Volunteers help rescue dad, daughter from Cabinets
Ed and Kelly Moellmer, of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, shared a photo from a ski trip in 2020. On Feb. 6, the two were skiing on Engle Peak in Sanders County when Ed fell off a cornice and broke his back. Rescuers from Montana and Idaho worked to bring them out of the wilderness and home to safety. (Photo courtesy Ed Moellmer)
One of the hundreds of people who worked to help rescue an Idaho father and daughter from the Engle Peak area in Sanders County, Montana, traverses deep snow. (Photo courtesy Travis Schneider)
Hagadone News Network | February 17, 2021 12:00 AM
A 16-year-old girl and her father from Bonners Ferry, Idaho are back home safe after becoming separated in the Cabinet Mountains in Montana thanks to search and rescue volunteers from Montana and Idaho.
Ed and Kelly Moellmer were on a father-daughter ski trip Saturday, Feb. 6, in the Cabinet Mountains at Engle Peak, a roughly 90-mile drive from Bonners Ferry. At roughly 100 feet from the 7,765-foot summit, Ed said, he planned to take the route of a gentle slope on a southwest face of a peak but became disoriented due to the whiteout.
In his hurry to get down the mountain, he said, he didn’t check his phone and ended up further south than he realized.
“Kelly realized there was maybe a cornice in front of us,” he said, “which didn’t make sense to me. I scooted just a little forward and then I fell.”
Ed, who had been recording the trip on his Strava app, determined the vertical fall was roughly 760 feet, he said. Luckily for him, it wasn’t a continuous fall.
“The biggest freefall was around 200 feet,” he said. “Falling for that long is definitely a weird feeling.”
Having watched the fall, Kelly said she at first thought she’d witnessed her dad’s death. Ed did end up with a broken vertebrae in his lower back.
“I screamed and screamed his name, but to hear no answer,” Kelly wrote in a Facebook post. “I curled up in a fetal position and began to cry as the world closed in around me. After a moment I realized I probably had cell service and called my dad. I was shocked to hear his voice and although I couldn’t hear much of what he said, I was able to deduce that he was OK.”
After that, at Ed’s instruction, Kelly skied away from the cornice and called 911. The two determined it would be too dangerous for Kelly to try and get to her dad on her own, not knowing the terrain well.
“A lot of it, you’re second-guessing yourself,” Ed said.
Heron native Brad Fitchett knows the “steep and deep” country of the Cabinets well. He’s explored, hunted, guided and ridden snowmobiles in the unforgiving terrain.
“I had just got home and Kip (Hartman) called and told me a friend of his was in trouble,” Fitchett said.
Hartman is Fitchett’s accountant and they ride snowmobiles together.
“He rounded up a few friends from Bonners Ferry and I got a few friends together to see if we get in and help them,” Fitchett said. “We met at the Bull River Junction. We looked at the maps and decided to go in through the McKay Creek drainage. It’s further, but safer. I insisted we go in that way.”
The rescuers finally got going at about 8:30 p.m. Saturday. Fitchett said it was snowing hard and there was about one feet of fresh snow. After getting to the end of the Forest Service road, they continued up the hiking trail.
“We had to cut seven or eight trees out of the trail and we drug the snowmobiles out of snowdrifts, so it was rough going,” Fitchett said. “At about 4 a.m. Sunday, we were cold, wet, and exhausted and our gloves were frozen.
“I thought ‘Those poor people…’ I didn’t think the odds of finding them alive were too good.”
Meanwhile, because of seemingly conflicting instructions from her father and 911 operators, Kelly wrote, she became confused and unsure of what to do. Not certain she would be able to navigate back to the truck 15 miles away, she decided to stay put and wait for rescue teams.
“Her dad told her to dig out an snow cave to get out of the weather. He did, too, and it really saved them,” Fitchett said.
The two had become separated around 3:30 p.m. Pacific Time. Every few hours Kelly would contact her mom, she wrote, and kept in contact with other people including her friend Ryan Carelli and Travis Schneider, a Bonners Ferry local who was part of the ground rescue team.
“I then called my mom,” she wrote. “I’ve never heard a more comforting sound than of my mom's voice, piano playing in our home, and my siblings in the background. Over the next 24 hours when I sometimes contemplated giving up and laying in the snow to die, I remembered that phone call and how I wanted nothing more than to be in my home again.”
Kelly dug a snow pit before nightfall, she said, but felt it was making her colder and spent time digging deep holes in the snow and bobbing up and down for hours to keep herself warm and her mind occupied, she wrote in a Facebook post shared by her mother.
On Saturday evening when Ed and Kelly still had not been found, Paul Carelli, a pilot, Navy veteran and local director at the Kodiak Aircraft Company, got a call from his son.
“Apparently [Kelly] had been texting him that they were lost and separated,” he said. “He called me on Saturday night around 7 [p.m.] and asked if there was anything I could do.”
Carelli spoke with his boss, who gave the go-ahead to use one of the planes, he said. He then started prepping to fly out, coordinating with Two Bear Air Rescue in Montana, and the local Sanders County Sheriff’s Office in Montana.
Also on Saturday, a search-and-rescue team on the ground, including Schneider, had started working to find Ed and Kelly. The group, unable to follow Ed’s tracks in the dark on a path littered with cliffs, decided to snowshoe seven miles from 3,200 feet to 6,200 feet, Schneider wrote in a Facebook post.
Kelly, meanwhile, woke up at what she guessed to be around 4 a.m., she wrote, and decided she had to move as she had gotten much colder and her teeth had stopped chattering.
“I put my skis on my feet and left behind everything except for what I thought I would need for my attempt to get back to the truck,” she wrote. “150 yards from my fort, I found search and rescue’s tracks from earlier in the night. I learned later that at 2 a.m. [they] had gotten very close to me and despite having my headlamp on and gear stuck in the snow, had not seen me. I wish I had been awake so I could have yelled and gotten their attention.”
Ed was still able to move and build himself a snow cave, he said. His biggest worry was his daughter.
“I told myself that she’d be fine and she’s resourceful,” he said. “But you can’t help but think the whole time too — that that’s it.”
Schneider’s team worked clearing trails from around 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., finally reaching the final switchback of Wanless Lake Trail, at 4,700 feet. Schneider, who had stayed in contact with his wife throughout the night, called her and told her to have another party prepare to come out.
“We [were] about done physically. And the weather was still too foggy for a chopper,” Schneider wrote. Myself, Ben Andrews and David Overman, who had a radio to communicate with dispatch, [were] prepared to snowshoe in. We had just enough energy to sidehill to the creek and at least put tracks in the bottom of the drainage in case Ed or Kelly came down in the drainage [so] they could find our trail.”
At around 5600 feet, the group cut into Ed’s tracks, which they had previously missed by roughly 200 yards, Schneider wrote. Finding Ed’s snow cave, they proceeded to the spot where Kelly was supposed to be, knowing a second crew was on the way and would be able to help Ed. However, they found no sign of her, he wrote.
“My heart dropped, Schneider wrote. “We had spent priceless hours hiking in deep dangerous country to what we thought was Kelly. I got on the radio and demanded they relook up Kelly’s 911 phone call location as everyone involved was going after the wrong location for Kelly.”
After a second check, the correct location was relayed — 48.00221 -115.62913.
“We were a whole drainage away,” he wrote. “At this time Kelly had been alone, cold and hungry for around 19 hours.”
Schneider told dispatch they would need a helicopter, he wrote, as Kelly was too far away and the ground crew exhausted. At this point, a second search and rescue group was on their way down the mountain with Ed.
While this happened, Carelli and his old Navy partner, Marcel LeBlanc, had flown out in search of Kelly at around 6 a.m.
The two arrived in the area at 6:51 a.m., and were the only air asset on scene. The skies remained overcast, and weather had thwarted two previous attempts by Two Bear Air in Montana. The skies finally began to clear up, Carelli said, and Two Bear once again flew out, arriving within an hour.
After making several passes, the copter pilots landed to talk to Ed in person, as he had recently gotten back with one of the rescue teams, Carelli said.
Kelly, who was still on the ground, wrote that she had no memory from approximately 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., as she was severely hypothermic. However, during that time LeBlanc spotted what he thought was an animal. After several more passes, the two saw a figure eight pattern in the snow, and then ski gear.
“We pulled off and called TBA back to the area for a look with their [infrared camera].” Carelli wrote in a Facebook post. “At “[1:54 p.m.] TBA covered the point and confirmed that they could see Kelly, and that she was in a vertical fetal position and moving. At that moment, we were celebrating, crying and trying not to crash all at the same time.”
At 2:13 p.m, according to Carelli’s account, TBA set a crewmember on the ground. By 2:18 they had hoisted Kelly and the crew member back up.
Rob Cherot, the pilot for Two Bear Air who flew that day, was accompanied by retired Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry and Gabrielle Ruff. It was good they were able to get to Kelly when they did, he said, as she was severely hypothermic by the time they reached her.
“I don’t believe she would have made it another night,” he said in an interview with the Daily Bee. “This was a win for sure, because a lot of times people are just lost.”
Even after warm fluids, heat packs and the temperature cranked up high in the ambulance, Kelly had a core body temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit when she arrived at Bonner General Health, Ed wrote in a Facebook post.
“Many liters of normal saline later, she was joking and laughing with me about the whole adventure. A few hours later she [was] discharged from the emergency department,” he wrote.
Ed said he doesn’t know exactly how many people were involved in the rescue, but estimates over 100.
“I couldn't believe how many cars there were there,” he said. “I feel sincerely remorseful that I put people in danger … The one consolation I have is that the people that came looking for me are people like me. They love the mountains just like me, and they know the risk.”
Kelly, meanwhile, suffered some frostbite on her feet and hands but is recovering, he said.
“I think she wants to go to Schweitzer this weekend with her friends, but her feet hurt too much. She got some frostbite on her texting thumb,” he said with a laugh.
In her Facebook post, Kelly credited the search and rescue teams, as well as Ryan and his father Paul Carelli for their quick action to save her life.
“Words can’t describe how grateful I am for all those who risked their lives to save mine,” Kelly wrote. “Thank you to Sanders County SAR, Two Bear Air, Kip, Travis and their crew, and Paul Carelli, as well as the dozens of others who played instrumental roles. You guys saved my life. I’m also grateful for my friend Ryan. Without him asking his dad to go look for me in his plane, I likely would have spent another night in the mountains, one that I would not have walked out from.”
For Fitchett, he chose to write on Facebook about the harrowing experience to help others understand the risks and dangers of recreating in rugged, mountain country.
“I just wanted to tell the story of my point of view so everyone realizes just how serious this was. Not just for the lost people. All the other people who selflessly risked their lives, health, and equipment to try and help strangers in need. I hope everyone can learn a couple valuable lessons from this ordeal,” Fitchett wrote. “There were big groups of search and rescue, fire department, fish and game EMT's, deputies and countless locals doing whatever they could to help in this situation. I don't know what all they had to go through this weekend, but I wanted everyone to know at least part of what happened and the risk involved for everyone. “
- There is no such thing as "Over prepared.” No matter what you're doing, be prepared for the absolute worst outcome. If you're not, don't do it.
- Is it worth it? If there's any question of putting yourself, your child, a friend, a family member, a search and rescue crew, a helicopter pilot or absolutely anyone else at risk. Is it worth it to risk any or all of that for some thrill? There are so many ways to have fun, and be very safe about it. Is it worth it to push the limits?
“I hope any and all people who enjoy the backcountry and doing any sort of activities in the backcountry can learn a lesson from this,” Fitchett said. “These people came very close to not making it out. If circumstances would have been even slightly different, or any different decisions were made. They wouldn't have been around to tell this story.”