A group of Baker County snowmobile riders rapidly shifted from recreationists to rescuers the day after Christmas when a group of riders from Washington got lost during a blizzard in the Wallowa Mountains north of Halfway.
The locals, members of the Panhandle Snowmobile Club in eastern Baker County, found the five snowmobilers, none of whom was injured, and escorted them back to a parking area about four hours after the rescue operation started.
The episode showed the value both of the GPS-equipped emergency transmitter the Washington snowmobilers carried, and of having a local cadre of riders who are familiar with the terrain and willing to help others, Baker County Sheriff Travis Ash said on Monday, Dec. 27.
“They made a pretty seamless transition from enjoying their day to a rescue mission,” Ash said of the Panhandle Snowmobile Club members.
The incident started about 5:28 p.m. Sunday when Ash received a phone call from Brandon Christensen, a Washington man who is friends with the five snowmobilers.
Christensen told the sheriff that his friends, who had limited cell service, had called to tell him they were lost in the Fish Lake area, about 14 miles north of Halfway.
Christensen said in a phone interview with the Herald on Monday afternoon that he is also an experienced snowmobiler who has participated in search and rescue missions, involving snowmobiles, with the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office.
Christensen said he was riding his snowmobile in the Tollgate area, north of Elgin, on Sunday. He said he had just returned to his cabin when he got a phone call from Mike Kelly, a friend from Burbank, Washington, near the Tri Cities.
Kelly said he and four other riders, all of them friends with Christensen, were riding in the Fish Lake area north of Halfway and that they were lost in a storm that brought fog, snow and gusty winds that eradicated their tracks. The riders couldn’t find their way back to the trailhead in the dark.
“I immediately started making phone calls,” Christensen said.
One of those was to the Wallowa Avalanche Center in Joseph, where a staff member gave Christensen a phone number for Ash.
Kelly used his cellphone to send Christensen a digital map ostensibly showing their location. But the map showed them to be in the Catherine Creek area, more than 15 miles to the west.
At about 5:43 p.m., the Baker County Sheriff’s Office received an SOS alert from a Garmin satellite device. The message stated that several snowmobilers, one of whom had a medical condition, were lost. The message pinpointed the group’s location near Fish Lake.
Ash said it was clear that this was the same group that Christensen had called him about.
Christensen said another member of the group, John Mecham of Kennewick, brought the Garmin InReach satellite device.
Ash said he told Christensen, who had intermittent cellphone contact with Kelly, to tell the group to stay where they were since the GPS message had established their location.
Christensen said his friends had ridden in the area several times, but were unable to get their bearings in the storm.
They did have materials to start a fire, as well as some food.
“They’re experienced riders,” Christensen said. “That’s something all snowmobilers should do, to be prepared even if they don’t think they’ll ever be stranded.”
Ash said that after confirming the group’s location he called Duane Miles of the Panhandle Snowmobile Club, who immediately started assembling riders while Ash was en route from Baker City to Halfway.
Ash said the sheriff’s office has worked with members of the Panhandle Snowmobile Club for many years, and their knowledge of the area is valuable.
“They know the terrain and they’re used to riding it all the time,” he said.
Several of the club members who participated in the rescue had been riding in the area earlier in the day, and they refueled their machines and headed back into the mountains despite the darkness and the severe weather.
The club members reached the five Washington men about 9:10 p.m. They were cold and tired but otherwise OK. They rode back about nine miles to the Clear Creek Sno-Park on the road to Fish Lake.
The group, in addition to Kelly and Mecham, consisted of John Rasmussen of Kennewick, and Alan Townsend and Steve Paget, both from Burbank.
The sheriff’s office thanked the members of the Panhandle Snowmobile Club who helped in the rescue: Dusty Traw, Ray Denig, Kyle Bennett, Josh Sevier, Kyle Dennis, Chad DelCurto, Tucker Gulick, Kelly Grisham, Shane Denig.
Christensen said he talked with Kelly on Monday morning, and he and the other riders expressed their gratitude to the Panhandle Club members, Ash and everyone else who assisted in the rescue.
“They were super thankful for all the help,” Christensen said. “It was really amazing how quickly the community banded together.”
Ash and Christensen agreed that the incident is a reminder of why all outdoor recreationists should carry a GPS device that has the capability to send messages via satellite, allowing them to summon help even from areas lacking cell service.
Had rescuers had only the snowmobilers’ cell-derived map as guidance, they would have searched in the wrong place, and the riders would have had to spend at least one night in the mountains, Ash said.
The nearest weather station to the rescue site, a snow-measuring device at Schneider Meadows, recorded temperatures as low as 10 degrees early Monday.