The second time the snow cave collapsed was the low point in an accidental overnight local snowmobiler Sonny Mata, 40, weathered last Thursday. That was the night blizzard conditions closed several highways in Colorado, and the wind and snow were swirling so ferociously that Mata could hardly see.
He hadn't intended to spend night like that. He had set out from Colorado Springs Thursday morning intending to do a day trip on Cottonwood Pass, a popular snowmobiling area west of Buena Vista. Everything started out fine. He was the only one there. He zoomed up to the pass, then played around in the deep powder off the trail.
It was up there that he met another sledder from Kansas named Jeff. They talked. They hit it off. Riding with a friend is always more fun than riding by yourself so when Jeff suggested they go about 10 miles down the west side of the pass to get a burger at the little mountain outpost of Taylor, Mata said sure.
They zoomed down the packed trail, which is a dirt road in the summer. Jeff was in the lead, they were cruising past open glades of untouched powder that looked too good to pass up. So Jeff turned in.
Mata hadn't planned to go off trail, especially while he was by himself. Being in the Boy Scouts as a kid, and a long-time snowmobiler had taught him to always use the buddy system in case something went wrong. But here was Jeff, disappearing into the woods. Mata figured he'd better follow.
That's where everything went wrong.
The mountains around Cottonwood Pass have near-record snowpack this winter. Cold, cloudy days have kept the snow from packing down, so when the snowmobilers turned off the trail, they turned into about five feet of unconsolidated fluff.
"It was fine while we were going down hill," Mata said, "But we got into this ravine and when we tried to get out, turning up hill, the sleds just buried themselves."
They dug themselves in like moles, then had to dig out their sleds and try again three times. About 1:30 p.m., they realized it was no use. They'd have to walk to Taylor and get help to pull the machines out. They could see a packed snowmobile trail across a meadow. It was less than a half mile away. So they started walking.
It wasn't easy. Each step in the powder meant sinking in to the chest. Jeff had snowshoes, Mata didn't. Jeff was struggling with sea-level lungs and a lack of fitness. Mata was basically swimming in the powder. Their speed was measured in feet per hour. Just as it was getting dark, when they were almost to the trail, they hit a broad creek.
Jeff wanted to splash through the creek. Mata said at the rate they were moving, if they got wet now, they'd freeze to death. There was a small fishermen's bridge a short distance away, but it would take hours to reach. Jeff said he thought he was having a heart attack. Mata suggested they go for the bridge in the morning.
They dug a snowcave. Mata had an emergency pack with a small tarp, a shovel, a glow stick, some fire starter and a can of sardines. They snuggled into the tiny cave, cracked the glow stick and ate the sardines. The wind had started howling. Gusts in the area were blasting over 50 miles per hour, Mata said.
Visibility in the open meadow by the creek was zero, but they were safe, and relatively dry. When the sardines where done, they planned to build a small fire in the tin with a few twigs they'd filched from a nearby beaver dam. Then the snow cave collapsed.
They stumbled out into the wind, furiously searching the snow for the shovel and glow stick. The tin was gone. The fire starter was gone. There would be no fire.
Mata dug another snow cave in the dark. Both crawled in. That one lasted until about 5 a.m. Then it collapsed. They when through the same drill, searching for the shovel and digging a new cave. It seemed like dawn would never come.
When it did, the two split up. Jeff opted for a direct route across a nearby snow bridge. Mata, afraid the snow wouldn't hold, opted to go for the fisherman's bridge. It was about four blocks away, he thought. He set off crawling, almost swimming, trying to spread his weight out on the snow. Every so often, his arms would sink. He'd be buried head-first and have to wriggle out.
The whole morning passed. By noon he was almost to the bridge. He looked back. Jeff had made it out to the trail. And just then a small snowcat came by.
The cat took Jeff to Taylor and sent rescuers to get Mata. He was only feet from the packed trail when they reached him, but was exhausted, with a body core temperature of 92 degrees.
The rescuers gave the men food and the next day they headed back to their cars, abandoning the sleds in the snow, for now.
Mata said Monday he was shocked by how debilitating the deep snow was. "I want my ordeal to act as a lesson for others," he said. "Always go prepared. Don't travel alone."
He also went out and bought a pair of snowshoes.