CHELAN — For almost 10 days six people were stuck on a mountain north of Chelan, surrounded by snow and unable to get out without abandoning their equipment and vehicles.
The group consisted of five members of Hawkwatch International, one Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest employee and a red heeler named Ginger. They were caught by a storm around Sept. 28 that dropped 26 inches of snow in a little over two days, said Janet Millard, Forest Service wildlife biotech, who was in the group. A plow was unable to reach their camp on Chelan Ridge near Cooper Mountain and so the group waited until Oct. 8 for a bulldozer to free them.
“Typically we get a snow storm sometime in October and it is like 5 inches and the crew can either come down and go to a hotel or they can ride it out up at the ridge,” Millard said. “And we looked at the forecast and went, ‘OK, it looks like we’re probably going to get stuck for a few days, but it will be fine.’”
Hawkwatch International monitors the migration of raptors past Chelan Ridge every summer, she said.
“What makes this ridge really good is that the prevailing winds come from a certain direction and they hit the ridge and then blow up, which causes an elevator-type effect for the birds to surf the wind down south,” Millard said.
The group goes up at the end of August with a yurt, tents, their vehicles and other supplies and will try to stay until about Oct. 27, she said. They usually leave early due to poor weather conditions or colder temperatures.
It has never snowed that much, though, in September, she said. Even if it did, they thought it would melt because it was still early fall and temperatures should increase.
“Before we went to bed, we checked the weather again and now the forecast had been refined and it was saying we’re going to get 9 to 11 inches overnight,” Millard said. “And we’re like, 'This is not going to happen. This can’t possibly happen. It is September.'”
But it did and not everyone was prepared to deal with this kind of winter conditions, said Matt Schumaker, a Hawkwatch volunteer. Schumaker has been doing field work for a while in remote areas and lives out of his truck that was at the site.
“They just didn’t have the proper things to be in a cold situation for a while,” Schumaker said.
The first night that the snow fell revealed some of the challenges that people were going to be facing, he said. Some tents were not designed for winter and the snow needed to be swept off every few hours to prevent them from collapsing.
“I went around at 4 in the morning and people were asleep, but their tents were almost all the way collapsed on them because they didn’t realize they needed to get out of their tents and clean them off,” Schumaker said.
The crew spent every few hours digging out their vehicles, tents, the path to the outhouses and the blinds where they observed the birds, Millard said. They had to shovel consistently almost every day and also dug out the road down the mountain as best they could to help the dozer or in case they needed to try and leave.
The first problem they faced was dog food and medicine, she said. Millard wasn’t planning on staying there for that long so there wasn’t enough food for Ginger.
“Matt, one of the guys on the crew, came to me and said, 'I have a crazy idea,'” Millard said. “'You’re probably going to hate it, but what if I ski down to snow line and meet someone with supplies?' And I thought, ‘Well, that’s not a bad idea, actually.’”
Schumaker met one of Millard’s friends on Black Canyon Road below the snow line, she said. It was on this trip that they realized the snow line was only 2.5 miles below camp and they could walk out if they really needed to, abandoning their vehicles.
“Half the pack was just full of dog food and also two loaves of Dave’s Killer Bread and two giant packages of tortillas and some various other things,” Millard said.
The group started looking at its other supplies to figure out if there was anything they were in danger of running out of, she said. They had 20-gallon containers of propane fuel for their stoves, plenty of food and they were surrounded by tons of water.
“I started packing 5-gallon jugs full of snow that we would melt them by the campfire by the night and then bring into the yurt to not refreeze,” Millard said. “So basically, while the Hawkwatch resumed their duties of observing and trapping birds, I just spent my days making water.”
In the end what started to get to them was their inability to leave, she said. It had been a while since Hawkwatch volunteers had a day off from work.
“The limiting factor was not water. The limiting factor was not dog food and, in the end, it turned out our limiting factor was kind of mental health,” Millard said. “Various people cracked (mentally) for different reasons at different times.”
In the end the group was faced with a choice about when they could be rescued, she said. Batchelor Excavation in Manson could get them out on Oct. 10 or Lloyd Logging in Twisp could get them on Oct. 8.
Later in the week, “the high temperatures were going to be in the low 30s and the lows were going to be the teens,” Millard said. “And at that point I felt we were about to cross over from inconvenience to a danger zone, like a hazardous situation.”
They were also starting to have trouble drying their boots and some of their clothing, she said. The possibility of frostbite and hypothermia was beginning to become a concern and so the group accepted the earlier rescue.
It was no Donner Party and at any time they could have walked to civilization, but it was quite the adventure, Millard said.
“No, but we did start to make a list though,” of who we should eat first, she said laughing.