SHERIDAN, Wyo. - The recent rescue of a stranded snowmobiler in the Bighorn Mountains is being hailed as a miracle.
Rescuers in a helicopter first spotted the man who had become stuck and already had spent one night in the mountains. The rescuers saw the man in the late afternoon as he tried to climb through waist-deep snow toward the top of a ridge.
"He was pretty out of it," said Mark J. Watkins, who was part of the rescue effort. "He never waved at the helicopter. They talked to him afterwards, he never heard or knew there was a helicopter and we were right over him a couple of times."
Watkins is a contract pilot, but on this mission he was the spotter running radio, GPS and satellite phone calls to search and rescue teams on the ground as crews frantically tried to find the missing man before the sun went down.
"It was exhausting," said Colin Ferriman, who was leading the effort on the ground for the Sheridan Area Search and Rescue. "The snow conditions were very trying and definitely put our skills to the test."
"We were having anywhere from waist-deep, shoulder-deep snow, basically like quicksand," said Bob Aksamit, a member of the search team. "We brought in some professional guides (with Sled Wyo) because of the technicalities and they were even having issues."
The 57-year-old Sheridan County snowmobiler vanished on Sunday, and crews later learned he'd got stuck and spent the night in the cold. He had made a fire and last made phone contact just after 4 a.m. Monday.
After a day of searching, with darkness setting in again, concerns for the missing man were rising. But miraculously, just before sunset Monday, Watkins spotted the man from the helicopter above.
"The terrain was steep," he said. "It was heading into the box canyon of the tongue river area and it is steep and mountainous and very wooded. Within our first ridgeline we went into a valley and sure enough on the right side I could see him trying to hike out, contrasted with the trees, he may have been 50 or 100 yards from the top where there was not just trails but turnaround for the sleds, but it was so steep they couldn’t see."
The sheriff's office said the man was hypothermic and suffering from frostbite on his hands and feet, but he survived. While his name has not been publically released, authorities said he is now back home with his family.
"I did hear there was no permanent damage," Watkins said. "He went to a specialized burn unit down in Denver. I did get a call from his wife and she was very appreciative."
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