Trio hoped for Sunday outing near Collbran, but it didn’t end until Tuesday near Paonia
Phil Carlson and Wade Yenter raised half-drunk cups of hot coffee and toasted their survival in the Paonia Volunteer Fire Department station Tuesday.
Still wearing the smoky clothes in which they spent the past three days, the two warmed themselves in the community room of the station as flakes of snow drifted in the air outside the station’s glass double doors behind them. Grand Mesa, from which they had stumbled a few hours earlier after being lost for two days, was smothered in a gray blanket of clouds.
Meanwhile, a Paonia ambulance, its lights flashing, raced down Colorado Highway 92, rushing Wade’s brother, Justin, to Delta Memorial Hospital to be checked for an irregular heartbeat and possible hypothermia.
The three snowmobilers had been missing since Sunday, lost in the snow-covered forest of eastern Grand Mesa. Multiple agencies launched a search Sunday night and scoured the area all day Monday for the men with no success. A helicopter was brought in for the search, but had to give up because of bad weather.
Tuesday morning, the trio walked into a Gunnison Energy compressor station in Gunnison County.
Now they were drinking coffee in the community room of the fire station, trying to shake the chill of three days lost on the mesa in a snowstorm.
It was going to be just a Sunday afternoon ride on their snowmobiles for the three Silt residents, Carlson and Yenter said as they leaned forward in their chairs at the fire station.
With their words sometimes tumbling together, the two described their experience.
Carlson, 39, Wade Yenter, 26, and his brother, Justin Yenter, 27, had taken their sleds to an area where they hunt in the fall. They parked Carlson’s silver Dodge pickup at the Paonia cutoff on the Collbran road.
“I always park at the same spot,” Carlson said.
They spent the afternoon playing in the snow, filming their rides with Carlson’s old Sony Hi-8 video camera, its lens equipped with a homemade brightness filter made from a lens from a pair of sunglasses and taped to the front. The three riders wandered to the east, and into unfamiliar territory.
That was when the crank bearing on Carlson’s machine blew — 60 to 70 miles from the truck, Carlson estimated.
Then one of the Yenters’ snowmobiles became stuck in a nearby ditch less than 100 yards away.
“It was dark, and snowing, and we didn’t know which way to go,” Yenter said.
So the three men stayed put.
Carlson and the Yenter brothers had brought a few minimal survival supplies on their ride.
“We had water,” Carlson said.
“Water and lighters,” Wade added.
“I had handmade firestarters,” Carlson said.
Justin Yenter had a cell phone, but no cell service.
As for food, the three had a couple of candy bars between them.
They dug snow out of a tree well for a campsite, fetched wood from dead trees in the area, lit a fire and settled in for the night.
Carlson said they were able to sleep for a few hours. He knows he did, because his snow pants melted in spots when he fell asleep too close to the fire.
The next morning, the trio decided to walk out. The wind had kicked up, and the overnight snow covered their tracks.
“We knew if we went down the ditch, eventually we’d make it to a road,” Yenter said.
“Downhill was the easiest way for us, down the creek bed.”
“That’s scary,” Carlson added. “That’s really scary business being out there like that.”
“We knew that ditch would take us out eventually,” Yenter said.
Dense fog, a driving wind and blowing snow hounded them most of the day Monday as they groped their way for miles down the stream bed. The storm had left a foot or more of new powder on top of the older snowpack, and the men found themselves wading through snow that ranged from knee-high to waist-deep.
“That beat me down,” Carlson said.
The snow let up for a few hours Monday. At one point, they heard the helicopter overhead.
But the men were in a dense stand of trees and knew that the searchers wouldn’t be able to see them.
At another point, the group thought about torching an entire pine tree to signal their location, but they decided against it.
“It was getting late, and it was windy, and we didn’t want to start a forest fire,” Yenter said.
By late Monday afternoon, wind and snow set in again. They found a road, but it turned out to be a dead end.
Soon they spied a pipeline shack. Inside was a heater. The three spent Monday night in the shack. The next morning, they walked to a Gunnison Energy compressor station on Forest Road 844 1A, where workers took them in.
The three had neither seen nor heard anyone during their trek until then.
“We were just hoping for a little Sunday outing,” Yenter said as the two began to feast on bacon cheeseburgers and steak fries from the deli down the street, their first “real” food since Sunday, brought to them by a fire station volunteer.
The men said their families were en route and planned to retrieve Carlson’s pickup east of Collbran on their way.
“We thought we’d be out of there yesterday,” Yenter said.
Between bites, Carlson agreed, saying, “We kept walking and walking and walking …”
The two said the next time they go snowmobiling they’ll bring along survival blankets, a Global Positioning System and snowshoes, and perhaps some fire shelters like the ones wildland firefighters use.
Carlson then shook his head.
“Man, I’m just glad to be back down. That was rough, really rough,” he said.
Yenter leaned back in his chair and added, “It’s one of those things that, ‘It won’t happen to me.’ Well, it happens. It happens.”