There was nothing unusual about the afternoon plans made by four Baker County men, two brothers and their two cousins, when they headed for the Elkhorn Mountains Saturday.
But what was expected to be a typical day trip on snowmobiles turned deadly when one of the four was engulfed by an avalanche just a short time after the afternoon adventure got its start.
Richard Delbert “Rick” Stephens, 33, whose Muddy Creek Lane home sits just a few miles from the Rock Creek trailhead where the four men enjoy snowmobiling, was dug out from under about 5 feet of snow by his snowmobiling family mates Saturday afternoon. He died at the scene.
Rick’s brother, Dustin Stephens, 28, of North Powder, and Rick’s cousin, Brad Feik, 34, of Haines, recalled the tragic accident in an interview Monday morning. The fourth member of Saturday’s snowmobiling party was their cousin, Kyle Peterson, 28, of Pendleton.
The four men grew up in the Rock Creek area west of Haines.
The four head for the Elkhorns year round in pursuit of adventures in their time away from their day jobs.
Rick was a farmer, Dustin is a helicopter pilot for Baker Aircraft, Brad is a representative for the Hytorc bolting company and Kyle is a shop foreman for Pioneer Construction.
In all their years together the four had never had a riff between them, the cousins said.
They relied on each other as they pursued their love of the outdoors together and were prepared for any emergency that might befall them, Dustin Stephens said.
As they do on every snowmobiling trip, the four carried their avalanche preparedness backpacks that included beacons, which can guide rescuers to their position if they’re caught in a slide, as well as probes to locate a victim and shovels to dig out a person caught by an avalanche.
The quartet left Rick’s house about noon Saturday and made their way to the trailhead. Before they started riding, as they always do, the four activated their avalanche beacons in transmit mode to help searchers find them in case of an emergency.
They had been riding for about an hour and half in a small basin area and Dustin and Brad had stopped to talk for a moment while Kyle and Rick continued ahead. The two heard Kyle’s call of “avalanche,” the same call Kyle had heard from Rick, who was riding ahead, just moments earlier.
The three arrived in the area where Rick had been caught in the avalanche within seconds.
By turning their avalanche beacons to search mode they were able to quickly locate the spot where Rick disappeared. There was no sign of him or his snowmobile in the deep snow.
The men then used their avalanche probes, poles about 10 feet long, to punch through the snow at the site where their beacons had directed them.
They used their shovels to dig and they located Rick within 10 to 15 minutes. He was unresponsive when they got him to the surface, Dustin and Brad said.
They began CPR, continuing for some time until nightfall approached. Kyle eventually took Dustin’s cellphone to an area where service was available to call for help.
Dustin said the men were hopeful for a good outcome for Rick, but it wasn’t to be. He believes there’s nothing that they could have done differently. They were well-prepared, trained and had the proper equipment that allowed them to successfully find Rick, precautions he hopes other less experienced snowmobilers will consider when they head to the mountains.
“We all go prepared, we always have,” he said.
Dustin brought Rick’s body down from the mountain on his snowmobile. The four were met by Search and Rescue Team members who had assembled at the trailhead to offer assistance.
The three men knew their knowledge of the area and their experience riding through the mountains was vital to bringing Rick out that night.
“There was never an option of leaving him there,” Dustin said.
Rick is survived by his wife, Ashley, and their three children: Rev, 7; Della, 6; and Riki, 3.
Friends have established the Rick Stephens Memorial Fund through US Bank for their benefit.
A Go Fund Me account titled “Support for the Stephens Family” had collected more than $21,000 by Tuesday morning, exceeding its goal of $10,000. To donate, go to gofundme.com and search for the title.
Friends also have mounted a “Meal Train” campaign to provide food for the family in the weeks ahead. An outpouring of support at the mealtrainplus website shows people signed up through most of February and into March to provide meals. To join that effort, go to www.mealtrain.com/trains/ze5nne
There will be a visitation for Rick Stephens from noon to 3 p.m. Friday at Gray’s West & Co. Pioneer Chapel, 1500 Dewey Ave. His memorial service will take place at the old North Powder School gymnasium on Saturday, Jan. 18, at 1 p.m. Following the service there will be a reception in the gym. In lieu of flowers, friends who would like to make a donation are encouraged to do so to the Rick Stephens Memorial Fund. To light a candle for Rick or to share a memory or condolence with his family, go to www.graywestco.com