Last weekend Teton County Idaho Search & Rescue assisted a group of snowmachiners in the Big Holes after they were stranded overnight in a steep drainage.
On the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 18, Madison County Search & Rescue received a call from a member of the party who reported that four people had become separated from their group in the Relay Ridge area of the Big Holes around 3 p.m. and were overdue. MCSAR responded and started working on a rescue at around 6 p.m.
Later Teton County dispatch received a 911 call from a member of the group of four Timbersledders, who reported that they were lost, wet, and needed help. Two of their friends on snowmobiles had tried to help them and subsequently got stuck with them. Dispatch got the coordinates for the stranded group and determined they were just inside the Teton County line, up the North Fork of Canyon Creek. Madison continued to work on the rescue, while 12 Teton County SAR members assembled at the armory, geared up, and waited on standby at Kay’s Dairy. Around midnight, Madison County determined they couldn’t access the group because of the difficulty of the terrain.
Six members of TCSAR snowmobiled as deep into the Big Holes as they could, while four other members worked communications from the trailhead. Once they couldn’t snowmobile in any farther, lead advisor Jason O’Neill, Don Sharaf, Dave Cain, and Kevin Kirchner left Will Mook and Doug Van Houten with the snowmobiles and skinned in on skis. They were in serious avalanche terrain, O’Neill said, and the only reason they were comfortable traveling up the drainage, with the avalanche danger at considerable, was because the Timbersleds had already chewed up the steep slopes in their attempts to get out. O’Neill added that he absolutely trusted Sharaf, a snow safety instructor and co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute, to make that call.
The rescuers reached the stranded party at 3 a.m. The snowmachiners had built a bonfire and no one was injured, but O’Neill said they were pretty unprepared, with no maps, insufficient food, dying phone batteries, and frozen water. One member of the party didn’t have avalanche gear. The SAR crew brought the stranded party food, water, phone chargers, and a cook stove to alleviate their discomfort. While the rescuers did bring snowshoes to the group and offered to lead them out on foot, the snowmachiners wanted to get all their gear out as well, so decided to wait until the sun came up.
“We don’t rescue equipment,” O’Neill said. “So we got them happy and charged their phones and stayed in contact with them, and the team was on standby in case they had an accident or an injury. They were super grateful.”
The SAR members made it to the trailhead by around 6 a.m. on Jan. 19, while the stranded party got out by noon (and returned all borrowed equipment to the sheriff's office). O’Neill noted that the snowmachiners were all local to the western slope of the Big Holes, but the range is challenging to navigate even for people familiar with the terrain.
“The Big Holes are notorious,” he said. “Those canyons get dark quick and are hard to get out of.”
He added that TCSAR is operating with new gear, thanks to recent grants. The team, which doubled in size a year ago, has two new snowmobiles through a CHC Foundation grant, and the most recent Community Foundation Youth Philanthropy program provided the team with the camp stoves that allowed them to make warm food for the stranded party. The team, which is made up entirely of volunteers, is holding its annual fundraising party at the Wildwood Room on Feb. 15.
“None of this would be possible without local grants,” O’Neill said. “And we’ve had some good call-outs and some good training recently. I can’t say enough how nice it’s been gelling with all the new team members.”