Rescuers share story of saving stranded snowmobiler

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ISLAND PARK — A lot of effort goes into coordinating two search and rescue teams. Throw in a third group of rescuers and the slightest miscommunication can result in chaos.

On Sunday, three snowmobilers went missing near Keg Springs in Island Park. All were eventually found, but only two initially made it out. The third was stuck waiting for search and rescue teams from both Clark and Fremont counties. That’s when a volunteer group of rescuers decided to offer their help.

The third group

“We were working directly with Clark County because we know those guys,” Brent Willsey, the organizer of the third group, told EastIdahoNews.com. “I just said, ‘Bart (Clark County Sheriff Bart May), I’ve got the best guys with me. We’ve got the gear and this is the stuff we ride. We know for a fact that if you need us, we can go back there, and you don’t have to babysit us. If that’s what it comes down to and you need us to go, we’re ready to go.”

A short time later, the Clark and Fremont County search and rescue teams asked Willsey and his group to go with them.

“We signed the list and they knew we were going,” he said. “We checked in with the command center. I mean, it was official.”

Venturing out

In total, a group of 15, which included Willsey’s group and one of the two missing snowmobilers who made it back earlier in the day, went out on snow machines and snow bikes (F450 motorcycles modified with tracks and skis). They had avalanche packs, beacons, food and water. Commanders from both counties’ search and rescue teams were put in charge of the group.

“Before they set out, I stood up in front of all of them and told them the plan,” May told EastIdahoNews.com. “They were to make their way out to the ridge above the stranded snowmobiler and build a fire to let him know they were there and wait until morning to get him out.”

He said making a plan at a base camp and actually going out there and seeing the conditions are different. May said when the team arrived, they decided they needed to get down closer, but not send all 15 rescuers.

Willsey said he and four others got permission to head down. He said they kept in constant contact with the group that stayed behind through one of their members, who had an AVS radio.

While this was going on, coordinates were sent to the helicopter called in by Clark County to aid in the search.

Willsey and his group did not know if or when the helicopter would be there.

Communication issues

Shortly after the incident, Fremont County Sheriff Len Humphries told local media the third group had endangered search and rescue efforts and unnecessarily prolonged the search.

But on Wednesday, Humphries said there was miscommunication about who had permission to search.

May said they technically disobeyed orders, but neither the Fremont County nor the Clark County Search and Rescue commanders ever told Willsey and his group to stop or turn around as they got closer to the stranded snowmobiler.

“It’s hard to communicate with everybody up there,” Humphries told EastIdahoNews.com. “I think that probably exacerbated the problem — the inability to communicate with everybody involved.”

May said Clark and Fremont counties need to sit down together to work out how to better communicate in these kinds of situations. He said one of the issues was the fact that Keg Springs, the area where the snowmobiler was stranded, is very near the Clark County and Fremont County border resulting in questions about jurisdiction.

Despite the confusion, Willsey and his group found the stranded snowmobiler. Willsey said they gave him some food and put him on the back of one of the snowmachines to transport him out through the canyon where he was located.

That, Humphries said, is what caused a 6-hour delay. He said because Willsey’s group went on their own, the helicopter couldn’t land. But Willsey said there was no chance for the helicopter to land anyway, because of poor conditions and the risk of an avalanche.

“Had the helicopter not been able to land, we would have gotten some snowshoes down to this guy and helped him get up to the ridge where the other search and rescue members were watching,” Humphries said. “That was the plan set up by our incident command center in Fremont.”

May said he hasn’t spoken to the helicopter pilot but learned the chopper made it to the stranded snowmobiler and appeared to attempt to land. The helicopter hovered at about 30 feet before finally leaving. May said he doesn’t know if it could have actually landed – only that it didn’t.

The difficulties with communication also caused EastIdahoNews.com and other media outlets to receive mixed and sometimes confusing information.

Getting home

On their way out, Willsey’s group ran into rough terrain. Things only got worse as daylight faded and conditions became more dangerous. They ultimately decided set up camp and wait for morning.

May said he knew about this and was on his way home with plans to head back in the morning with a trailer. Around that time, he got a call from Fremont County Search and Rescue saying they were going to send people out to the stranded group that night.

Around 10 p.m., Willsey said they noticed lights coming toward them. A short time later, members of the Fremont Search and Rescue hiked into their campsite on snowshoes. They set the stranded rider up with his own pair of snowshoes and proceeded to hike him out to safety.

The snowshoers were able to show Willsey and his group the way out of the canyon and they began their journey to safety in the dark.

“We just did what we thought was the right thing to do and made it happen,” Willsey said. “We could see things weren’t working out, and we knew we could do it, so we did it.”

Colette Davidson, the mother of the stranded snowmobiler, issued the following statement following her son’s rescue:

“I want to thank everyone for all that they did to bring our son home safely. You gave of your time and made personal sacrifices with one goal in mind – to safely bring those boys home. I don’t know how we can ever repay you! THANK YOU for risking your lives, thank you for your training and knowledge, thank you for everything! I’m grateful to all of those that dealt with the weather and the rough terrain, for the expertise and willingness of all of those who helped. There are several articles, statements, and posts about the search effort, and some of them negative. I hope that we can focus on the positive, turn any negative into a learning experience, and maybe hug our loved ones a little harder! Life is so precious, don’t waste a moment! Thank you everyone for your prayers, love and concern.”

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