Missing snowboarders found alive

January 9, 2008 3:27:44 PM PST
A pair of lost snowboarders who endured three frigid nights in the mountains before being rescued by helicopter likely survived because they holed up in snow caves, a state official says.

Adam Putnam, 36, an emergency room physician, and his fiancee, Rachel Fehl, 30, a nurse, were tired and hungry but otherwise OK.

The pair spent a couple of hours at St. Vincent Regional Medical Center on Tuesday after a National Guard helicopter plucked them from a ridgetop where they had stomped SOS in the deep snow.

Hospital spokesman Arturo Delgado said the Albuquerque couple suffered "some cold toes, exhaustion and mild dehydration." They were treated at the emergency room and released.

After two days of severe weather that kept the search on the ground, Tuesday's clear and sunny skies allowed helicopters to look for the couple, who had been in intermittent cell phone contact with authorities since they got lost outside the Santa Fe ski area Saturday.

The pair had a shovel with them to dig a snow cave for shelter, said Peter Olson, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.

"Snow caves do work. They do save lives, and in this case I think it was the difference for them," Olson said.

In a 911 call Tuesday morning, Putnam told dispatchers he and Fehl could see helicopters hovering overhead.

"We've had three pass overhead, but they can't see us because there are 50-foot junipers around us," he said.

Each time one passed, Putnam said he "frantically" waved a snow shovel, though he sounded calm and hopeful.

"Every time I get to talk to you it feels like a miracle because I shouldn't have a battery in this phone anymore," he told the dispatcher.

The snowboarders were found south of the ski area, although they had told authorities they were north of the ski area and that's where the ground search was conducted, Olson said.

State Police Lt. Rick Anglada said they were found about five miles from the ground search team.

"Somehow, the snowboarders got turned around," he said.

Anglada said one of the Guard helicopters spotted Putnam and Fehl, who were standing and waving their hands near the top of Little Tesuque Peak.

"They had stamped out SOS in the snow with their feet," he said.

Paramedics were lowered from the helicopter, and the pair were hoisted aboard.

Delgado, who talked with the couple at the hospital, said they apparently moved around during their ordeal and mentioned more than one snow cave.

They had a backpack hydration system with them that they filled with snow and stuffed into their clothing to melt, the spokesman said.

"It didn't melt very quickly, but they did manage to get some hydration from it," Delgado said.

They slept on pine boughs in the caves, although they were sleepless for the first two nights, Delgado said.

"She said it was just too cold to sleep, and of course there was the anxiety factor," he said.

Searchers had to cope with whiteout conditions in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains east of Santa Fe, where the National Weather Service said low temperatures fell to 16 Tuesday, 24 Monday and 33 Sunday.

Putnam and Fehl recently moved to Albuquerque, where he works as an emergency room physician at Lovelace hospitals in the city.

In June 2007, Putnam graduated from a three-year residency program in emergency medicine at St. Luke's Hospital and Health Network in Bethlehem, Pa., according to hospital spokeswoman Denise Rader.

Fehl, a registered nurse, also worked at the hospital, Rader said.

Putnam's father, Steve Putnam, said his son had "done all kinds of avalanche survival training" and was experienced in winter camping.

In Colorado, meanwhile, the search resumed for two Albuquerque snowboarders, Michael George and Kyle Kerschen, both 27, who have been missing near Wolf Creek Ski Area in southwestern Colorado since Saturday. Wolf Creek is about 170 miles southwest of Denver.

Heavy snowfall and the threat of avalanches hampered the search previously, but with good weather Tuesday, two helicopters and 40 to 50 searchers on skis and snowmobiles renewed the hunt.

"It's a full search today," said Sandy Kroll, a spokeswoman for the Mineral County Sheriff's Department. "The sky is blue and the sun is out."

George's mother, Laura George, has said the men were unprepared for cold nights in the open and probably didn't have much food or water.

The search area has received more than 4 feet of snow in the past three days, Mineral County Sheriff Fred Hosselkus said.