A text message from two Minnesota snowmobilers who became lost and stranded for 15 hours in a frigid Colorado wilderness overnight helped rescuers find them Wednesday afternoon.
John Rocky, 49, of Cold Spring, and his 20-year-old son Tim, known as TJ, built a fire to survive single-digit temperatures overnight Tuesday. When the sun rose Wednesday, the two pulled out a cell phone and texted family members and eventually tried to walk out of Bowen Gulch in a mountainous area at 10,400 feet in the Arapaho National Forest.
Using a map made after the text signal pinpointed the pair's location, Mark McCutcheon and two other rangers from Rocky Mountain National Park skied three miles up into rough terrain and found the lost snowmobilers hiking down through three feet of snow.
"They looked exhausted, dehydrated and hungry, but they were in good spirits," McCutcheon said. "They did the right things to survive."
The two men were in an area of the Never Summer Wilderness Area that is officially off-limits to snowmobilers. McCutcheon said the two told rescuers that they became disoriented.
"This is the snowmobile capital of Colorado," McCutcheon said. "There are extended trail systems, but they got lost. They zigged when they should have zagged. ... They pushed the envelope and went deep into a [creek bed area], were disoriented and got buried in steep terrain."
The heavy, powerful mountain snowmobiles they were using got deeply buried in powdery snow on a hillside, the ranger said. He said the two found a sheltered area in the forest and built a fire overnight.
According to the Grand County Sheriff Office, the two were reported overdue Tuesday evening. A search and rescue team looked for them from midnight to 4 a.m., and then suspended the search until daylight.
Around 9 a.m. Wednesday, the lost snowmobilers sent a text message to family members. McCutcheon said that message was forwarded to a command post 10 miles away, and then information on the lost men's apparent location was plotted on maps for four search teams, which totaled about a dozen people.
Armed with food, water and snowshoes, McCutcheon and two other park rangers skiied up mountains in clear, sunny weather toward the men's last known location. Around 1 p.m. Minnesota time, the searchers shot up a flare to contact other search teams and were talking on a radio when they heard men shouting, "Hey! Hey! Hey!"
In black-and-red snowmobile suits, father and son were stomping down a slope through deep snow. They had left their helmets behind with the stuck machines but had hats and gloves and were sweating from the effort of slogging through the snow.
"We gave them applesauce and other simple sugars, snowshoes and rebroke a trail so they could walk out," McCutcheon said. "Their spirits were good -- they were stout Minnesotans."
Though one of the men had bruised ribs, they had no frostbite and appeared healthy, the ranger said. A half-mile from the rescue staging area in the park, snowmobiles picked the two men up. After interviews with the sheriff and physical checks by emergency personnel, father and son were reunited with their family.
McCutcheon said winter emergencies connected to snowmobiles are common near the national park. Two snowmobilers were recently buried in an avalanche and died. He said crews from the park search for lost snowmobilers about a dozen times each winter.
The father and son are down off the mountain, but the snowmobiles they were riding are still up there, stuck in the snow.
And they could be there till spring, McCutcheon said.
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380
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