3 snowmobilers withstand frigid elements for a night on Black Mountain
On New Year’s day, Craig resident Kevin Willbanks left with his son and a friend for a three-hour snowmobile tour of Black Mountain.
But, things didn’t go according to plan.
Something went wrong.
The three men wouldn’t return until the next morning.
In the intervening hours, the men built a fire pit and waited in subzero temperatures in pure wilderness for the sun to rise.
But, there’s a twist.
Kevin said the ordeal wasn’t so bad.
“We were never cold,” he said. “We were prepared.”
Kevin, 49, credits his survival to his friends, Moffat County Search and Rescue, and most of all, his survival gear.
“I’ve been doing this for a long, long time,” Kevin said of snowmobiling. “I’ve carried that survival pack with me for 18 years, and that’s the first time I’ve ever used it.
“But, I had it with me, and it saved us.”
The trip began at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Kevin, his son Kelton Willbanks, and friend Larry Stockstill geared up their sleds and left the Freeman Trailhead for the Black Mountain summit.
Kevin said he’s made that same trip numerous times.
“I’ve been going there for years and years,” he said. “It’s not a marked trail system. It’s off the main trails. I guess some people would call it ‘extreme.’ We do a lot of unmarked trail bashing and call it ‘boondocking.’”
However, Kelton took a wrong turn along the way.
“It was one of those things where you think you know where you’re going,” said Kelton, 19. “And, the next thing you know, you’re in a creek bottom thinking, ‘This is not where I’m supposed to be going.’”
Kelton inadvertently drove into a steep drainage. And, while it was easy to get into, it was impossible to get out.
Kevin and Stockstill waited at the top of the drainage for Kelton to return, but eventually drove in after him.
“We stayed together,” Kevin said. “That’s one of the rules — always stay together.”
The three men met up about a mile into the drainage, then looked for a way out.
Kevin said he knew there was a trail at the bottom of the drainage, but they were separated from the trail by thick woods.
“It’s dense, dense forest like you can’t believe,” Kevin said. “And the drainage runs down through there, and you’ve got open creeks that have 4-foot walls on them.
“It’s hard to get across.”
Before sunset, Kevin drove as far as he could up the drainage to try to get cell coverage. He managed to get a partial call out to his wife, Karma Willbanks.
“I said, ‘We’re in trouble. We dropped into a drainage. We don’t know whether we can get out. Give us a couple of hours.’ And then the call got cut off,” Kevin said.
Karma waited two hours. She then started dialing friends.
By 7 p.m. a seven-man search party rode into the darkness of Black Mountain in search of their friends.
Around that same time, Kevin, Kelton and Stockstill had abandoned their attempt to get off the mountain.
“We just decided the smart thing to do — rather than to get tired, get stuck and get wet — we’d just build a fire and spend the night,” Kevin said. “And, that’s what we did.”
For the next 90 minutes, the men used shovels to dig a pit and saws to cut timber. They cut down 10-inch diameter lodge pole pines, cut the trunks into 10-foot logs, and stacked them into a pit 10-feet wide.
“By the time we were done, it looked like a big beaver herd came through there,” Kelton said.
Kevin said they used gasoline from the snowmobiles to start the fire. His survival pack contains a siphon.
“We had a fire like you wouldn’t believe,” Kevin said.
Kevin said that as the fire burned, the snow beneath melted away. What started as a fire pit 2-feet deep grew to be 7-feet deep and 15 feet in diameter.
The fire was hot.
“We were like rotisserie chickens,” he said. “We would just stand up and rotate, and keep warm on all sides. It was really quite comfortable. There were no signs of stress on any one of us because we were truly warm.
“We actually had to take our shovels and dig back, because we were getting too hot.”
Kelton said the men were able to sleep, but not much.
“You’d get warm and nod off for a little while, but then you’d wake up because your boot was on fire,” Kelton said. “The boots were so well insulated you could never feel the warmth until you could smell burning rubber.”
The men also ate well thanks to Stockstill, a vacationer from Stockton, Mo. He also brought survival gear, which included military-style MREs, or meals ready to eat.
Despite feeling warm and safe, the men felt uneasy.
“Once we got the fire going, we were warm and we knew we were fine,” Kevin said. “But, nobody else knew we were fine. That was the frustrating thing. We couldn’t tell them, ‘Hey, we’re just going to wait it out.”
A mile above, seven of Kevin’s friends were tracking him.
Clifton resident Irin Johnson was one of the people searching. He said the search party didn’t need to consult the pros.
“We didn’t figure we needed any rescue people, because we were all good riders in our group, said Johnson, 70. “We didn’t need a bunch of people up there that we’d be babysitting all day.”
The search team had left the trailhead at 7 p.m.
Craig resident Seth Peters said he tracked the stranded snowmobilers to the edge of the drainage by midnight.
“Knowing where Kevin goes makes it pretty easy,” Peters said of the tracking. “The hardest part was deciding which way the tracks went last whenever they got into a play area.”
The searchers knew the drainage was a trap, so they decided to return to a nearby cabin to warm up and gear up.
At 2:30 a.m., in temperatures nearing 22 below zero, Peters, Andy Dewall and Bret Grandbouche set out once again toward the drainage. The three men dropped into the drainage and continued their search.
“At about 5 a.m., we stopped to rest and build a fire,” Dewall said. “And we waited until daylight to finish following their tracks.”
Around that time, Johnson traveled to Craig to restock on fuel for the searchers. While there, Johnson said he learned of a stalled effort to mount an air search.
“They told me that the planes didn’t want to go out looking for them until they had an idea of where to look,” Johnson said. “I knew I could take a plane right to them, where we last seen their tracks.”
Johnson drove to the airport, boarded a plane, and was piloted toward Black Mountain by Blaine Tucker.
“It took about 10 minutes to fly up there, and we found them in about three or four minutes.”
Johnson said he saw six sleds and six smiling men as the plane circled the location and tipped its wings. Peters, Dewall and Grandbouche had found Kevin, Kelton and Stockstill.
The plane radioed the position to Moffat County Search and Rescue, who arrived shortly thereafter to lend support.
In the morning sun, the men broke trail through the bottom of the drainage toward home.
Karma said news of her family’s survival was overwhelming.
“It was great,” she said. “It was euphoric — a relief that they were really, truly OK.”
However, she said she had a hunch they’d be fine.
“They’re some extreme riders,” she said. “I know that they’re well equipped, they can get into just about anything, and they can get themselves out of anything.”
Kevin said he’s proud of the friends he has.
“The definition of friend is someone who’ll go out when it’s 22 below and look for your stupid butt,” he said. “If that doesn’t define friendship, I don’t know what friendship is.”
Dewall said he never gave it a second thought.
“No second thoughts at all,” he said. “Not when your buddy’s out there.”
Peters expressed similar sentiments.
“You just do what you do. It’s your friends,” he said. “You don’t know if they need you or not, so you just go and do it.”
Moffat County Sheriff Tim Jantz said his department gives tacit approval to do-it-yourself rescue efforts.
“We know that people are going to do that. We can’t prohibit them from doing that,” Jantz said. “But, when they’re out searching for their friends, we advise them to be well equipped, familiar with the terrain, and always go in a group.
“So, we advocate that if they take things into their own hands that they are well-versed in the backcountry.”
Kelton agrees that preparation is important. And, he credits the members of his own party for his survival.
“Even if you’re going out for 10 minutes, make sure you’re prepared. I wasn’t even on my personal sled, so I didn’t have anything except for a frozen hamburger and a bottle of water. I was like, ‘Good thing (Stockstill) came with his MREs and all that stuff.”
Despite the hardships, Stockstill said he’s game for another snowmobile outing with Kevin.
“I hope he’ll take me again,” he said.
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