pick you up.”
A couple of us cheered. It was cold out, and riding two on a snowmobile was always uncomfortable.
It was long after midnight when Mike, Matt and I finally reached the parking area where command had been staged. The scene that had been a circus hours ago was now quiet, and almost everyone was gone; the media, the rescue trucks, the family members and bystanders, the professional snowmobile team that had been assisting us in the search. There was one rescue coordinator, Mark Svenson, and a Sheriff’s deputy left on scene.
“So what the hell happened?” I asked Mark.
“You won’t believe it,” Mark answered. “Do you remember hearing over the radio that the search helicopter had to make an emergency landing? Well, they sent that Blackhawk over with a mechanic. That chopper wasn’t even part of the search. It came over and fixed the downed helicopter, and then as it was leaving to go back to Eagle County, I asked the pilot to fly over the search area.”
I nodded, remembering the moment when we’d seen two helicopters flying very low right over our heads, just as we were on top of a cliff scanning the valley below us. I’d assumed we had gotten a second chopper on the search.
“They made a couple passes and then headed home,” Mark continued. “And a couple miles into Eagle, they saw a fire and two men waving, so they landed.” He shook his head. “All this time, those men weren’t even in the same county we were looking in!”
“But what about those text messages?” I protested. Not only had the text messages from one of the lost men said that he saw snowshoers, he also said he heard helicopters.
“He was delirious with hypothermia. Mark Watson and Charles Pitman went down to the Glenwood Springs hospital to interview the subjects and they said they saw Burger Kings and Taco Bells too.”
I took a moment to absorb that information. If I’d been out for nearly three nights in sub-zero temperatures, I’m sure I would have hallucinated too. In fact, it’s a miracle only one of them died.
“I’m sorry we left you out there so long,” Mark said. “It was crazy down here, and everyone was listening in to our radio transmissions. Channel Nine News even broadcast one of them on TV.”
“No worries,” I told him. I took my gear off slowly, with frozen fingers, and waved to the rest of my snowshoe team as I pulled out, thinking about a hot shower and a soft bed.