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Surviving the Night Alone

Deep snow, a small riding group and a whiteout -- a dangerous combination
RELATED TOPICS: SAFETY
Close Calls Steven Weber snowmobile
Backcountry riders all have (at least) a little bit of squirrel in them. It’s hard to explain, and yet such a familiar feeling. That perfect line through the trees beckons. In that moment, all the planning and communication seems to fade away as the “pin it” instinct kicks in.

The 2018-2019 snow season was epic in the West, and particularly so in Colorado. The storms stacked up week after week, and there were seemingly an endless number of deep-powder days to be had. Such was the case when Steven Weber and his buddy headed out for a day in the mountains east of Steamboat Springs.

“It was February 16th, and we were going to the Dark Side of Rabbit Ears,” Weber shared in a recent interview. “I had the turbo on my sled, and it was running so well. And we had, I don't know, like three or four back-to-back snow storms where it dumped two feet-plus. I mean, it was deep.”

The duo hit the mountain early in the day, taking advantage of the fresh snow and carving fresh lines everywhere they went. “We were just having so much fun,” said Weber, “and it was snowing lightly the whole time.” Equipped with BCA two-channel radios, the pair were in regular communication as they explored, touching base both visually and vocally. They also had a planned place to meet up if they got separated.

Things take a turn
“I got split up with my partner because, well, I've got a turbo," explained Weber. "So here I am just having the time of my life riding alone. But we would always meet in the same spot. Eventually, I tried to find him in that spot and I couldn't. I had done so many figure eights, gone up the mountain and down, and sidehilled. (The tracks were) just all mixed up.”
Close Calls emergency search and rescue text message
A screenshot from Steve Weber's iPhone shows a text from the emergency search and rescue team.
By this point the snow had started coming down harder but, because it was still early in the day, Weber wasn’t concerned and kept riding. He saw other riders, but didn’t think he needed to join up with them because, as he shared, “I didn’t really know I was lost.”

The storm got stronger, high winds mixing with snow to create whiteout conditions, making it nearly impossible for Weber to navigate. Then things went from bad to worse. The radio iced up, making contact with his riding partner impossible. Weber’s only navigation tool, his iPhone, failed when the cold caused the battery to lose charge.

“I carefully rode around for a good hour and a half trying to find my way out," said Weber. "And there was nobody. There was no trail, no tracks. It was snowing so hard, and I realized I had no idea how to get out of there. I can't see anything. I can't even see the sun in the sky. I knew I had to go east, but there was (no frame of reference) because it's all whiteout.”

Meanwhile, Weber’s riding partner had returned to the Muddy Creek Rabbit Ears parking lot, where he knocked on every person’s door. But nobody had seen Weber. Seeing no tracks near Weber’s truck, his riding partner realized that his friend was still out there and called search and rescue. But with the heavy storm, no rescue could be mounted.

It was time for a new plan. Driving around aimlessly would only use up valuable gas and put Weber in more danger. He realized that the only thing to do was to wait out the storm. Which finally cleared at 6:30 ... the next morning.

New plan: Survival
Weber set out to find shelter from the wind, near a fuel source of dead trees with which he could build a fire. “I had three saws – a rope saw, a flimsy blade saw, and a Gerber triangle saw. Pretty quickly I lost the handles on the rope saw, and the blade saw just wasn’t enough to cut down a 5-inch tree – it just bent. But the Gerber triangle saw cut trees so well.”

Weber dragged as many cut trees as he could the hundred or so feet to his campsite, and built a fire. Everything was fine. Until it wasn’t.
Close Calls fire in deep snow
“By three in the morning, my fire had melted down nine feet in the snow, so it suffocated,” he said. “I started digging to try and get oxygen to the fire, but my shovel broke because the snow had melted from the fire and then it would freeze. At this point, I'm not even really thinking, I'm just reacting. I was just like an animal.”

In desperation, he dug an igloo in a drift and crawled in with a new realization setting in. While the hard work of digging had kept his body and limbs warm, his hands and feet were not. From four in the morning until six in the morning, Weber focused on warming his hands and feet, squeezing one foot with his hands before sliding it back into a boot and doing the same for the other foot. He warmed his hands by sitting on them, and he mixed in pushups, rotating through each step over and over. By 6:30 a.m., the storm finally cleared, and Weber was able to set out in search of the trail, which he found about a quarter-mile from his camp. He had survived.

Lessons learned
Weber has since reevaluated what he carries with him for survival, as well as the size of his riding group. 

“Cutting down trees is hard work, and you need more food than you think,” Weber said. “I think the smartest thing is make sure your group is made up of at least three to five [riders]. Because the strength is in the numbers. And don’t get split up.

“In a situation like this, you realize you only have one life to live and you never know when the end is going to come. Sometimes when the snow is really good, you'll make a sacrifice and go off alone. It's an addiction, you know, a stupid way of thinking. But you really need to limit your risk, think it through, and make sure you’re prepared.”
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