Dig a pit and get ready to wait.
That was 17-year-old Moffat County resident Justin McAlexander’s first thought when he realized he and his two friends, brothers Jesse and Mason Burke, 17 and 13 respectively, had become stranded Feb. 19 while snowmobiling on Black Mountain near Freeman Reservoir.
“It’s instinct, you’ve got to do this to survive,” said McAlexander, who’s been involved in Boy Scouts since fifth grade and attained the rank of Life Scout.
The group set out from Craig with two snowmobiles about 7 a.m.
Two hours later, they arrived at the base of Black Mountain, an area McAlexander often snowmobiles.
For the Burke brothers, it was their first time snowmobiling in the backcountry.
“We’ve rode around on little fields with like two or three feet of snow, but this was our first time up in the mountains,” Jesse said.
The three teens said the first sign of trouble came about 1 p.m., when they arrived at an area known locally as “top of the world.” There, they encountered bad visibility and poor snow conditions, which made moving difficult.
“There was no base (to the snow), so it was all fresh powder,” McAlexander said. “Your sled digs but it never hits anything hard, so you won’t move. You just dig holes.”
Jesse said the snowmobiles kept sinking into the powder as the group tried to maneuver.
As a result, they had to dig both sleds out of several feet of snow. After freeing the sleds, Jesse tried to ascend a hill on one, burying it deeper in the process.
Unable to travel uphill on the remaining machine, McAlexander said deciding where to go next was easy.
“My sled ended up pointing down to a ravine, and it was the only place to go,” he said.
As McAlexander moved through the ravine looking for a way down, he was stopped by a tree in the path in front of a 12-foot drop.
“He walked back to get one of the shovels because they have saws on them,” said Jesse, referring to supplies in an emergency kit McAlexander’s brother had previously stowed in one of the machines. “He got us and we left the other (snowmobile) up there and walked down the hill.”
McAlexander was able to cut the tree down, however the teens still faced a 12-foot drop as well as other trees blocking the desired route.
“That’s when we knew we were spending the night,” Jesse said.
After realizing they were stranded, the teens sprang to action.
McAlexander, who had a working cell phone with him, called 911 at 5:27 p.m. to request help, and then began digging a pit to keep the group warm. Mason started looking for firewood.
Jesse had been unable to find his boot that morning and opted to wear waterproof tennis shoes instead, which resulted in one of his feet getting wet and near freezing.
“I was sitting on the snowmobile trying to warm it up,” he said. “I knew we were going to stay out there so I might as well make the best of it and get ready.”
While McAlexander was finishing the pit, the weather turned, with blizzard conditions making visibility next to nothing. The three teens piled into the pit and used a space blanket from the emergency kit for added cover. McAlexander was also able to get a fire going.
Meanwhile, Moffat County Search and Rescue, aided by local residents and members of the Northwest Colorado Snowmobile Club, established a base of operations around 8 p.m. and began looking for the teens.
Searchers quickly ran into the same maneuvering problems that plagued the teens.
“There’s no base to the snow we have, and that made it very hard to work in,” Moffat County Sheriff Tim Jantz said. “… The search and rescue group did an outstanding job in terrible conditions all night.”
The teens faced problems throughout the night, as well, especially about midnight when they ran out of dry firewood. Visibility also presented another challenge, with conditions so bad searchers wouldn’t be able to see the group.
McAlexander and Jesse came up with a possible solution to both problems: setting fire to the snowmobile.
“Me and (McAlexander) talked about lighting the snowmobile on fire to get warm and for a signal fire,” Jesse said. “So he got up and dropped a match in the gas tank.”
While the fire provided warmth for a couple of hours, conditions were bad enough searchers couldn’t see the fire.
As searchers continued looking throughout the night, the teens were doing all they could to keep warm and their spirits up.
McAlexander’s cell phone was able to receive text messages, but it was apparent to the teens how difficult search conditions were.
“I was pretty much thinking how long will it take to get us and if they were going to get us that night, and if we were going to make it,” Mason said.
Early the next morning, the teens got the message they had waited all night for. Searchers located the other snowmobile at about 6:30 a.m. Monday, which was a short distance from the group.
“At 8 (a.m.) when they still hadn’t found us, I figured I’d walk up the hill and tell them where we were,” McAlexander said.
As soon as rescuers contacted him, McAlexander pointed them to the other two boys.
Rescuers then made a small fire on the spot to warm McAlexander, who was later taken off the mountain by Craig resident Richard Oberwitte while rescuers went to remove the Burke brothers, both of whom were admitted to The Memorial Hospital in Craig after being removed from the mountain.
Mason was treated and released, while Jesse was kept overnight for observation of his foot, which doctors said suffered frostbite. He was released Feb. 21, and is expected to fully heal.
The three boys said they were grateful to have made it though the night, and also grateful for those who searched for them.
“It was horrible conditions, and searchers really pulled off a good job,” McAlexander said.
“Without them, we probably wouldn’t have made it,” added Jesse.
All the boys intend to snowmobile again, but next time they will be better prepared.
“Bring extra everything,” Mason said.
While McAlexander said he wouldn’t go out again without a beacon, being prepared to him means as much about knowing what to do as what to bring.
“Dig a pit, collect more firewood, and keep the fire going,” he said. “And wait, don’t move, stay put. Otherwise, you’re probably going to die.”
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