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A Simple Ride, Until It All Goes Wrong

Family motivates rider on his long, lonely, frigid trek
Micah Shuster snowmobile Elizabeth Ridge winter snow
Shortly after Micah Shuster snapped this picture, his solo ride was met with some serious obstacles.
Anticipation. Every rider knows the feeling. Waiting for that storm to layer the mountains, the arrival of the SnowCheck machine, the chance to show your buddies that newly moded sled. It builds, a pressure within that takes over and sometimes leads to questionable choices.

Such was the case for Micah Shuster at the beginning of the 2017 season.

Shuster, a husband and father of three boys and a native of Wyoming, has been riding snowmobiles in the backcountry for 14 years, dating back to his early teens. He’s got the disease, and it runs deep.

“I was building a mod sled and was super excited about it,” Schuster said recently. “I had a motor in an older chassis, but wanted it in a newer one. I had the big bore done and put the motor in the sled and I was really excited to go out.”

As is typical in Wyoming early in the season, there wasn’t much snow. But enough to tempt anyone infected with 2-stroke fever to give it a rip, especially on a bluebird Wednesday, when you know you will get to ride fresh lines. So, Shuster loaded up his project and headed to one of his favorite riding spots, an area he likes because, “not many people go there.” He shared his route with his wife, Holly, committing to staying on the trail.

“I really wasn’t thrilled that he was going by himself,” Holly says, “but where we kind of had it organized where he had his inReach and he could text me if he had any problems, I thought, ‘Oh, that’ll work.’”

“The plan was to buzz up the trail and back just to make sure everything was good to go,” said Schuster. “I was excited about the sled. I mean this thing had everything done to it. I knew the motor well, I knew the clutching setup, the carburation setup, everything. Everything should have been good to go.”

■ Cue foreboding music
For all riders there are many factors that lead to that one bad decision. For experienced riders, there are even more. Complacency tends to set in when you ride well, when you know the area, when you have the latest tech, when there isn’t anyone to go with you, but the itch won’t stop. For Shuster, it was all of the above.

“I really didn’t know anybody locally to go ride with,” says Shuster. “I had just gotten the DeLorme inReach and had sent some test messages and it was working. It’s got the GPS coordinates on it, so if anything happens, I can send my wife a text and let her know the situation.”

As an experienced backcountry rider, Shuster had a pretty complete set of gear and supplies with him, things like an avalanche beacon and bag, a couple of shovels, four gallons of extra fuel, water, rope, extra gloves and goggles, and a long BIC lighter to start a fire. Most of the important gear was covered, right?

As Shuster pulled into the parking ended up seeing those riders on his way out to Elizabeth Ridge, his planned turnaround point. No other riders were out, and the day was nice but extremely cold. The ride was going well, the sled running great, so Shuster stopped at the ridge, about 15 miles from his truck, snapped a picture and took in the view before heading back. Everything was great.

■ Sled hiccups!
And then it wasn’t. The sled started acting up, and suddenly died. No big deal. Shuster gave it a quick once-over, gave the rope a couple pulls, and it fired right up. Time to grab a fist full of throttle and get back to the truck as fast as possible. A couple miles fly by, but the sled died again. Nothing was glaringly wrong and after a few pulls, it fired up. Again, it was time to gain as much ground as possible, but after a short ride, the sled died again.

December days are the shortest, with sunset coming fast in the mountains. It was now 2 p.m., so about 2 1/2 hours of daylight left. Time to decide – stay put and start a fire or walk out?

“I figured, I’m in pretty good shape, I ran a half marathon and I stay pretty active,” Shuster said, “so I strapped my helmet to my backpack and started walking.” He sent a message from the inReach to Holly saying he had broken down but was fine. He was walking out and it would be late when he got back. She received his message as he started trudging along the trail toward the truck.

Micah Shuster family Elizabeth Ridge
Shuster knows this area well and here visits the location where all his problems started. This picture was taken in better weather though, and with his family.
■ Taking a shortcut
There’s always a shortcut, that off-trail path that cuts a couple miles off a long dogleg, and we all take them. Even when maybe we shouldn’t. Shuster took it, a mistake that took him down a hill and across a field, following the tracks of the riders he had seen earlier in the day.

“I was basically post holing it in soft snow up to my knees until I got back to the main trail,” Shuster said. The shortcut ended up costing time, energy, and resources. Having emptied the first of two bottles of water before leaving the sled, he was quickly running out of water … and daylight.

When the water ran out, Shuster started packing snow into the bottle and putting it inside his monosuit thinking his body heat would melt the snow. It did, but very slowly, providing a small amount of water with a lot of slush.

Time for the next decision: get a fire started. But the BIC lighter didn’t work. It was too cold – about -15 during the day and the sun was disappearing. Stopping without a fire would likely mean freezing to death. He had to keep moving.

“I knew where I was and I knew I was getting kind of close. But bad things can happen in a hurry, and I just kept thinking about my family, thinking about what a dumb decision this was and how it could really affect them, you know, to not have me around anymore.”

■ Thoughts of family
The motivation of his family at home kept Shuster moving. The final couple miles of trail are uphill, and the exhausted rider was running out of energy, forcing him to stop every couple of steps to catch his breath before taking a couple more steps. At one point he sat down for a couple minutes because he could feel his muscle locking up, but had to will himself back to his feet to avoid a collapse.

Meanwhile, Holly was worrying. Shuster should have been there by now and she hadn’t received any more texts, even though he had sent several during his trek. At least he thought he had, but the inReach didn’t work. She went into action, contacting her father who got his neighbor to round up a couple sleds and the two men set out to find Shuster. At the trailhead, they called Holly to let her know the truck was still there. 

Holly was worried. “I had this horrible gut-wrenching feeling of ‘What’s going to happen? How can he survive out there?’ But our pastor had come over to pray with us and he was trying to reassure me that Micah is smart, he’ll be OK.”

■ The search begins
The snowmobilers headed out the main trail to search for Shuster.

“I had to be less than half a mile from the truck, and I can hear snowmobiles starting, I can see light. I’m yelling and screaming, but they thought I was on the main trail, but I was coming into the parking lot the back way,” said Shuster. “Then I heard him take off. While it was demoralizing, it was uplifting because I knew how close I was at that point.”

It was after 8 p.m. when Shuster got back to his truck. The searchers shortly spotted his footprints and raced back to the parking area. It had taken him more than six hours to walk out, and throughout the trek simple decisions turned out to be critical decisions that could have led to a deadly outcome.

Micah and Holly think about sledding very differently now.

“I’d never go by myself again,” says Shuster now. “Find anybody. You know, we’re a big community. If somebody came to me in the parking lot and said, hey, I don’t have anyone to ride with, I’d say, ‘Well, come on.’”

Holly added, “I quiz him a lot more than I used to about where he’ll be, when he’ll be back, where he’s going. And I listen more!”

“The other thing, make sure you’ve got waterproof matches, not a lighter,” Shuster adds, “and some gauze pads because they’ll burn for a couple of minutes while you try and find more brush to keep the fire going. And remember that technology, no matter how good you think it is, you can’t count on stuff like that all the time.”

SAFE RIDING TIPS
Everyone can have a scary moment as sleds can fail, snow can tumble, you can have an accident, or simply run out of fuel. The Boy Scout motto of being prepared is indeed your best way to survive an emergency. Here are 6 tips!
  1. Know and maintain your equipment. Sled prep and pre-season maintenance are key. You’re not going to make it home if your sled isn’t running.
  2. Invest in quality riding gear and layer your clothing. Buy the best gear you can afford and layer, layer, layer. You can always take off a layer. A lot of insulated gear is great for trail riding in the Midwest, however, in the backcountry when you are stuck, and work to pull your sled out, you sweat and can end up wet all day. Start with dry wick socks, polypropylene under garments, a mid layer, and a waterproof, wind-proof breathable shell.
  3. Pack for the unexpected. Good backcountry riders are known for heavy backpacks. They are prepared to survive a night in an emergency. The basics: high calorie food (protein bars and peanut butter), water, saw, flashlight, extra dry gloves, goggles, balaclava and socks. In addition you will want a basic survival kit that includes a signaling mirror, wire, rope, first aid supplies and paracord. For your sled, you’ll want a tow strap and extra spark plugs. Bring a couple methods for starting a fire. Handy items include an electric arc lighter that is flameless and windproof (just make sure it is charged). Also, a tampon can be used to dip into the gas tank to soak up fuel as a fire accelerator. Sticky hand warmers can be purchased in bulk on Amazon are not only good for keeping you warm, but will keep some equipment from getting too cold to work (like your phone or flashlight). An aluminum water bottle is handy too as it can be put into the fire to melt snow into water.
  4. Know the area before you go. Buy maps and download trails to your phone, GPS, or sled. Check Google Earth and talk to the locals. Knowing about the terrain from people who have been there is invaluable. Out West, learn about avalanche-prone areas or other trouble spots only a local might know. Trail riders ask locals about ice quality on area lakes. Don’t be afraid to reach out on social media and snowmobile forums to find local riders you can tag along with
  5. Be prepared for avalanches. For mountain riders, everyone in your group should have an airbag (avy pack), beacon, probe, metal shovel (plastic breaks) and radio. More importantly, everyone should know how to use the gear. Always wear your beacon on your body and avy gear on your back. This will allow you to look for a victim right away, regardless if your sled is buried or not. (See October 2019 issue.)
  6. Don’t sled above your level. While it’s exciting to do new things, avoid riding in terrain above your abilities. This is especially good advice at the end of the day when the group is tired. If someone in your group is doing something stupid, don’t be afraid to speak up. You may save a life.
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