After spending two nights in the snow, two snowmobilers and two Franklin County Search and Rescue volunteers walked into the welcoming arms of emergency medical service personnel at about 5 a.m. this morning, Feb. 17.
Wes Pahl and Nic Nulph, both from the American Falls area, had spent Monday snowmobiling in the high country of eastern Franklin County. That afternoon, they got turned around in the stormy conditions, took a wrong turn near Dry Creek, an area in the Birch Creek drainage system, and dropped into a steep ravine full of fresh powder and thick tree stands.
Although fresh powder is sought by snow enthusiasts, there was no base to that powder, said Josh Purser of the Franklin County Sheriff's Office. The men couldn't move their sleds. The FCSO was notified that the men were stranded at 4 p.m on Monday, Jan. 15.
The local search and rescue team immediately organized an effort to help extricate the men from the ravine with Pahl and Nulph's friends, who had come from American Falls when contacted via cell phone.
Because the men were prepared with food, warm clothing and fire, the rescue effort was left until daylight on Feb. 16. Even then, search and rescue efforts were severely hampered by the stormy conditions and the high avalanche danger which currently exists in the mountains all along Cache Valley and south into Utah.
"Heavy snowfall and drifting from strong winds have overloaded an exceptionally weak snowpack, leading to extremely dangerous avalanche conditions," states a release today from the Utah Avalanche Center.
Efforts to reach Pahl and Nulph by snow bikes and by cross country skiers were abandoned due the possibility of triggering an avalanche, said Purser.
"If we would have triggered an avalanche, it would have been a disaster," he said. "We would have lost search and rescue (volunteers) and them."
Efforts to reach the men by helicopter were delayed by the storm until about mid-day on Tuesday, said Purser, when two search and rescue members were dropped nearby with food, dry clothing and snowshoes. The supplies were well appreciated, as the weather was soaking through their clothing.
Once the four men were warm and rested they began snowshoeing their way out. It took them 12 hours.
Initially, they had to climb 1,600 feet in chest-deep snow to get out of the ravine. They spent the night breaking through drifts and following ridges to an area safe for snowmobilers to pick them up. They were brought to the Birch Creek parking lot at 5 a.m. this morning, where support had gathered there to help them.
(Correction: Efforts to reach the men by helicopter were abandoned also due to the storm. S&R volunteers were brought to the top of the ravine by snowmobile, but due to the unsafe conditions and amount of snow, they were unable to ascend through the snow back to the sleds. They led Pahl and Nulph out on a loop that gradually ascended the 1600 feet to the ridges they followed out.)
EMS checked everyone out and found the men in good health. However, one of the rescuers may have developed frostbite on his fingers, said Purser.
Over the 37 hour mission, more than a dozen search and rescue volunteers assisted in the effort, said Purser. They took time off work and most of them used their own sleds to help the stranded men.
"This unit of selfless, trained, brave and loving individuals fall under the umbrella of the Office of the Sheriff, but they don't need much from me. They are a well-oiled machine," posted Sheriff Dave Fryar on Facebook. "The last 24 hours were brutal on them. Out in the severe winter storm and sacrificing personal safety and well being, to make sure others were alive and safe. They are true volunteers and deserve our highest respect. They have mine for sure," he wrote.
According to the Utah Avalanche Center, a brief break in the weather will allow the avalanche danger to drop slightly; however, the center warns that people can still trigger large and deadly avalanches if they venture onto steep slopes.
The center recommends people avoid travel on or underneath slopes steeper than about 30 degrees in the backcountry for the next several days. Even experienced outdoorsmen with the proper avalanche safety equipment, should avoid all steep slopes in the backcountry.
Purser said an unverified report was made of an avalanche in the Hillyard area of Franklin County.