GRAND COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – A Lakewood man is lucky to be alive after being pinned for hours beneath his snowmobile on Rabbit Ears Pass. Wanting to stick to lower angle terrain due to avalanche danger, experienced snowmobiler Lance McGinn headed to Rabbit Ears Pass last Saturday with his friend Somerset McCarty.

(credit: Somerset McCarty)

Both were still well prepared with avalanche safety gear, emergency overnight items and radios, but when the pair split up, they neglected to communicate where they each planned to explore.

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McGinn, who normally sticks to the trees, found himself in a flat meadow.

“I was circumventing a large tree that was on top of a meadow and large trees on top of things typically create pretty large wind drifts.”

McGinn hit one of the drifts bucking his sled in the air.

“It actually threw me into another wind drift which was a little bit off camber, and it tipped the sled and flipped the sled upside-down on top of me,” he said.

(credit: Lance McGinn)

Still tethered to the sled, it continued to run on top of him for 6 minutes before shutting off, throwing exhaust and snow in his face.

“While the snow was in my helmet, I was trying to clear it as best I could because my hands were literally out here, and I couldn’t reach, so I was clawing with my fingers for about 3 minutes. While that happened of course you’re in this large well and the carbon monoxide from the sled is sinking and going into that pit as well.”

Once the sled powered off, he heard his panicked friend radio to him.

(credit: Lance McGinn)

“I could hear Somerset calling, overing the radio listening, trying to figure out where I was and if there was any feedback,” he said. “I did spend about 5, 10 minutes wiggling my hand out of the glove and reaching up here to grab the cable which the radio would be connected to. Unfortunately I had it secured to my pack and after about five minutes of struggle or so, I made one last effort, hit the cord, and ripped the wires out of the handset. At that point it was radio silence.”

With a broken radio and no way to free himself, he tried to conserve energy.

“A lot could have been different that day, but thankfully Ken, the angel, saved the day, and we get to learn from this experience and make better choices moving forward,” said Somerset McCarty.

McCarty communicated with other riders in the area to organize a search, but they were losing light fast.

Back closer to the parking lot, Ken Russell, who was visiting from Texas, was arguing with his wife about going out in a storm, unaware that someone was missing.

“We had a little bit of a brouhaha because she said, ‘you really shouldn’t be going out,’ and I said, ‘I got to go out, I got to go out,’ something’s just making me go out,” he recalled.

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The snow was picking up and while Russell’s wife headed back to the car, he went to take a few quick laps. On his last lap, he spotted McGinn’s sled.

“I thought ‘okay, I’ve done enough here. I’m going to go up one more time,’ and I went up by this tree that’s sitting up there all by itself, and I saw this object in this big deep well where the wind had blown in. This snowmobile was sitting in there upside down.”

Russell thought it odd he didn’t see any sign of a rider so he investigated further.

“So I did a 360 and came back around, and I could see these legs kicking in there and I turned my snowmobile off and I could hear this sound, ‘Help me! Help me!’,” he said.

At that point, McGinn had been pinned under his sled for more than three hours. Russell made sure he could breathe and then attempted to lift the sled off from on top of him.

“It was heavy on the back end. I tried three times and I couldn’t get it up.”

Russell gave it one last, hard push.

“I said ‘look, I’m putting my arms clear underneath this. I’m going to do a big old squat on this thing and lift it up as high as I can lift it up.’ I told him, ‘I’ve got one shot at this so you’re going to have to work really hard to get out from under that’,” Russell said. “I lifted it up about 12 to 15 inches on that end of it, which means on the front end it was about 6 inches. Just enough for him to slide out, and he got out and his hands were just like this a ball of ice in his gloves.”

Russell paused recalling the incident. He says it was an act of God that drove him to find McGinn.

“Usually, I give in when my wife is really adamant about that. Normally I would’ve said, ‘yeah, it is pretty bad out here let’s just bag it and come back tomorrow,’ but there was something driving me to get out there. It was almost like a magnet driving me right to that spot. I can’t explain it. I think it’s like a God thing,” he said.

McGinn calls Russell is his guardian angel and the pair have plans to meet and ride together later this season.

“We both came to the realization that he had one mission to go out there and that was to find someone and luckily enough that was me,” said McGinn.

All involved agree the solution isn’t to avoid riding, but to learn from the experience.

After searching frantically for his friend, McCarty shared three takeaways McGinn agrees with:

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  1. Communication is absolutely important. Make a precise plan, asses the terrain and make sure riding partners know of the plan. In the event of separation there is a call to action.
  2. When a situation arises, and someone gets lost to not overlook any terrain or areas in the riding area. For Lance and I’s situation, I would have never thought to look in the center of the meadow for him knowing he enjoys riding the steeper terrain and in the trees. Where he was found, is not a place where he would spend his time riding, so I completely overlooked it.
  3. When riding in the backcountry most often cell phones do not work and, in this case the radio failed after he attempted respond to my call outs. In the future, a GPS tracking device will help narrow down the location of the missing riding partner and provide quicker response times.

McGinn also posted about the incident on his Facebook page, hoping his story reaches other backcountry users to help them be better prepared.

Jamie Leary