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Three burn snowmachines while waiting for rescue

Posted: Wednesday, February 12, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Noel Fears and two friends were hungry, wet and hypothermic after spending a sleepless night huddled under a space blanket in a bog of chest-deep snow in the Alaska Range.

''That's when we decided to burn the first snowmachine,'' he said.

The second one went up in flames a few hours later when the need for heat outweighed the potential for driving themselves out of the wilderness.

The third machine became the signal fire that attracted help and saved the lives of Fears, 40, John Holtry, 27, and Shane Seurer, 25. It was a small price to pay, Frears said.

''Seeing another human being (come to your rescue) is beyond anything you can ever imagine when you're out there,'' he said.

The three Fairbanks friends normally ride closer to home, but last Saturday morning found them heading south for Summit Lake, between the Richardson and Denali highways near Paxson. As usual, Fears said, he was the rider in the group most prepared for adversity.

''They usually call me Grandpa,'' he said, in deference to his age and because he drives slower than his younger friends but also because of his caution. Fears said he always packs a safety kit with a shovel, food, water, emergency blanket, spare hat and gloves. Neither partner did, he said.

The snow was a rarity in most of Alaska this winter -- light and deep powder, Fears said. After several hours of driving and playing, he figures they were about 15 miles off road when the light got so flat it was almost impossible to see.

''Unless someone has been in that kind of condition, you don't really know what an eerie feeling it is,'' he said. There's no contrast, ''your eyes can't focus, you can't see what you're stepping on.''

Traveling almost blind, the three found themselves driving down a slope. Finally, they came to a ravine filled with bottomless powder and almost immediately all three of their machines mired down.

They had almost no survival gear. Wallowing in snow up to their armpits, the three couldn't make trails for their snowmachines to follow. They pushed and dug and lifted the heavy sleds free but could only make a few yards at a time driving.

They moved only a few miles before giving up around 7 p.m. Saturday, soaked and cold in temperatures to 20 below zero.

They tried to burn brush, but it wouldn't keep a flame, ''so we skipped the fire and just huddled under my space blanket,'' Fears said. For dinner they shared the sandwiches he had brought, although nerves kept him from eating anything, he said.

They woke up sopping wet and freezing, Fears said, and burning the snowmachine just seemed like the right thing to do.

''We burned mine first. It was burn a snowmachine or die,'' he said.

Fears, who owns an automotive shop in Fairbanks, knew they could ignite the gas in the tank as long as the cap was off, so they heated the tank with a lighter and pierced it with a piece of metal. Once the fire took off, he estimated the heat output at about 1,300 degrees.

''It melted my gloves, the back of my helmet and the back of my pants,'' he said. It also put off a lot of black smoke for 90 minutes. At 9:30 a.m. Sunday, however, nobody was watching.

Dryer, warmer and in better spirits, the three tried again to get a snowmachine through the snow. They continued until about 2 p.m., then torched the second machine.

Not long afterward, Fears heard snowmachines a few ridges over. ''Burn it now!'' he said of the last machine. About 45 minutes later, Bill Pugh of Delta Junction popped over the ridge with his son, Gerald, and friend Eugene Bass.

There's only one thing that makes smoke like that, Pugh said in an interview Tuesday, ''and I knew what it was.''

It took several hours for the three rescuers to get Fears and friends back to the highway, Pugh said.



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