When Paul and Gary Wheeler, a Bountiful father and son, left on a snowmobiling trip late Saturday afternoon in the Uinta Mountains, they didn't expect to be spending the night in the backcountry. After riding down a steep hill and getting stuck, however, the two had no choice but to build a snow cave in which to spend the night.
The son, Gary Wheeler, 18, said they had taken a trail near Trial Lake off the Mirror Lake Highway and were trying to get up to Long Lake when they rode down a really steep hill into a bowl surrounded by cliffs. They couldn't get back up the hill, however, and attempted to get out another way, he said.
"We wandered around this one lake and got stuck. We then got ourselves unstuck and my dad said we should probably spend the night," Wheeler said. "At around 7 or 8 p.m. we decided to stay the night and we were looking around for an area that we could dig into the mountain and dig a snow cave."
After debating whether or not to dig in multiple spots, Wheeler said he just decided to start digging in one location. He dug down and into the mountainside, creating a snow cave about nine feet wide and three feet high. Luckily, he said, they had brought a shovel, which made the task much easier in the dark.
The snow cave took about three hours to build, Wheeler said, and his father suggested they place pine boughs in between the layers of snow to create more stability. Paul went out to search for firewood but the two were unable to start a fire with their wet matches.
Finishing the snow cave at about midnight, Paul and Gary decided to hunker down for the night. They used Paul's thick down coat to cover themselves, although Wheeler said they didn't really get any sleep. Paul's boots were soaking wet so he used his hat to wrap his foot in for the night.
"My feet were frozen but they were dry," Wheeler said. "We were pretty much shivering all night. In the morning, we woke up at around six or seven and decided that we should try heading out the way we came."
Paul was unable to walk in deep snow due to a hole in his boot, so Wheeler walked ahead up the steep hill which they had come down in order to pack the snow for the snowmobiles. Overnight snow had covered the path they had taken the previous day and the two got stuck a couple more times before getting back to the road.
They eventually saw fresh tracks and made their way to the highway, stopping to eat before heading back to the parking lot. On their way back to the parking lot, they encountered Summit County Search and Rescue, who had been called by Wheeler's mother. They asked the two if they were all right and said that they had their trucks warmed up for them.
On their journey back, Wheeler said the conditions were cold and windy. With his gloves soaking wet, he could barely move his hands. Although he said he was excited at one point during the night to be spending the night in the backcountry, Wheeler also had his concerns.
"I thought I wasn't going to make it through," Wheeler said. "I thought I was going to freeze to death. I didn't know if there were animals that could eat us, or if there was a chance that a wolf could come get us."
The Utah Avalanche Center reports that, for the Uinta Mountains, there still exists a 'Moderate' avalanche danger at upper elevations, with a 'Low' avalanche danger in mid and low-elevation terrain. The last day of the center's regularly scheduled advisories is Sunday, April 13. For more information, visit utahavalanchecenter.org.