A harrowing experience

“God was looking after us, I’ll tell you that,” said an emotional Chad Tweeten, 43, Washburn.

Tweeten was one of five North Dakota snowmobilers who got caught in a sudden snowstorm in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains. All five survived after becoming stranded in an unforgiving wilderness battered by the misfortunes of winter.

The ordeal began shortly after the group enjoyed lunch at a remote oasis that is reached only by snowmobile during the Wyoming winter. It was there, at the Bighorn’s High Country Lodge, that the group had a happenstance meeting with Shawn Schafer of Turtle Lake. Schafer was both surprised and happy to see well-known acquaintances from Mercer: Rod Schilling, Dustin Schlichting, James and Jaren Murray, and Tweeten of Washburn. All were there for the same reason – to enjoy some backcountry snowmobiling.

“We had lunch together and then our two groups rode off in different directions,” said Schafer.

That was Thursday, Feb. 20. Schafer was riding sleds with fellow deer farmers who were more than willing to show off cellphone photographs of their biggest deer of the season. It was a lighter moment for the two groups, something that helped Schafer take his mind off an unfortunate encounter along a Bighorn snowmobile trail less than 48 hours earlier.

Schafer and his fellow riders were following a trail on Tuesday when they came upon a man standing next to a snowmobile. A second man was lying in the snow a few feet away.

“I think he’s dead,” said the standing man.

He was. The elderly man had succumbed to a heart attack while trying to dig his snowmobile out of deep snow. According to Schafer, the surviving man was an 80-year-old from Indiana.

“That’s how we started our week. It was a bad one,” said Schafer.

A big part of what Schafer called a bad week was due to something much worse, news received later that the five fellow snowmobilers he saw during lunch were missing. Schilling, Schlichting, both Murrays and Tweeten failed to return to Bear Lodge Resort that afternoon as expected. As daylight disappeared and night set in, anxiousness concerning the whereabouts of the five North Dakotans turned to grim reality. It became increasingly obvious that something must have gone terribly wrong.

An avalanche was a possibility. A barrage of snow could easily injure or cover snowmobilers. Mountain terrain can be treacherous. Snow unpredictable. Spending a night on the mountain in February unthinkable. All knew these scenarios can quickly turn from a hoped for joyous rescue to grisly recovery.

The weather had gotten worse too, much worse. Snow was falling and the wind was blowing, especially in the higher elevations where the riders were believed to have been headed. While those at the lodge considered what might have gone wrong and what to do next, the temperature dropped to zero.

Up on the mountain and obscured by a sudden snowstorm, the five snowmobilers became separated. Tweeten, last in line, had his sled get bogged down in the snow while the others disappeared from view. He wouldn’t see them again until two more nights had passed.

“It turned out to be a nightmare,” said Tweeten.

Tweeten had no choice but to stay put. His snowmobile was stuck and walking out in deep snow during a heavy snowfall was impossible. He did what stranded people are instructed to do. He stayed in place in the hope that either his fellow snowmobilers would return or a rescue party would arrive. Tweeten took shelter underneath a tree, standing up.

“I knew if you lay down you are going to die. If you sleep you are going to die,” said an emotional Tweeten. “It was a harrowing experience.”

Tweeten stayed on his feet throughout his first night, refusing to lay down. He broke some branches on which to stand, a move that kept his feet off the cold snow. He ate some snow to keep partially hydrated. He had no food. The following morning conditions were so bad that rescue attempts were futile. Finally, they were called off completely.

“The rescuers actually tried to get into that area on the first day, but you could only see 12 inches in front of you. It was that kind of snow,” said Roberta Young, owner of the Bear Lodge Resort and a 20-year veteran of winters in the Bighorn Mountains. “Everybody wanted to do more.”

Schafer was among those eager to participate in the search for the missing snowmobilers, but the weather on Day 1 was far too treacherous to search effectively.

“The wind blew. It was snowing. We couldn’t see,” said Schafer. “It was a white-out.”

On the mountain the Murrays, Schilling and Schlichting made an attempt to ride out of their predicament. They had cellphones but were beyond a service area. Calls to 9-1-1 were to no avail. They couldn’t get what they considered a decent compass reading on a cell phone either, but opted to give it a try. They wound up driving in a circle, arriving where they had started. The group then decided to stay put.

“Those four started a fire with the spark plugs and built a small shelter for the first night,” said Schafer in an email.

The group used a spark plug to ignite a map dipped in gasoline from one of the snowmobile tanks as a fire starter. Contrary to several reports, the snowmobiles were not out of gasoline. The men were stranded in deep snow and a raging storm. They were facing a second night on the mountain and still didn’t know the fate of Tweeten.

“We knew they were very good riders, very experienced,” said Schafer.

“We had to remain optimistic,” said Young. “We had another group a few years back missing for 2 1/2 days. They were found OK, just frostbite issues. You have to concentrate on the positive.”

The missing snowmobilers had no choice but to do the same. The group of four managed to dig out one sled the following morning and get it turned around, actually riding for a time until it ran out of gasoline. Stranded again, they built another shelter and melted snow in an aluminum can so they would have some drinking water. They still had nothing to eat but, according to Schafer’s account, built another fire and a better shelter.

Tweeten, with his snowmobile buried in deep snow, chose to remain where he was following his night alone on the mountain. He was tired, cold at times, but managed to stay standing with occasional walking in place to keep warm. Weather prevented a search. Tweeten prepared as best he could for a second night on the mountain.

“I was thinking about my family, determined to not to die,” said Tweeten. “I have a really hard time talking about it.”

All five watched as darkness fell over them, wondering if the weather on Day 2 would be good enough to allow searchers to find them, or if they’d have to spend another night in the snow covered wilderness.

“The second day they tied small plastic shovels to the lead person’s feet and started walking out,” said Schafer. “After going a ways they were relieved to find Chad alive and well.”

The group was reunited but still stranded and uncertain what their fate would be. The five were able to free Tweeten’s stuck sled and decided to send James Murray on it in the hopes of finding a way out or summoning help. Fortunately the snowstorm had passed and the weather was good enough to permit search parties to go out.

James Murray had both good luck and bad luck. Twice he got stuck on Tweeten’s snowmobile. While digging out the second time he heard other snowmobiles ride past him on a ridge above. They were part of a search team, but couldn’t see Murray who was close to the mountain beneath them.

Later the searchers spotted a fresh snowmobile track and realized it had to be from the missing North Dakotans. They dropped down off the ridge and followed the tracks. Murray had freed his snowmobile and joined the rescuers as they made their way back to the stranded group. It was a joyous reunion.

“Rescue was first class. They showered us with help,” said a grateful Tweeten.

According to Schafer, 20 additional rescuers were called in, bringing additional gasoline and digging out all the snowmobiles. It was one o’clock. At 5 p.m. they drove into Bear Lodge Resort.

“Everyone was really excited to see them. Family and friends had arrived here and were waiting to see them, really emotional and relieved,” said Young. “They were happy to be back and, obviously, the families were happy.”

“No medical attention was needed. We spent the night celebrating,” said Schafer from his home in Turtle Lake. “It feels good to be home with everyone safe and sound.”