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May 6, 2021

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How rescuers saved an Idaho man and his 16-year-old daughter after a ski accident in Montana’s backcountry

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Kelly and Edward Moellmer smile during a backcountry skiing trip in 2020.
Kelly and Edward Moellmer smile during a backcountry skiing trip in 2020. (Courtesy Edward Moellmer/The Spokesman-Review/TNS) Photo Gallery

SPOKANE — Goggles covered in ice and visibility nearing zero, Edward Moellmer squinted down an expanse of snow near the summit of Montana’s Engle Peak.

What was that? That blurry disruption in an otherwise white expanse of snow and fog. Trees maybe?

He sure hoped so, longing for the visual surety trees provide during whiteout days. It helps orient a disoriented skier and keeps vertigo at bay.

His 16-year-old daughter, Kelly Moellmer, wasn’t so sure. “I think that’s a cornice,” she yelled over the whipsaw wind.

The duo had left their home in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, at 5 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 6. Now nearing 3 p.m., they were sweaty from climbing nearly to the top of the 7,583-foot peak in the southern Cabinet Mountains. They were cold and ready to go home.

No way it’s a cornice, Moellmer reasoned. After all, they’d decided to ski up the southwest aspect of the mountain largely because it was a long and mellow slope. Unlikely to avalanche, even on a high-risk day as that Saturday was, and one with no major obstacles or terrain traps. Just a nice 20-to-25-degree slope.

So, slowly he skied forward. Just a few feet.

And then the snow gave way and the father of six daughters — including a newborn — was tumbling, head over heels “again, again, again.” He hit the mountain, hard. Once, twice. His skies ripped off. His poles disappeared.

In the following seconds there was pain, but above all else, Edward Moellmer was confused.

“Why am I falling and why am I still falling,” he asked himself before flying off a cliff and thinking “this was going to be the end of me.”

“I thought, ‘Well, shoot, I hope Kelly can figure out how to get back to the truck.'”

• • •

While Edward Moellmer tumbled through space, Travis Schneider was picking up building supplies in Sandpoint, Idaho, for his company, Highmarks Construction.

The 33-year-old avid hunter and snowmobiler was born and raised in Bonners Ferry. Highmarks Construction is a snowmobile reference. Highmarking is when a snowmobile rider roars up a steep mountain slope. Like a ball thrown in the air, the rider guns the machine until gravity prevents any further movement. Then machine and human turn and race down.

It’s a mountain sport that, like many, flirts with gravity. It’s fun because you fall. It’s dangerous because you fall.

Schneider, a proud and accomplished outdoorsman, knows the risks and rewards of outdoor pursuits. He’s been in his fair share of “bad situations” hunting in the Idaho backcountry. He’s had to spend the night out, alone, during the winter.

All of which is to say he’s a fit, skilled backcountry woodsman who also knows how to handle a snowmobile. That combination of skills means Schneider has helped in a few rescues over the years.

“All of the mountain ranges around here, and the majority of the creeks and ridges, I’ve hiked up in,” he said.

Which explains why, at 3:30 p.m., his phone rang. It was Kip Hartman, another Bonners Ferry local and a friend of Edward Moellmer.

“Travis, there’s been an accident. In Montana. On Engle Peak. Edward’s fallen. Him and Kelly are split up. Can you help?”

“I have a daughter,” Schneider said. “Any dad that had a daughter would have done anything for these people.”

• • •

Cornice. Most recently a French word — referencing an ornate architectural feature. But digging further back into the etymological archives it takes on a more elemental meaning. From Latin, “projection, something jutting out.”

Snow cornices are windblown projections of snow that, true to the word’s oldest meaning, jut over cliff edges, eventually curling down with gravity. They can be strong or weak, there isn’t a great way of telling. The one thing not in dispute is they’re dangerous. They can break, sending ice and rock onto climbers below them, as happened in Canada to Spokane’s Jess Roskelley, in 2019.

Or they break, sending skiers tumbling.

Early in 2020, I fell through a cornice on a North Idaho peak. It was a short and terrifying ride. The snow gave way without warning. I fell 10 feet, at the most, and landed on my feet. Unharmed, but shaking with adrenaline, I screamed up to my skiing partners. The wind was up and they couldn’t hear me.

They had no idea where I’d gone. I hiked back up through waist-deep snow and all was OK.

Edward Moellmer fell much farther. He tumbled 760 vertical feet, including a 200-foot free fall off a cliff, according to GPS data. That 200-foot free fall was “incredible,” the wind whistling in his ears as he rocketed past the mountain’s flank.

“It just didn’t stop,” he said. Until “boom,” it did stop. He was down. His legs hurt. His back hurt. But he was alive and conscious. Moellmer, a physician, did a quick self-assessment. He was relatively unharmed.

He stood up.

Nearly 800 feet above him, his daughter Kelly collapsed, convinced she’d just watched her father fall to his death.

“I had a panic attack,” she said later. “I curled up into a fetal position.”

Then she decided to check her phone. She had cell service. She called her presumed-dead dad.

He picked up.

• • •

Schneider drove home. He’d never been to Engle Peak, but Hartman knew a local guy.

Brad Fitchett. Logger. Hunter. Snowmobiler. Occasional hunting guide.

The three men got on the phone and started to plan. They would load their snow machines, drive them as far up as they could and hike the rest of the way.

They had GPS coordinates for both Edward and Kelly, although the coordinates looked odd to Schneider. They were so close together, which didn’t make sense based on what he’d heard about the accident. But he figured it was an approximation and decided not to worry about it. Plenty of other things to worry about.

It’s steep and rough country, but Fitchett knew the mountain. Some other guys would meet them at the Bull River Junction just west of Noxon, Mont.

A search and rescue team from Montana’s Sanders County also started gearing up.

Schneider got home a bit after 4 p.m. and packed. A full set of extra clothes. Fire starter. Snowshoes. Sleeping bag. Jet boil. Food. A handgun for predators.

Hartman and Schneider left Bonners Ferry around 5:30 p.m. Schneider talked to Moellmer’s wife, Alisa.

“Do your best to get a helicopter,” Schneider said. “This is getting to be a life-and-death situation with cold weather and a storm on the way.”

Then he texted Kelly.

“I’m going to try to make it to you tonight,” he wrote. “We are on our way. Are you OK?”

He waited for a response driving to Montana. After an hour having not received one, he put his phone on airplane mode to save battery.

On the mountain, Kelly yelled into her phone, barely able to hear her dad over the wind. He told her to get away from the cornice. Ski down and traverse right. Get back to the truck. Call 911.

The 911 operator told Kelly to stay put. Common advice in emergency situations. Her dad said move. She was conflicted.

For his part, Edward Moellmer figured she needed to get away from the cornice and, at minimum, get off the exposed slope. More optimistically he hoped she could find their tracks from the ascent and follow them back to the snowmobile, where he’d left fire starter.

But, he also realized she had no mapping device and little food.

The Moellmers are dedicated backcountry skiers. Edward started backcountry skiing when he was 14 in Utah’s Wasatch Range with his dad. After completing medical school in Salt Lake City, the family moved to “this little town in Idaho where they didn’t know anybody.” The decision was made, in part, because of the mountains and snow.

And, when Kelly turned 14, Moellmer started teaching her how to backcountry ski.

But he’s still her dad. She hadn’t taken an avalanche course, and, on many trips, he’d carry the bulk of the gear to ease the uphill load. On this particular day he had most of the food and water, “to help with the weight.”

“They really rely on me,” he said.

• • •

Schneider and the others arrived at the Bull River Junction and made a plan. The county search and rescue crew was heading up the ridge that Kelly and Edward skied up.

However, Fitchett knew the mountain and thought that was a bad idea.

While the ridge up is fairly gradual, dropping into the area of Kelly and Edward’s last-known coordinates would be treacherous and full of avalanche danger.

For the past week the entire region’s snowpack had been unstable and dangerous.

Instead, he suggested they head up the North Fork of the McKay Creek drainage. It would be longer and rougher going but safer, he said.

They agreed. And by 7 p.m. MST, they’d parked their trucks, unloaded their snow machines and started up. It wasn’t talked about much, but everyone’s primary objective was rescuing Kelly.

• • •

Meanwhile Kelly pulled herself together and skied away from the cornice. She talked to her mom. She talked to 911. She dropped a pin and shared her location with Schneider and the county search and rescue crew.

She started looking for the old track.

“I knew if I found my skin track it was going to be a long, cold, scary evening but I would make it back to the truck,” she said.

But she’d dropped too far down and as the sun set she realized she was underneath the ridge on which she and her dad had skied in. She considered heading up, confident that she’d intersect their tracks from earlier in the day.

Something stopped her.

Instead, she moved downhill behind a wall of trees, to shield herself from any avalanches and tried to build a snow cave. It kept collapsing. She started bouncing around, just to stay warm. She talked to her mom. Her mom, who was in contact with search and rescue and Schneider, assured Kelly that she’d be rescued that night.

Kelly’s spirits were good. She just knew she’d be rescued. A friend texted her.

“‘Why aren’t you at my house right now,’ ” Kelly said, recalling the text. “I said, ‘I’m stuck on the mountain.’ It was weird to see that the world was going.”

Meanwhile, down in another drainage, Edward Moellmer was fighting his way through bottomless snow. He’d lost one ski and one ski pole. But still had his backpack, helmet and goggles. Over the course of hours he moved, maybe, two-tenths of a mile.

It got dark and he too settled in for the night. He dug a big snow cave, and because he had nothing better to do, he made it pretty nice. He was cold but not deathly so. He continued to shiver — a good sign.

“I wasn’t too nervous about myself,” he said. “I was worried about Kelly. I was worried someone was going to come up and get caught in an avalanche and get killed.”

He paused, then continued.

“Mostly it was this anger. Anger at myself.”

• • •

In the summer the McKay Creek Road is a 5-mile affair that stays high and parallel to the creek below. It ends at a trailhead. The road is rocky but a savvy driver can navigate it in a low-clearance vehicle.

It’s a different beast in the winter.

Travis Schneider and the others started up the road at 7 p.m. MST.

The snow was deep, and their snow machines often foundered. Plus, a windstorm from earlier in the year had blown down numerous trees. They had to stop, often, to cut through them with a chainsaw.

By 5 a.m., they reached the summer trailhead. Exhausted, they didn’t think they could continue. And then Schneider wondered, could they hike into the drainage itself and follow that up the mountain? He figured that if Edward and Kelly were moving they’d have to come down that drainage. They’d intercept them.

So Schneider, Ben Andrews and David Overman started to snowshoe up the McKay Creek drainage. Already exhausted, breaking trail through 3 or more feet of fresh snow pushed them to their limits. He texted his wife, Casie, and asked her to tell his brother to organize a second relief team “because we are about physically done.”

In the predawn dark, Schneider heard from his wife, who was keeping him up-to-date via a handheld satellite communication device with GPS navigation called a Garmin InReach. An airplane would be flying over the area. The county search and rescue team hadn’t found anyone and turned back. She also told him that Two Bear Air, a rescue helicopter service, had been called.

But the sky was cloudy and there was no chance a helicopter could rescue anyone, at least not right then.

• • •

Sometime around 11 p.m., Kelly started screaming into the night. She was afraid, of course.

“But mostly I was angry and frustrated,” she said. “I didn’t really know what to do.”

She tried to lay down in a snow pit she’d dug. But it just got her wet. She was cold and anxious and increasingly hypothermic. She started to dig “dozens and dozens of really deep holes.” A mistake in retrospect because it only made her wetter, she said.

Not that getting wetter was possible. After a full day of uphill skiing in soggy conditions, plus half a night out in the elements, “every single piece of clothing on my body was entirely soaked.”

“I could hear the water in my boots sloshing as I walked,” she said.

She screamed until she was hoarse and then, oddly, she started to feel warm. She laid down on her backpack and snow shovel and she slept, a deep relaxing sleep.

“I was so warm,” she said. “I was so comfortable.”

Edward never really slept, and so by first light he was ready to get moving. He got out of his snow cave and texted his wife and search and rescue, telling them he was heading downhill. Although he didn’t know it, he was walking down the McKay Creek drainage.

After more than four hours of hiking, he’d covered seven-tenths of a mile. “Sisyphean” is how he described it, referencing the figure from Greek mythology who was eternally doomed to try rolling a boulder uphill. Around 10 a.m., he was wondering how much further he could go when he stumbled into a meadow.

And there, downhill from him was Schneider’s brother — Trevor.

Edward Moellmer was saved.

• • •

Roughly 10 minutes before Edward Moellmer broke into the meadow, Travis Schneider and the two other men saw Edward’s tracks. He was alive. Struggling, yes, but alive, and Travis knew his brother was just 10 minutes behind him and would intersect Edward. They decided to keep pushing forward to find Kelly. Her GPS coordinates weren’t that far away.

Why weren’t they together, Schneider wondered?

“We were thinking, ‘Man this doesn’t feel right. This doesn’t look right,’ ” he said.

It wasn’t.

Soon they reached Edward’s snow cave and then, just a bit after, the GPS coordinates listed for Kelly. She was nowhere to be found. Travis Schneider got on a radio, which they hadn’t been using much to conserve battery, and explained the situation. Had dispatch given them the right coordinates?

Multiple people said yes, but Travis Schneider was unconvinced.

He demanded they look up the original 911 call coordinates from Kelly’s phone. Dispatch relented. Fifteen minutes elapsed. Then the radio crackled. Someone rattled off a string of numbers.

“They are coordinates we’ve never heard before,” Travis Schneider said. “They’re brand-new coordinates.”

Kelly wakes up dangerously cold.

“My teeth weren’t chattering,” she said. “I felt so incredibly weak.”

Her plan the night before was to climb the ridge above her and find her tracks. But, in the harsh light of morning, that seemed like a bad idea. It was avalanche terrain and her judgment was impaired, to say the least.

So, she skied down and, within 150 yards of where she’d spent the night, she found tracks. The county search and rescue team had passed by sometime during the morning, just barely missing her.

OK, regroup. That’s a good sign, she reasoned. I can follow their tracks. But the wheels were coming off. She lost one of her ski skins — a nylon material skiers affix to their skis so they stick to the snow — and she couldn’t get her bindings clipped into her boots because her hands were too cold.

It was roughly 9 a.m.

Kelly doesn’t remember anything after that.

Gabriel Ruff is a rescue specialist for Two Bear Air, based near Whitefish, Mont. Two Bear is completely funded by a billionaire venture capitalist and has a reputation for pulling off rescues others can’t.

That Saturday, the company was notified about the unfolding events at Engle Peak. But the weather was too bad, so they did not fly.

Sunday rolled around and the weather was a bit better but still “shady,” as Ruff said. The crew went on another mission and then, as the weather cleared, headed to Noxon.

The GPS coordinate confusion affected their initial search. They flew up and down McKay Creek drainage, searching with thermal imaging cameras. Realizing that there was some confusion, they decided to land at the school in Noxon and coordinate.

That’s when it became clear that Kelly was not in the McKay drainage.

Armed with new coordinates, they took to the air. Scanning the slopes below, Ruff saw skis. Poles. Some holes and tracks. And then, “a glimpse of a person.”

She was moving, sort of. They turned around and landed lower down the mountain on a road to set up their hoist. Then returned. Ruff was lowered down and released. He instantly sank into the snow and had to fight his way uphill to where Kelly was.

“I pretty much had to crawl with her skis to get over to her,” he said.

She was in bad shape. Hypothermia can, ironically, make people feel hot, and she’d unzipped her ski bibs on both sides, letting cold air in, while her jacket was undone.

“She had already got to the point where she was starting to get the sensation of getting hot and strip down,” Ruff said.

He got her into a specialized suit meant for hoisting people. The helicopter returned and they were both pulled out together. An ambulance waited for Kelly down at the school in Noxon.

• • •

After realizing they’d been laboring after the wrong coordinates, Travis Schneider and his crew headed back down the mountain. Although Kelly wasn’t that far away as the crow flies, to get to her would basically require flying.

Plus, the men were nearing their physical limit.

“We’d pushed our bodies to their full physical capabilities,” Travis Schneider said. “We were pretty concerned at this point. We felt like we were her last hope, and we didn’t find her and we were devastated, obviously.”

They headed down while another team of volunteer rescuers started to prepare to go up the correct route.

Travis Schneider and the other two men made it back to where they’d left their snow machines. A fire was going. They rehydrated. Then they heard a helicopter flying low. It went up and down the drainage they’d just spent hours wallowing up. Travis Schneider got on the radio. Do they have the right coordinates, he asked?

The chopper disappeared.

And then the clouds clear a bit. The chopper returns, but this time going up the correct drainage. Some time passes. Then the radio crackles to life. They found her. They found Kelly.

But is she alive, asked Schneider. No response and then, over the radio, “prepare an ambulance.”

The men cheer.

• • •

Edward is angry at himself. Embarrassed. Thankful.

He met Kelly in the ambulance in Noxon and drove with her to Bonner General Hospital. Her core temperature at the hospital, after being pumped full of fluids and blasted with heat, was still only 90 degrees.

“It was close,” Moellmer said. “As cold as she was when they got her out, I can’t imagine she would have been able to survive a second night.”

Kelly was released from the hospital that Sunday night. Monday, the entire family skipped work and school and just spent time together. Kelly’s friends came over in the evening.

Asof last week both father and daughter were recovering. Edward has a compression fracture in his spine, but that’s a minor price to pay for a nearly 800-foot fall. And Kelly had a blister on her thumb from frostbite and swollen and tender toes but is also OK.

Mistakes were made. An understatement. But true.

Edward Moellmer said he should have had fire starter on him. He shouldn’t have skied a peak he’d never been to before in whiteout conditions, he said. And Kelly should have had a mapping device and more gear. Taking the lion’s share of the weight, as good intentioned as it was, was a mistake.

Travis Schneider, for his part, emphasizes the importance of communication. He too made some mistakes, initially forgetting to tell rescuers in Noxon that they’d found Edward.

While the GPS mix-up didn’t prove to be fatal, it easily could have been.

“That’s a bad mistake. Whatever happened,” Travis Schneider said. “If you’re going to report a coordinate, triple-check it. Make sure it’s right before people go risk their life to find it.”

And not having fire starter? That’s inexcusable, he said.

He’s quick to point out, though, that Edward and Kelly did a lot right. They had emergency communications and some basic survival knowledge and gear.

They’re alive, after all.

“Kelly did all the things she needed to do to last as long as she did,” Travis Schneider said.

For both father and daughter, the experience has raised questions of risk and responsibility. It’s easy to blame her dad, Kelly said, and she does place some responsibility on him. But not much.

“I am at that age where I’m intelligent enough to assume risks and responsibilities,” she said. “I just feel bad that we were out on a high-avalanche-danger day and dragged other people into there because they could have died.”

That’s the hardest, most sobering consideration for Kelly and Edward. Risking your life is one thing. But putting others at risk for sport? Is that OK? It’s a question that doesn’t necessarily have an answer.

“Right now I feel grateful, but also really ashamed and embarrassed,” Edward Moellmer wrote on Facebook. “I like to think that I’m cautious in the mountains, but my mistake placed many lives in danger. I absolutely love skiing the backcountry, but at what price?”

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