Saturday, February 19, 2011

When Snowcoaches Go Off-Roading

"Hello, hello...anyone there? Can anyone hear me?" said the ominous voice on the park radio. I was intensely focused on my work in the office, but the weird radio transmission made me sit up straight and wonder if I had heard correctly. Silence filled the air. After a minute or so I turned back to my computer and recommenced my work. Suddenly the voice returned "Hello...hello". I waited for dispatch or law enforcement to respond, but no one answered. I began to think that maybe I was simply picking up a transmission from another radio channel or maybe some ill-trained employee was testing their radio. Surely I was not the only hearing this radio transmission, I thought to myself.    

Silence filled the radio frequency again. I sat in my chair unable to focus on my work and unsure of what to do. The radio transmission had sounded crisp and clear, as if they were calling from just outside my window. I couldn't sit still and I was frustrated that I could not make sense of what was happening. I looked at the clock: 2:30pm. I knew well enough that guides and visitors were about to arrive at West Thumb Warming Hut within the next 15 minutes as they made their way out of the park through the South Entrance. Since it was time to start heading back to the warming hut I decided that along the way I would do some scouting to see if I could determine where this radio traffic was coming from. 

A burst of warm air and sunshine welcomed me as I left the dark and stuffy Ranger Station. The last few days had been absurdly warm giving one the false impression that Spring had arrived. With highs in the upper 30's and clear sunny skies, the snow was melting ferociously. I got on my snowmobile and drove around the employee housing area to see if I could find anyone who might have also heard the transmission, but there was not a soul in sight. I decided to head towards the warming hut where I could  continue to monitor the radio and also ask the guides if they had seen or heard anything. I never did make it to the warming hut though, because within 1/4 mile I had solved the mystery!

Rounding the bend on the Grant Village Road I discovered a group of people standing in the road whilst their snowcoach precariously teetered on the edge of a slope. 

Road conditions had been troublesome all day. The continued warm weather melted the snow making the normal packed and groomed roads a pile of soft mush. Snowcoaches have the most difficulty dealing with these conditions due to the sheer weight of their vehicles. If they get to close to the edge of the road, where the snow is softer, they can easily get stuck. This not only happens on warm days but also after a big snow fall. Th easiest thing for a snow coach driver to do is to drive in the middle of the road however with two way traffic this poses a huge safety concern. Additionally, the deep tracks that snowcoaches leave behind can be very difficult for snowmobilers particularly when they are in the middle of the road. And so, it becomes a fine art for a snowcoach driver to master driving in the right lane without getting too close to the edge!

This picture really doesn't do it justice!!
Bringing my sled to a stop, I got off and immediately asked "Is everyone okay?" Once I established that no one was hurt or cold I called for assistance on the radio. Both right-side tires of the snowcoach were deeply rutted in the soft snow along a steep vertical slope. The entire vehicle leaned at a 45 degree angle posing a potential threat of the vehicle rolling down the slope. All the riders had safely exited on the left side of the snowcoach and were now all standing in the road, surprisingly, all in good temperament. Two young children without jackets played in the snow while the grown up's joked about their current status. Luckily the warm weather and sunny skies made the situation more tolerable. 

So much worse in real life!
I explained to the group that it would take about 30 minutes before we could get them out of their current situation. I offered to open up the ranger station if anyone wanted to sit inside or use the restroom, but they all insisted that they were fine and that they were enjoying the beautiful weather. Without any guidance the group began to work as a team shoveling out some of the snow beneath the left-side tires which would help to level out the vehicle. Within a few minutes two more park employees arrived at the scene offering assistance. Twenty five minutes later, with the proper paperwork completed,  the Park's Bombardier came to the rescue by pulling the snowcoach out of the snow! Jubilantly the group cheered and they were soon on their way! 

What started as an ominous voice on the radio ended as a series of auspicious events due to a group of people's ability to stay positive and work as a team. Where most people would have complained and scorned their driver this group chose to unite in order to remedy the situation. Even the park ranger's, who are often separated through work divisions, were united. Two interpretive rangers, two maintenance rangers and one law enforcement ranger all worked together to make sure this group was taken care of and eventually rescued. Returning home from their vacation I have no doubt that each of the snowcoach passengers will share their "near death" adventure with all their family and friends; after all who doesn't love a good Yellowstone survival story!                     


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