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Snowmachiner survives night lost in the hills

Posted: Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A snowmachiner used military skills to survive cold temperatures and strong winds with blowing snow after he lost his way in the Caribou Hills on Saturday and had to spend the night curled up under a tree.

Donald Armstrong, 65, of Anchorage, left the Four Corners Cabin in Caribou Hills to go snowmachining alone Saturday, but got lost in the blowing snow and got his snowmachine stuck.

“He was riding out by himself and got caught in high winds,” said Sgt. Tom Dunn of Alaska State Troopers. “With the blowing snow, it was hard to stay orientated, and he got off path.”

Armstrong was last seen about 3:30 p.m. Saturday, and at 9:15 p.m. troopers received a report from his daughter Dana Armstrong, that he was missing.

Troopers mobilized a search team, but had to stop the search at 2:30 a.m. when conditions become too dangerous. They resumed the search at 7:15 a.m.

“We’ve got to look out for the safety of the searchers,” Dunn said.

The search team included troopers helicopter, Helo 1, 18 snowmachiners from the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers snowmachine club and one Civil Air Patrol plane.

By 12:30 p.m., troopers were told Armstrong had been found. A snowmachiner not associated with the search found Armstrong while riding. James Coburn, 44, of Nikiski, found Armstrong in good health eight miles northeast of the the Four Corners Cabin off the main trail.

Armstrong not only survived hypothermia, but appeared to have weathered the night surprisingly well, Dunn said.

“To me he looked like he was ready to ride again,” he said.

Armstrong was incredibly lucky, Dunn said.

“Armstrong had proper gear, but once you stop moving you start cooling,” he said. “It’s very dangerous.”

But Armstrong was aided by skills learned in the military.

“It was obvious by what he did that he had had some training,” he said.

Once Armstrong realized he would have to spend the night in the hills, he made a bed of branches under the protection of a tree.

By laying the branches on the ground before he curled up for the night, Armstrong was able to keep his body warmer than if he had curled up directly on the ground, Dunn said.

“Essentially he laid down and made a shelter,” he said.

Dunn said the incident serves to remind snowmachiners it is always best to go with a partner. If one snowmachiner gets stuck, the other may be able to pull them free and with two people monitoring the terrain the snowmachiners may be less likely to get lost, he said.

“I would never recommend going alone,” Dunn said. “If you get hurt, you’re essentially on your own until we find you.”

Snowmachiners should stop and wait for help as soon as they realize they are lost, rather than risk wandering even further away from potential help.

“It helps us help you later,” he said.



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