‘Last ditch effort’ finds snowmobilers in Eagle Co.
Summit County Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado ” As darkness began to fall early Tuesday evening, Craig Morris and Murry Melloni huddled around a small make-shift campfire after being lost in the remote wilderness outside Kremmling for nearly three days.
Armed only with the clothes on their back, a small snow shovel and a hand ax, the two men continued to brave the elements at 11,000 feet, anxiously awaiting the arrival of search and rescue teams.
The distant sounds of snowmobile engines kept their hopes for survival alive and, despite wind chills well below zero, they willed their fingers to keep moving so they could write text messages to family and friends.
Text messages received from the men were then forwarded to rescuers involved in a massive search on the east side of Elliot Ridge. No one knew Morris and Melloni were on the west side.
Rescue teams on the ground and in the air had been searching the area since 7:30 Tuesday morning with no results. As the day wore on, the weather worsened, and the hopes of finding survivors slowly began to dwindle. Yet the search continued in increasing winds that were reducing visibility to nothing.
“As we crossed the ridge to head back to Eagle, my co-pilot spotted movement on the ridge line so we circled around,” said Mark Grayson, a chief warrant officer with the National Guard who was flying in a Blackhawk helicopter.
“It was the complete opposite side of the mountain range we had initially been looking on. It was a last ditch effort and really pure luck.”
The sound of helicopters overhead were able to rouse Morris and Melloni, and pilots could see the faint outline of a man waiving his arms beside a small campfire.
The men had made their camp right at treeline on a downward slope below the ridge. Dangerous terrain and blowing snow made landing anywhere close to the camp impossible, and National Guard pilots were forced to land in a clearing 200 meters to the east of the men.
Clayton Bronson, a National Guard mechanic who was on another rescue helicopter, offered to make the trek on foot to bring the two survivors back.
“Those guys owe their lives to him. There was no way we could have gotten any closer,” Grayson said.
Bronson slowly made his way through the deep snow on snowshoes and arrived at the camp to find both men cold, but alive.
“When I got there both men were so relieved to see me. Murry came up to me right away and gave me the hand saw they had used that he said had belonged to John (McKibben),” said Bronson. “He told me John had passed away the day before, but that the saw had saved their lives and he wanted to make sure it got back to John’s family.”
Bronson said the two men were suffering hypothermia and were both shaken and disoriented.
“Craig told me he had injured some ribs and he basically had to crawl most of the way back to the helicopter,” said Bronson. “Both of them were having a lot of trouble breathing.”
As the men made their way back to the helicopter the weather quickly began to deteriorate around them. It was now completely dark and blowing snow was cutting down visibility, making flying conditions even more difficult.
“If we had been up there another 30 minutes more, we would have all been stuck,” Bronson said.
Once safely in the helicopter, Bronson took apart an Army issued sleeping bag and wrapped the two separate sections around the men to restore their body temperatures. Rescue crews assured the men that family and friends were all awaiting their return and that they were now out of harm’s way.
The two men were flown directly to the National Guard Airport in Eagle where an ambulance was waiting to take them to the Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs.
“This was hands down the most difficult search and rescue I had ever been on. It was pretty scary flying to say the least,” said Tony Somogyi, a National Guard pilot who spent over nine hours in the air searching for the men on Tuesday. “It’s amazing we were able to find them. Amazing.”
The search for McKibben’s body was halted Wednesday due to dangerous weather.