“They were returning from a trip and had been through the Jackson and Dubois area,” Capt. Ryan Lee of the Fremont County Sheriff’s Department said Wednesday.
The men were relying on their GPS navigation device, which said the shortest route was to take Maverick Springs Road and cross the Owl Mountains over Blondie Pass, Lee said.
That route, accessed from U.S. Highway 26 via the Diversion Dam Road, “is an improved surface road for a way, then turns into a mountainous switchback road that goes up into a mountain pass,” that is unpaved, Lee said.
“It’s not maintained at all; it’s a mountain road, and it’s impassable in the winter ... You just can’t drive on those roads.”
Lee said the students made it about 30 miles to the top of the pass, just past the Hot Springs County line, where the vehicle — a Nissan Xterra midsize SUV — got stuck.
“They tried to go through a pretty large snow drift, and that was the end of it,” he said.
One of the students used a cell phone to call 911, and he provided GPS coordinates for where they had gotten stuck.
“That’s the whole key to the situation — they were able to get cell service, and they were also able to give exact coordinates,” Lee said.
So, ironically, the GPS unit that led the men astray also helped rescuers reach them.
Emergency responders from Hot Springs County were dispatched, but were unable to get within several miles of the students’ location. A Fremont County deputy and two search and rescue volunteers reached the group at about 5:30 p.m. by following the route the students had taken, Lee said.
“Given the situation they were in, the deputy sheriff assisted them in getting turned around and escorting them back to the highway and getting them turned in the right direction,” Lee said. “If they would have left the vehicle there, it would have been there until sometime in the late spring. More snow would fall on it, and it would stay there until the snow was gone.”
Lee said it took the deputy about two hours to reach the students in his four-wheel drive pickup.
“He had to maneuver through some pretty hazardous terrain himself to get to them,” he added.
“The deputy planned to get the gentlemen’s names, but he spent so much time getting to them and digging them out that he was exhausted and he forgot, and we left it at that,” Lee said.
Lee said it’s not uncommon for the Fremont County Sheriff’s Department to get calls from travelers who get lost or stranded on mountain roads when they follow suggested routes on their GPS devices.
“The device calculates the shortest route to the requested destination; it does not take into account that a majority of the roads around here are impassable half the year,” Lee said in a Monday press release. “We have had several incidents of this nature when travelers decide to ignore the road conditions or weather and attempt to follow the instructions despite the obvious hazards.”
But, Lee added Wednesday, “this is the first time I’ve seen someone try to drive up Blondie Pass in the winter.”