Two snowmobilers stranded overnight on Wolf Creek Pass

Photo courtesy The Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office, Office of Emergency Management
The Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office, Office of Emergency Management set up rescue operations at Fall Creek Road Sunday after a father and son became stranded near Treasure Mountain on Wolf Creek Pass.

By Clayton Chaney
Staff Writer

On Sunday, Jan. 24, two snowmobilers, a father and son, were stranded overnight near Treasure Mountain on Wolf Creek Pass.

According to Archuleta County Director of Emergency Operations Mike Le Roux, the Archuleta County Combined Dispatch Center received a call at approximately 5:10 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 24, for two snowmobilers who had become stranded in the Fall Creek drainage area on the southeast side of Treasure Mountain.

The party became “immobilized due to conditions,” Le Roux said.

He explained that the party had parked their vehicle at the parking area at the top of Wolf Creek Pass on U.S. 160.

He went on to note that the party had some navigational issues which led them downhill into the Fall Creek drainage area, where their snowmobiles were unable to climb back uphill or continue downhill and became stuck due to the amount of snow held in the drainage.

The dispatch center was able to contact the snowmobilers directly and obtain the coordinate points for their location.

Le Roux explained that the stranded party was able to provide their coordinate points by referencing the map application on a smartphone. 

The coordinates plotted the snowmobilers at the top end of the Fall Creek drainage, according to Le Roux.

He went on to explain that a crew from Upper San Juan Search and Rescue and a crew from the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office’s emergency operations were mobilized and made their way to a turnout near mile marker 163 on U.S. 160, close to Forest Service Road 039, also known as Fall Creek Road.

Le Roux then needed to coordinate with Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and Colorado State Patrol (CSP) through the Montrose Interagency Dispatch Center to have CDOT plow the area, as there was nearly 2 feet of snow piled up in the area where search and rescue crew needed to access with their vehicles.

He noted that CDOT was able to show up and plow the area within 15 minutes.

By this time, multiple agencies were on scene including Archuleta County emergency operations, Upper San Juan Search and Rescue, CSP, CDOT and the Mineral County Sheriff’s Office.

“Conditions were unfavorable … it was almost a total whiteout,” Le Roux said. 

He added that it was snowing as much as an inch and hour at times and the depth of snow was up to the waist or even chest in certain areas.

According to Le Roux, at approximately 8 p.m. an initial team of three was deployed on snowmobiles to attempt to make contact with the stranded party and assess the situation before sending out any additional resources. Another crew of three was deployed also on snowmobiles shortly after in an attempt to make a packed trail along Fall Creek Road.

He mentioned that the crews considered using an ATV equipped with snow tracks to transport the stranded snowmobilers out to safety, but due to the depth of the snow they were only able to use snowmobiles to contact the stranded party. 

Le Roux noted that search and rescue crews had contact with the stranded party throughout the evening and directed them to stay in the same location since they had good cell reception and crews knew their location.

He went on to explain that the snowmobile crews went approximately 5 miles in on Fall Creek Road where they set up at the base of the Fall Creek drainage. 

According to Le Roux, two rescuers were deployed into the field with skis and skins in attempt to hike up the drainage and make contact with the stranded party. However, the two rescuers were called back shortly after due to conditions.

Le Roux explained that with the worsening conditions, the decision was made to bring the crews out of the field at risk of endangering rescuers.

“We were operating at night in a blizzard in conditions that were less than favorable,” said Le Roux. 

He also noted that the call to pull all resources out of the field occurred at approximately 11 p.m. 

Le Roux emphasized that the volume of snow in the drainage area posed many dangers, including a high risk of an avalanche. 

He explained that communication with the stranded party continued. He noted the stranded party was able to make a fire and were given instruction on how to build a snow shelter in order to stay warm and dry. Both snowmobilers were in stable condition, with the son having only a minor lower leg injury and abdominal pain.

Le Roux went on to mention that the hope was the weather would improve and that operating with any sort of daylight would be safer.

He explained that the decision was made to reconvene crews at 6 a.m. the next morning at the same location.

He explained that Wolf Creek Ski Area CEO and President Davey Pitcher was notified of the situation and a team of three ski patrollers was deployed from Wolf Creek Ski Area at approximately 7:30 a.m. 

At the same time, a crew of rescuers was deployed on snowmobiles along the same route as the night before. The ski patrollers approached from the top of the drainage while the crew deployed on snowmobiles hiked up from the bottom of the drainage. 

According to Le Roux, both crews arrived at the party’s location at approximately the same time, from which point crews were able to hike down with both members of the party to the bottom of the drainage, where they were then transported back to the turnout location on U.S. 160 and Fall Creek Road to a waiting Pagosa Springs Medical Center (PSMC) ambulance.

Le Roux indicated that crews arrived back at the ambulance with the both members of the stranded party at approximately noon. 

Both members of the party were transported to PSMC.

He noted that crews did not notice any signs of serious hypothermia or frostbite on either snowmobiler.

The rescue crews were unable to recover the stranded snowmobiles as they were left in the location in which rescuers contacted the stranded party. 

Le Roux praised the multiple agencies working together on the mission and noted how important it was that CDOT was able to keep the turnout area plowed for base operations.