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Scouts, leaders escape from buried snow caves

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Scouts from Nibley warm up in a state road shed after their escape.

Scouts from Nibley warm up in a state road shed after their escape.

Bob Thomas

Thirty-nine Boy Scouts escaped without injury Saturday after being buried inside a number of snow caves in northern Utah.

Four troops from Nibley and Smithfield were camping inside snow caves they had dug in the Sinks area of Logan Canyon Friday night. During the night the weather became extremely poor and deteriorated into blizzard-like conditions with wind gusts up to 64 mph.

About 4:00 a.m. a cornice about 10 to 15 feet above the entrances to the caves collapsed and covered the entrances with 6 feet of snow. The snow caves themselves remained intact.

Bob Thomas, Scoutmaster of Troop 385 from the Nibley 4th Ward, had 10 Scouts spread out in four separate caves. He said he heard what sounded like "a big grinding noise" and then was awakened by another Scout leader who said he couldn't see light out their doorway anymore. They turned on their flashlight and discovered their entrance was blocked by snow.

Not knowing how thick the snow was, the two found their airhole, which was still unobstructed, and were able to punch their way out, he said.

Outside the snow caves, a couple of leaders who were sleeping in a trailer saw the collapse and went to a nearby Department of Transportation road shed where they called search and rescue.

Thomas continued looking through the white-out conditions for members of his group in the three other caves.

Chuck Robbins was inside one of those caves. He said before the cornice collapsed he could hear someone yelling outside the cave to get out. But the cornice collapsed while he was getting dressed.

Fortunately, Thomas and others were able to dig him out quickly.

"We got out in a hurry just by pure dumb luck," Robbins said.

Robbins said he was able to light a candle inside his cave so it wasn't completely black.

In the third cave, Thomas found items of clothing but initially did not find any of the Scouts.

"I got a little nervous," Thomas admitted.

By that time search crews from the Cache and Rich county sheriff's offices had arrived along with the Logan Fire Department. Rescuers began digging through the 6 feet of snow blocking the entrances, putting their own lives on the line to rescue the Scouts.

"They were in white-out, blizzard conditions. You could hardly see what you were doing," said Cache County Sheriff's Lt. Von Williamson. "It's just downright dangerous to be out running around in that."

The snow blocking the entrances to the caves was packed but not as solid as in an avalanche, Williamson said.

"They could breathe in there. I don't know how long the air would have lasted had we not been able to get them out. That may have been a problem later," he said.

The other Scouts in Thomas' troop were found unharmed. They were still asleep inside the caves, unaware of what had happened.

By 7:05 a.m., all 39 Boy Scouts ranging in ages from 12 to 17, including those camping in the Peter Sinks/Limber Pine area of the summit, were located.

"Everybody got out fine. Just a little cold," Thomas said. "We can joke about it now. But it was pretty intense then."

One of the leaders in Thomas' troop had to go back inside one of the caves to get his car keys. Other equipment had to be left behind to be retrieved on another day, said Thomas who also noted he's extremely thankful to all those who assisted in the rescue.

"I wasn't concerned about myself," added Robbins. "But when you've got somebody else's boys out there. . . ."

The Sinks area is very popular for Scouts to dig snow caves and sleep in every year, Williamson said.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com