A search and rescue team saved a lost 12-year-old boy and his father late last night from blizzard conditions and subzero temperatures in the Spanish Peaks area near Big Sky.
The pair was overdue returning from a hiking trip when the man’s wife in Utah alerted authorities around 6:30 p.m.
Search and rescue units along with 20 volunteer skiers and snowmobilers found the boy almost four hours later, and the father shortly after midnight Wednesday morning.
Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin says there’s no doubt in his mind the rescue team saved the pair’s lives.
The sheriff’s office relies on a pool of more than 100 on-call volunteers from the Gallatin Valley to supplement deputies on rescues.
"These people have full-time jobs," Gootkin says. "They have lives; they have families. Once they did find them, then life goes on for them, they still have to go to work the next day."
Gootkin says the hikers drove into the remote trailhead around 1 p.m. from a Forest Service road.
After they were reported missing, a sheriff’s deputy plowed through a snowy road, which wound through the Flying V Ranch, until he found the hikers' abandoned vehicle five miles from Highway 191.
Search and rescue teams were dispatched and found the hypothermic and confused boy around 10 p.m. between the main road and Spanish Creek Cabin. He was taken to an ambulance near the highway.
The conscious but hypothermic father was found more than two hours later near the Pioneer Falls Trail a few miles from the cabin.
It appears the pair didn’t bring much beyond the clothes on their backs, which Gootkin says isn’t enough for even a day hike in the winter.
"Oh clothes, fire, shelter, you name it. They were just pretty much unprepared," Gootkin says.
The boy told rescuers he was able to walk atop the snow, while his father sunk into the drifts past his knees. The hikers had been heading toward their car, when the boy got far ahead of his dad, lost contact and became confused.
Cell phone forensics, GIS data as well as landmarks and timeframes described by the boy helped rescuers find his father.
Gootkin says weather conditions and the scope of the search zone made the rescue particularly difficult.
"It’s just a huge area. It's a wilderness area. There were a lot of places they could have been, so we were just really fortunate to find them and get them out of their alive."
After being rescued, the pair was flown to the University of Utah Burn Center for frostbite treatment.
The sheriff recommends other winter recreators prepare for the worst by grabbing extra food, clothing, emergency shelter and fire-making supplies before heading into the cold.
The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office made 16 rescues in January, which is typical of a winter month there.