Lost Snowmobilers Found Safe Over Weekend
While high country dwellers are glad to see snowstorms roll through, leaving behind miles of fresh snow for outdoor winter activities, backcountry adventure can quickly turn into something more threatening.
Such was the case this weekend as Lake County Search and Rescue (LCSAR) teams were called out to assist with two missing snowmobilers. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending.
According to Public Information Officer Betty Benson, the initial call came into Lake County Dispatch at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 17. The caller reported that two male snowmobilers, ages 53 and 45, had not returned to their car and had not picked up their lunches. Saturday evening a LCSAR team was deployed to the popular snowmobile area known as Chalk Creek. Many residents know the area as the stretch along Highway 91 heading north towards the Climax Mine where vehicles and trailers are often parked in a hap-hazardous and dangerous manner, often time spilling out onto the roadway.
After several hours of twilight-hour attempts continued into the dark night, the first search attempt was called off at midnight on Saturday due to high winds and avalanche conditions. On Sunday, Feb. 18 morning teams were back at the site at 6 a.m. with some additional assistance from the High Altitude Army National Guard Training Site (HAATS), the Vail Mountain Rescue Group, Summit County Search and Rescue, and the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC), all providing advanced technology assistance to aid in the search.
Fortunately the additional flight assistance paid off and a helicopter crew spotted the snowmobilers at 9:30 a.m. While continuing high winds, thwarted an air landing, crews were able to provide the site coordinates to the rescue teams, who eventually made visual contact with the snowmobilers at 10:45 a.m. and made a plan to bring the men down to the Chalk Creek parking lot, concluding the rescue mission at 1:20 p.m., yesterday. The two snowmobilers were uninjured and able to depart with their family members after spending a memorable overnight in the snowy backcountry.
While yesterday’s mission had a safe ending, as backcountry snow conditions change and shift with each winter storm the Colorado Avalanche Information Center is issuing warnings to backcountry enthusiasts to avoid places where you can trigger an avalanche in the Sawatch zone, which includes Lake County. Authorities report that while conditions for triggers “are decreasing, the avalanche you trigger will be large and dangerous. The most dangerous areas are near and above treeline slopes that face northwest, north through east and southeast. Strong winds on Saturday built new cornices and snow drifts that can produce avalanches. You can also trigger an avalanche that breaks down to the very weak snow near the ground.
Last week’s storms produced large natural avalanches throughout the Sawatch zone, which includes Lake County, clearly showing how fragile the old snowpack is and reinforcing the terrain you should avoid. Today, the CAIC cautions users to “avoid traveling on or under slopes steeper than about 35 degrees with new snow drifts. The avalanche hazard is less pronounced on lower elevation south and west-facing terrain, however, these slopes could see an increase in loose snow activity as temperatures rise today.”
The next winter storm is approaching. Expect the avalanche danger to rise in Leadville Today and into Tuesday.