Thursday, September 17, 2020

A night in the truck: Two men snowed in on Cement Creek in September

“They did the right thing”

By Katherine Nettles

The early September snowstorm that caught so many off-guard took two local men by surprise as well, hurtling them into a 26-plus-hour ordeal and camping together in a truck.

Tom Wells and his fellow tow truck driver, Tom Stogsdill, “The Outlaw,” were out on a routine call for Wells’ Crested Butte Towing Company to retrieve a truck up Cement Creek Road Tuesday morning, September 8. They ended up spending the night in the area and not making their way home until the following afternoon.

What was forecasted to be about five inches of snow quickly turned the rugged county roads around them into snowfields and rendered the two gentlemen stuck for the night. Search and Rescue sent in crews both Tuesday night and again Wednesday morning to locate the two men, but it was Wells’ nephew who found them first.

“The storm came in on top of him,” says Crystal Wells, who spoke on behalf of her husband.

Wells and Stogsdill headed out for Cement Creek at approximately 10:30 a.m. on September 8, amid sunny skies and temperate weather. “He called me to say he was headed out of service,” Wells says of her husband. “They went in and it was dry.”

But they spent several hours locating their target, a truck that had been stuck and then abandoned by its driver the night before, reportedly along Cement Creek Road. After going up Reno to look for the stuck truck, they drove back down to the intersection of Reno and Cement Creek. They thought the truck they were looking for might be up Cement Creek because the driver who reported it was not from the area and was unsure of her truck’s exact location.

And meanwhile, the snow came in heavily. By the time the men had found their client’s vehicle and began driving it out, Wells estimated it had snowed between 15 inches and 2 feet. The men were hitting snowdrifts several feet high.

“We kicked up dirt coming in,” says Stogsdill. “Once we got out the truck we were looking for, the snow was coming in hard. We got back down to Cement Creek, and we couldn’t see anything; it was a white-out. We knew where we were, mind you. And we could see our location on our GPS. But coming out, we somehow made the wrong turn, got into a big sagebrush bowl out there, and that was it. There were drifts up to five feet high,” he says.

Crystal says she was still in Delta, where she and her husband reside, waiting to hear from him until late afternoon.

“I knew where he should be, and by when he should be out of there. And by 4:30 p.m., I was worried. So I headed out of Delta, “ she says. She found that Kebler Pass was already a mess, with trees blocking the road in several places and deep snow drifts. She arrived in Crested Butte around 8 p.m., called the sheriff’s department to report her husband missing and then went to Almont to start looking for him herself at around 8:30 p.m. from the Taylor Canyon side.

She didn’t get past Almont, however. “I knew my pickup would not go,” she says of the road conditions she encountered there.

So she went back to the office in Crested Butte and stayed there for the next day and a half, waiting for word on Tom and calling the sheriff every couple hours for an update.

“I’m not very good at waiting,” she says.

The Western State Mountain Rescue Team began searching through the night, particularly up Cement Creek. Since Wells and Stogsdill were not located on County Road 759 as expected, the rescue team thought they could be up Cement Creek somewhere. Rescuers were also out in Taylor Park looking for someone else as well, unrelated to this call. The rescuers called off their search at about 4:30 a.m., September 9, and the Crested Butte Mountain Rescue Team (CBMRT) resumed at about 10:30 a.m. that same morning.

“CBMRT had four members in the field and a mission coordinator back in town. We used our 4×4 Jeep Rubicon and our side-by-side UTV outfitted with tracks,” says Randy Felix, president of CBMRT, of the effort.

“By 5 a.m. all my family was headed up from Delta with snow machines and pickups,” says Crystal of her own family’s effort—and that effort paid off. Tom’s nephew, Jared Graff, found him and his co-worker that afternoon, far up Cement Creek.

At about 1 p.m. CBMRT learned that the men had been found, safe and sound, by a family member.

“We had tried three different helicopter agencies but none of them could fly due to weather,” says Felix. “We were about to have a local with a private airplane fly the area but the party was located just as they were getting the aircraft ready.

“They were able to dig the tow truck out with [avalanche] shovels and everyone was able to drive down safely,” concluded Felix. Neither man was injured or ill.

Stogsdill, who has vast experience in the area as a long-time hunting guide, recalls the night spent in the truck with humor and says he was never terribly worried about their situation.

“It was a good time, honestly,” he says. “I wasn’t worried one bit.”

Both men had left all their warm clothing at the tow shop, anticipating they wouldn’t need it until later that day, because it was sunny and warm when they left that morning. So they weren’t very cozy.

“I had on cowboy boots and the only pair of gloves between us, just some light leather ones,” says Stogsdill.

But he felt confident they would be okay. “I figured, we’ve got shelter in this truck, we’ve got food and water, we’ve got heat. We aren’t going to die.”

The men stayed in the truck, ran the heaters all night and left their overhead emergency lights flashing as well in case someone was looking for them. They had planned to stay one more night if needed, and if no one found them at that point they would start hiking out, says Wells.

“They did the right thing staying with their vehicle where they had shelter and heat,” says Felix.

As for Jared, Crystal says he has found multiple people who were lost or missing in this same way.

“He is just good at that stuff. It’s in his nature and in his blood,” she says.

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