By Terry Cunningham Explorebigsky.com Contributor
BOZEMAN – Backcountry search and rescue efforts are rarely mundane, and one recent rescue was particularly memorable for those involved. It included a snow leopard, a raging blizzard and the U.S. Air Force.
On Saturday, Feb. 18, a party of 10 photographers and animal handlers was shuttled by helicopter to the top of the Bridger Mountain Range near Bozeman to participate in a wildlife photo shoot featuring a snow leopard. Troy Hyde, owner of Animals of Montana—a company that provides exotic animals for photo shoots—supervised the event. This was fully permitted by the Gallatin National Forest.
Pilot Mike Carisch lowered Mekong, a 12-year-old male snow leopard, onto the spine of the Bridger range near Hardscrabble Peak. A hot-wire fencing system was set up to give the leopard an operating perimeter of roughly 200 yards. Around 1:45 p.m., 45 minutes into the planned three-hour photo shoot, the wind increased dramatically and a storm approached from the northwest.
Hyde called Carisch to begin an evacuation. The snow leopard was lured into its crate and dragged to the lee side of the ridge. Since Carisch could only carry out four passengers in a single load, Hyde selected the first clients to be evacuated based on age, fitness and weather-appropriate clothing.
Within minutes of the helicopter taking off, weather conditions deteriorated. Carisch radioed that he wouldn’t be able to evacuate the remaining six members of the group until conditions improved. Hyde led the group along the wind-whipped ridgeline with the intention of reaching the saddle between Sacagawea Peak and Hardscrabble Peak, then descending to the east side of the range, eventually hiking out to the Fairly Lake trailhead.
A whiteout ensued, and when Hyde reached what he thought was the saddle, he took a left turn and descended into a bowl. Unbeknownst to the group, the gully they were descending actually funneled them down the west side of the range. After a mile of hiking, they found themselves trudging through chest-deep snowdrifts.
Around 4:30 p.m., Hyde decided to seek shelter in small clump of trees. By then, they had been in communication via cell phone with the Gallatin County Search and Rescue team and were aware that a rescue operation was underway.
Doug Chabot, a longtime member of the SAR unit’s Alpine Rescue Team, received a page at 3 p.m. to report to the SAR barn. He was driven to the incident staging area, and then shuttled via snowmobile to the summer trailhead near Fairy Lake. Four skiers (including Chabot and SAR veteran Scott Gill), two snowshoers and three hikers were briefed that—based on coordinates established by the 911 Center and a verbal report from Hyde’s group—the stranded party was in the bowl on the east side of the saddle below Sacagawea Peak.
Taking care to avoid the steep avalanche-prone slopes ringing the bowl, the searchers reached the area where they expected to find the photo crew, but couldn’t locate them. The SAR Incident Commander asked Hyde’s group to aim their high-intensity photo flash equipment into the air.
“We could detect a very faint, diffused light in the storm clouds, but it wasn’t close by,” Chabot recalled. “If they were in the bowl, we would’ve seen the flashes clearly.”
The search team returned to the trailhead to make another plan. Consulting maps, SAR members noticed another saddle closer to Hardscrabble Peak, and the four rescue skiers skinned up that drainage. Several hours later, around midnight, a brief clearing in the skies improved visibility, but the rescue skiers could find no trace of the lost party.
The lull in the storm allowed Summit Air Ambulance, a helicopter outfit with night vision capabilities, to assist with the search. Around 1 a.m., Hyde’s group saw a red beam from the Summit Air Ambulance helicopter and used flash equipment to attract attention. The helicopter pilot made note of the GPS coordinates before the weather window closed.
The coordinates provided to SAR incident command matched the previous 911 coordinates, placing the party where Hyde believed they were: in the bowl east of Sacagawea Peak. This news was relayed to Chabot’s team, and they skied back toward the trailhead in the resurgent storm. Three of the skiers returned to Bozeman and replacement rescuers were transported to the scene.
Chabot later said that GPS coordinates should be used as guidelines only, especially along ridgelines. “We’ve learned to take them with a grain of salt.”
Meanwhile, Hyde’s party had built a fire using a magnesium fire starter, sawed off tree limbs with a Leatherman multi-tool and pushed over dead trees to use for firewood. When Hyde’s cell phone battery began to falter in the cold, his associate Demetri Price rigged an alternate power source using a camera battery and a length of wire. This allowed them to continue to receive updates from incident command.
Around 3:30 a.m., Chabot and five other rescue skiers reached the bowl below Sacagawea. It was pitch black and snowing hard.
“I’d searched this same area earlier, and I was literally standing on the coordinates that we were given,” Chabot said. He also came upon avalanche debris that wasn’t there before.
The stranded party was asked to use their camera flash again, and this time, the searchers could clearly see the silhouette of the ridgeline in the reflected light, confirming that Hyde and his crew were actually on the west side of the range. Given the avalanche danger, accessing the west side of the ridge from the east wasn’t a viable option. The search crew skied back to the trailhead as daylight approached.
Meanwhile, a military helicopter from Malmstrom Air Force Base had arrived at Bozeman International Airport to assist in the operation. At daybreak, the storm had cleared, and the Air Force helicopter crew spotted the stranded photo crew on the west side of the Bridgers.
Shortly thereafter, Mike Carisch circled the bowl in four descending loops and set his helicopter down 25 feet from his clients. Carisch flew out three of them, and the other three were transported to the airport courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.
Carisch flew up to the ridge an hour later to transport the snow leopard to the airport. According to Hyde, Mekong has experienced no ill effects from spending the night atop the Bridgers. Although the snow leopard is an endangered species, it’s well suited to harsh mountain climates. In fact, Mekong may have been the least “endangered” creature involved in this incident.
Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin praised the work of the 25 members of the SAR team who participated in the Hardscrabble Peak incident. “Our volunteers are top notch. I’d argue that they are the best in the region.”