CB Mountain Rescue Team saves a hunter’s life near Horse Ranch Park

Surviving bad choices in a blizzard with llamas

By Mark Reaman 

A three-person search and rescue team with Crested Butte Mountain Rescue took an eight-hour backcountry ski trip to save the life of well-known western big game hunter Justin Finch at the end of last month. Finch was ultimately flown out in an Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter from the Horse Ranch Park area on October 29 while the two llamas he used as pack animals were rescued a day later.

Finch recounted his ordeal on the Epic Outdoors podcast and made it clear that he got lucky but thought he was a goner high up in the mountains near Buck Basin. “Hats off to the search and rescue team,” he said. “They’re some bad-ass dudes.”

Crested Butte Mountain Rescue team president Randy Felix probably wouldn’t disagree. He said the local team rescued a hypothermic Finch at 11,000 feet after an eight-hour, seven-mile ski into the wilderness at night. “The hunter got himself in trouble trying to get out after the big snowstorm that dumped more than three feet in the backcountry,” he said. “We sent a team in at night and he, along with the rescue team, were flown out the next day.”

In the podcast, the 32-year-old Finch who lives in Utah with his wife and three young children, goes into detail about the situation, the mistakes he made and the lessons he learned. He said his dad was originally supposed to go with him to hunt for mule deer in Colorado, but he backed out after seeing that a foot of snow was being forecast for the weekend. Finch used two llamas to help carry his gear into the mountains and they hiked in on a clear Friday afternoon. He used a spotting glass to see a big buck and moved from the original campsite to a closer ridge.

“I woke up Saturday to a blizzard but there was only about six inches of snow on the ground,” he said. “I used the glass to look around and saw the big buck weathering the storm under a tree 200-300 feet below me. I got him.” 

Finch dressed the animal and got the meat back to his camp by about 4 p.m. At that time, there was about a foot of snow on the ground. He was exhausted so he quickly fell asleep in his tent.

Waking up early Sunday morning he described that his tent was completely buried in snow as another three feet had come in overnight. 

At this point he was about nine miles from his truck, and he figured if he got to the top of the ridge, it would be relatively easy going downhill back to the trailhead. The ridge was about two miles away and he anticipated an hour or two hike to get there.

But after breaking camp in his wet clothes when he was unable to get a fire going, he said it took him about five hours to even get close to the ridge and he still wasn’t there. The llamas were struggling to stay on the trail and several times they slipped off into the deep snow. He then realized that his water and food had slipped out of the packs.

“At that point I was cold, hungry and thirsty. I was gone mentally so I wasn’t thinking straight,” he said. “I left the llamas with the idea to come back and get them, so I took a wet sleeping bag my kids had used the week before on a camping trip. It didn’t make any sense. I went about 20 yards and felt stuck and started cramping up and couldn’t move. That’s when I realized I was screwed and in trouble.”

Finch said he was already hypothermic, but he crawled into the wet sleeping bag that he laid directly on the snow in what he could tell was an avalanche path. He reached for the phone in his pocket even though he knew there was no service. “But if you believe in miracles, I had one,” he said. A Garmin inReach that he had packed in the bottom of a pack was in his pocket by his phone. “It normally would not be there. It was a miracle,” Finch said. “As stubborn as I am, I hit the button and sent the SOS. That was about 3 p.m. and then I got a text back on the Garmin saying a rescue team would send in a crew that would get to me about 9 p.m. I wasn’t sure I had that much time left.”

Finch said he received another message that the team would be later given some delays and the weather, so the expected arrival was closer to 11:30. “At 11:45 there was still nothing and I wasn’t cold anymore which is not a good thing,” he said. “I felt that if I didn’t have something to live for, I would have died. It was a mental battle to stay alive and I kept thinking of my two-year-old who wouldn’t know his dad if I died.”

Meanwhile, the search and rescue team was dealing with its own logistics and weather (see sidebar).

Just after midnight, Finch felt some packages at the bottom of the sleeping bag and discovered his kids had left four handwarmers in the sleeping bag. He immediately put them on his skin. “That was just another minor miracle,” he said on the podcast.

Finch said he crawled deep into the sleeping bag and at about 4:30 in the morning when it was negative 9 degrees, he heard his name. He wasn’t sure if he was alive or dead. Sticking his head out of the bag he was greeted by a bright light and Jonny Holton, one of the search and rescue team members “gave me a thermos of hot chocolate and I was sobbing as I chugged it. It felt like life coming back into me.”

He was given some hiking poles, an avalanche beacon and snowshoes and Finch and Holton made their way to the top of the ridge where he got into some dry clothes and warmed up his core. 

At about 8 a.m. the group was told to make their way to a potential landing site to meet a helicopter below their position. But the helicopter was delayed multiple times. By this point it was about noon and Finch said an Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter was called in and arrived about 1:30 p.m.

“There was so much wind from that helicopter it was incredible. This army dude came and got me and threw me into the helicopter. Everyone got a ride out. I couldn’t say enough to everyone,” he said.

When the helicopter arrived at the trailhead, his wife and mom were there. He was checked out in an ambulance and surprisingly didn’t have major frostbite, although the nerves on his feet were impacted and he still has tingling sensations. 

He said the owners of the llamas came in with some draft horses the next day and made their way to the incident spot where they rescued the llamas. The llamas spent one night alone and were dehydrated but are now doing well. Finch’s gear and the meat from the deer were also brought out.

“I feel lucky to be alive,” concluded Finch. “I learned a lot as things went from a regular hunt to a bad situation, to the thought that I was totally screwed. Without that Garmin, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Felix said there has been an uptick in rescues for hunters across the state this year.  “CBSAR also recently had to help a hunter get out of the backcountry from the backside of Teocalli Mountain,” he said. “It is important to be humble, know your limitations and be prepared for the unexpected, especially if you are from out of state. Have a satellite communication device. Be prepared to help yourself. Rescue can take hours and often a helicopter is not an option.”  

Luckily for Justin Finch, this time it was.

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