What started out for two relatively experienced snowmobiling buddies as a short ride to grab a bite to eat at a backcountry lodge in the Big Horn Mountains turned into a long night in the cold and one of the most dangerous rescues on record for sheriff’s deputies, search and rescue teams and volunteers.
Snowmobilers Charlie Leonhardt, 52, of Cowley and Jack Smith, 50, of Byron set out at around 4 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27, for what was intended to be a short snowmobile ride to the High Country Lodge, where they planned to grab a bite to eat and then continue on a loop back to their vehicle. According to Sheriff Ken Blackburn, it was a quick trip the men had taken many times before. The only thing that was unusual about it was a thick, moist cloud that lowered itself on the mountain while the men were on their course, creating a fog so dense, even the best snowmobilers in the area had trouble finding their way in it.
Blackburn said a call from a concerned girlfriend of one of the men came into sheriff’s dispatch just shortly after midnight when the men didn’t return home as expected. Blackburn said his department contacted the lodge to see if the men ever arrived. He said when they learned the men hadn’t shown up at the lodge, he knew something had gone terribly wrong.
“When we learned they never made it to the lodge, the search was on,” said Blackburn. “Rescuers began searching almost immediately and the alarm went out to the community.”
First responders found the vehicle the two men used to haul their sleds in the parking lot of the Crystal Creek rest area. Blackburn said this is a staging area commonly used by snowmobilers to park and to unload their snow machines before setting off on an adventure. He said rescuers immediately made it their staging area, as well.
“A lot of people use this parking lot as a staging area,” said Blackburn. “They park here and go to either High Country or Bear Lodge for meals, to play in the snow for a while and then to come back. That’s what these guys intended to do. They actively snowmobile on a regular basis and their typical area to travel would be to turn at the medicine wheel turnoff and follow the high line just above the trees. They would go out toward the old cabins at Porcupine Creek, which is near ‘the jaws’ and play in the snow and then have a meal and go home.
“A lot of people have asked us why they left so late,” said Blackburn. “The reason is that it was just a short jaunt of only a few miles where they were planning to have dinner (at High Country Lodge) and return.” Blackburn said it was a fairly normal trip that the men had been doing all winter. The only difference was the severe and unexpected fog conditions that set in during that jaunt, putting visibility in the area at near zero.
“I don’t think anyone can imagine how dense that fog was up there,” said Blackburn. “It was some of the worst fog I’ve ever seen on the mountain. Even experienced riders, who were very familiar with the area, got turned around in it while they were out there trying to find these guys.”
Blackburn said the operation quickly turned into a very technical rescue, where riders had to use GPS to determine their location, relay their coordinates to a nearby staged command center and wait for instructions on how to proceed.
“It was similar to a pilot flying a plane using instruments only,” explained Blackburn. “These search and rescue riders had to use instruments most of the time they were out there. It was that difficult to find your way around. The conditions were so bad that you couldn’t see 50 feet in front of you, which is exactly why these two guys got lost in the first place.”
Blackburn said it was likely that the two snowmobilers were out on their regular route but ended up lower than normal, which put them a little more into the trees than they realized. That started what Blackburn referred to as a “chain of bad events” where, once they got too low in the trees, they got stuck in the deep snow and tangled in dense foliage.
“The men began fighting to get their snow machines unstuck, which used up a lot of their energy and eventually they became exhausted and actually became separated during the night.”
Blackburn said Smith built a fire to keep himself warm through the night, while Leonhardt sat on his snow machine, keeping it running the entire time to keep himself warm with the heat of the engine. He said the two men were able to find each other at daybreak, at which time they tried to find their way out on foot.
In the meantime, highly experienced snowmobilers from the area set out to look for the men, continuing their search throughout the wee hours of the morning and into the day.
Scott Allred acted as incident commander, with the help of Dennis Woodward. Allred said
the conditions required skilled snowmobile operators with the proper equipment to deal with potential avalanche conditions and GPS devices to guide through the fog. He said the search began around 3 a.m. and required snowmobile operators to confine themselves to roads and trails because of the limited visibility. He said the mist was so bad that the goggles made it even more difficult to see where they were going. He said temperatures dropped into the 20s during the night and stayed in the low 30s during the daylight hours.
Allred said he and Woodward divided a team of 19 volunteer snowmobile riders into seven teams. Only half of those riders were SAR trained, nonetheless each and every one brought a wealth of experience to the mission. He said experienced riders from both ends of Big Horn County, Washakie and Sheridan Counties participated in the rescue. He said the Emergency Operations Manager for Big Horn County LaRae Dobbs arrived on the scene with a trailer full of equipment.
Allred said the National Weather service, the Wyoming Homeland Security staff and a civil air patrol were on the scene eager to help. He said one civilian, Curtis Abraham offered his private helicopter, while another offered a privately owned drone.
Allred said the first sled was found stuck in the snow at around 5:30 p.m. on Thursday by volunteers Levi Miller and Cleve Wilson. Miller and Wilson then found the two victims, who had reconnected after a night apart and had built a fire in an attempt to hunker down for another night in the cold. It was around 7:30 p.m. on Thursday.
Allred said his command center team called for an ambulance, which was waiting for the victims in the staging area at Crystal Creek when they were brought in by rescuers. The victims were brought in to the staging area using a heated snow cat contributed by the staff at High Country Lodge.
“They were exhausted and hypothermic from the ordeal,” said Allred. “Without a doubt, this was definitely an emergency situation.”
Blackburn said the fog had a high density of humidity and created conditions for high risk from hypothermia for both the victims and the rescuers.
“They were fighting hypothermia and actually, they were fighting the odds,” said Blackburn. “I think there’s a possibility that one of them may have not made it through that next night, if we hadn’t found them when we did.
“We had rescuers come in to warm up and thaw out. Their outer clothing was literally frozen,” said Blackburn. “The conditions were so moist that we had at least two very expensive radios fail on us.”
After Wilson and Miller found the two victims, a second rescue team with GPS coordinates within a tenth of a mile of them had trouble finding them, even though they were in an open meadow with a fire burning.
Since Wilson and Miller had to abandon their sleds earlier and continue their rescue efforts on foot, it was crucial for them to link up with the second team to get themselves and the victims out to safety. The second team contacted Wilson and Miller by radio and asked to build a bigger fire, and even with that much larger fire, rescuers on snow machines again passed nearby and couldn’t see them through the dense fog. Wilson and Miller communicated with the second team of rescuers by radio and instructed them to come back. After a bit of back and forth radio contact, the team eventually found Miller, Wilson and the two victims.
“I can’t put enough emphasis on how bad the conditions were and the fact that this was one of the most dangerous rescues we’ve ever had,” said Blackburn. “The real story here is about the rescuers.”
He noted the quick response of rescuers, and the outpouring of help offered by volunteers.
Blackburn said when they realized how technical the search would be, the sheriff’s department posted a call for help on Facebook. He said some of the most experienced snowmobilers in the area responded. According to Keri Wilske-Angell, who managed the department’s Facebook page that day, the page got about 7,000 hits. She said around 6,000 of those hits were in the first hour the call for help was posted.
Blackburn said search and rescue leaders filtered out the less experienced volunteers and ended up with a team of 19 highly experienced volunteers, equipped with their own avalanche gear, GPS devices and a wealth of knowledge about the area. He said the visibility was so low that it was a challenge even for this experienced team of snowmobilers.
“I can’t tell you how it warms my heart the response we get at times like this when we’ve had to call out for help from the community,” said Blackburn. “These guys dropped whatever they were doing at 3 o’clock in the morning, got on their sleds and spent 12 to 14 hours in dangerous conditions to help their fellow man.”
He said those volunteers included many members of the Lovell Volunteer Fire Department along with many other local experts who know the mountain well.
“These guys are very knowledgeable and have some of the best equipment,” said Blackburn. “We literally had the best snowmobilers in the Big Horn Basin on that mountain, helping us search for these guys. They came out of the woodwork when we called for help. It’s kind of a brotherhood. They stick together and they know, if the situation were reversed, someone would do the same for them.”
Blackburn said so many came out to help that he couldn’t even begin to list their names but, in his eye, the “heroes of the day” were Wilson, Miller, Jack Carpenter and Bob and Jeremy Mangus.
“I think Jack probably had a lot to do with saving Charlie’s life with his medical expertise,” said Blackburn.
Blackburn said Carpenter, a provider at North Big Horn Hospital and member of the north end SAR team, was the first to administer medical treatment to the victims. He said Carpenter had the experience, knowledge and medical supplies to treat the men almost immediately after they were found, which Blackburn said will most likely be crucial to their recovery.
Blackburn said Wilson and Miller are both experienced outdoorsmen, and Miller has extensive survival training. Blackburn said when the going got tough, both men insisted on tracking the victims on foot until they located them, placing themselves in harm’s way in the process.
“At about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I got a sick feeling in my stomach,” said Blackburn. “I felt sick knowing that if we didn’t find these men soon, they may not survive another night in these conditions. The chances of their survival were dropping drastically. I felt the probability
of finding them OK was waning, and I felt very strongly that we had to get these guys out that night or we would lose one or both of them. That’s not something I wanted to live with.”
Allred, a highly experienced rescuer himself, said the response by volunteers is not uncommon based on what he has seen as a longtime member of the North Big Horn Search and Rescue team.
“This outpouring of help from the community, surrounding counties and the state reaffirms our way of life,” said Allred. “When people need us, we are there to help. This is the way it is in Wyoming and we’re all proud to be part of that.”
By Patti Carpenter