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Snowmobilers survive long night in the snow

by Canda Harbaugh & Western News
| March 12, 2009 12:00 AM

A multiple-agency search-and-rescue mission ended when two men were found unscathed after spending a chilly Saturday night trapped in a remote area outside Troy.

Levi Hubler, 21, said that he and his friend, 21-year-old Dustin Carter, were snowmobiling Saturday in China Basin, behind Kootenai Falls, when Carter wrecked, disabling his vehicle.

The two men were in an unfamiliar area and realized that they couldn’t get out of the steep basin on one snowmobile. It was getting late, so they dug a snow cave, built a fire and remained there for the night.

“We couldn’t neither one of us sleep,” Hubler said. “It was cold and wet. We didn’t want to get freaked out, so we sat there all night and talked to keep calm. We said, ‘It’ll be okay, we’ll get out tomorrow.’”

Several agencies and Libby and Troy volunteers searched for the men by foot, snowshoe, snowmobile and helicopter. They were found after 10 a.m. Sunday but because of avalanche concerns, they weren’t reached for an additional hour, according to Kevin Lindgren, president of Libby’s David Thompson Search and Rescue.

“They did everything right,” said sheriff officer Jim Sweet, who was involved in the search. “Probably if they

 tried to walk out of there as remote as where it was, they wouldn’t be with us here today.”

The men were flown to the Troy Airport and transported to the Troy Police Department where Carter’s mom and Hubler’s girlfriend picked them up. The fog was too thick to land at the St. John’s Lutheran Hospital helipad.

Debbie Carter called the sheriff’s office about 7 p.m. Saturday when her son didn’t return from his trip. DT Search and Rescue sent out a team of 11 people at 10 p.m. who followed the missing men’s snowmobile tracks up Flagstaff Mountain until 2 a.m. in windy and snow drifting conditions. Another two-person search team continued until 7 a.m. when a full-blown, multi-agency search ensued.

Hubler said that a fog moved in when they were snowmobiling Saturday so they turned around to go back. While looking for a way out, they drove their snowmobiles down Flagstaff Mountain. Carter hit a tree, disabling his snowmobile.

They dug a snow shelter 20 feet in diameter and used a mini saw to cut up firewood and branches to lie on to try to stay dry. They quickly started a hot fire by using a lighter on part of a snowmobile seat that was dipped in gasoline.

When there was no sign of rescuers at 10 in the morning, the men decided to start following a creek. They hadn’t eaten or slept and knew they were losing energy by the minute.

“We knew we had to get out that day,” Hubler said, “because if we stayed another night we wouldn’t have the energy to walk out in knee-deep snow.”

Shortly after, they heard rescuers yelling for them.

“They started walking away and they happened to hear us yell for them,” said sheriff officer Roby Bowe, who was involved in the search.

“I started yelling and waving my hands,” Hubler said. “On the very top of the ridge, I could see a little bit of orange – they wear orange vests. We walked up, they walked down and we met them halfway.”

“Everything worked like it was supposed to,” said Lindgren. “Considering the weather conditions and location, we were very fortunate. It was pretty windy and there was a lot of drifting.”

Libby’s David Thompson Search and Rescue, Eureka’s Can Am Search and Rescue, Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Forest Service, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks all aided in search efforts. The U.S. Air Force provided a helicopter from its Spokane base.