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A Montana Story: The Day Hell Froze over

Bill has graciously consented, at the request of ColumbiaMagazine.com, to share this story with CM Readers. Click on headline for complete story with photo(s).
The next earlier Bill Troutwine Story: Donna & The Hound Dog.

By Bill Troutwine

Note: At the time this story took place Donna and I were living in Belfry, Montana, and I was working as a Red Lodge City Police Officer.

It was mid October of 1991, we moved to Montana earlier that same year. We were living in Belfry, Montana on the Wyoming/Montana border. Ricky, my son, and I had applied for elk tags in Wyoming and were lucky enough to get drawn for the elk hunt. Ricky had moved back to Kentucky and was planning to drive out for the hunt. I told him to arrive in time to be in the woods on Montana's opening day of elk season. Montana's season always opens in the middle of October. Wyoming's season always opens around the first of October.

Since we were hunting in Wyoming, near the Montana border, my plan was to catch the elk retreating fromMontana. With all the pressure of opening day, the elk would head back to Wyoming, where the season was nearly over.



Ricky arrived in Belfry the day before we planned to hunt. He brought a family friend, Tim Conway, with him. Tim was a young man, who was like a son to me. I had taken him on his first hunting trip, and I was teaching Ricky and Tim about the mountains and how to survive in the wilderness. Little did I know this was going to be the greatest lesson for them and the biggest test as a survivalist for me.

That evening, we headed for the mountains with a tent and supplies. We were also taking my two mules, Jack and Jill, and Ricky's horse, Sugar, for our transportation to get around in the mountains. We arrived at our planned camp site a couple of hours before dark and started setting up camp.

We were in Wyoming, in the Shoshone National Forest, which is less than a mile from the Montana border. We were at 11,000 ft elevation on a high mountain flat called Line Creek Plateau. Since there had been no bad weather or snow, the elk were still up in the high country.

Normally, by this time of year, it would be cold, and there would be enough snow to drive the elk down to six or seven thousand feet elevation. The temperature during the days had been around 70 degrees and dropping to the mid 20s at night. This is unusually warm for this time of the year, especially in the mountains. Everyone knew this was unusual. We were all expecting it to turn cold at any time, but no one was prepared for what was about to come.

The three of us awoke and crawled out of our sleeping bags. It was a beautiful morning that promised to be another beautiful day in the 70s. We saddled the horse and mules, and as an afterthought, threw our jackets on the mounts. We rode off into the rugged mountains in pursuit of the elusive elk.

About 10:00 AM, we were starting to get hungry, so we shot a rabbit and a grouse and built a fire to cook them for our lunch. We were talking about how beautiful it was. It was so warm, we were in shirt sleeves. I had commented that since it was so warm, it would be hard to find elk, since they would stay in the big timber. We noticed some clouds building and starting to partially block the sun. We rode for another hour, reaching the area where I was planning to hunt. We had ridden about 8 to 10 miles from camp. We planned to tie up our mounts there and hunt the area on foot. At about 4:00 PM, we would start our ride back to camp.

It began to rain a little bit. None of us had any rain gear, but it was still warm, and we had no great concern. I started feeling a little cold and noticed the temperature was dropping. The rain began to turn to freezing rain. I told the boys we should probably start for camp. By the time we got back to the horses, it was snowing so hard, with such big flakes, we could hardly see.

The boys said, "Let's hurry and get started for camp." However, by now, it was snowing so hard, and it was feeling so cold, I was afraid we couldn't make it to camp. We were all soaking wet and so cold we were shaking uncontrollably. The boys kept saying we had to get to camp or we would freeze to death. I told them we could not make it to camp before we would freeze.

I started looking for some type of natural shelter. I finally found a rock overhang on the side of a mountain. It was almost like a cave opening, but it only went back in the rocks about 8 feet. The opening was about 8 feet long and about 6 feet high. I told the boys to look for as much wood as they could get and try to get wood that was dry as possible, but that was really impossible. I found some dead but solid pine. I took my hunting knife and shaved off the wet portion of the wood. This was very slow, but when I had enough dry wood pieces, I started a fire. I kept shaving wood until I had a fire big enough to dry out the wood we had stacked inside for burning later. I made the boys strip off all their wet cloths, and I did the same. We made a makeshift clothes line and started drying our clothes. The fire was in the front of the opening, and we were behind the fire next to the rock wall and protected from the heavy snowfall by the overhang. With the fire between us and the outside, we were surprisingly warm. The temperature was still dropping though, and the horses were out in the elements. Ice was frozen on their backs, and they were humped up and shaking violently. I was afraid the mounts were going to freeze. The mules were shaking, but not nearly as bad as Ricky's horse. I was certain she would freeze, but there was nothing we could do for them.

For the moment, we had cheated death, but we still had to get to camp. It was nice and warm where we were, but we had no sleeping bags and no food. No one knew where we were. We had to get back to camp on our own. Leaving the warm fire and the sheltered overhang was hard, but I knew we had to. The boys wanted to spend the night there, but by morning the horses would be too weak to carry us out. We would be too weak to walk out on our own, especially since the snow was now 30 inches deep, and the temperature had dropped to 20 degrees below zero. We were not dressed for temperatures like that. We had no insulated boots; in fact, we were wearing ankle high slip on rubber shoes. It was so cold now it had stopped snowing. I told the boys to saddle the horses, and we would head for camp. As soon as we stepped away from that fire, we were instantly cold, but we were dry. I believed we could make camp if we didn't get wet again.

It was still light, but it would be dark in less than an hour. We had about a three hour ride back to camp. The horses had to plow through nearly three feet of snow. We kept riding and talking to each other to keep from thinking about the situation we were in. The snow had changed the look of the forest, and it was impossible to tell how to get to camp now that darkness had set in. Everyone had their own idea about which way to go to camp. I told the boys to let the horses have their heads, and let them go where they wanted to. I had always heard you couldn't lose a horse. He would always find his way home. These animals were used to packing into the mountains. We had spent the previous night in camp, where the horses had been fed, both last night and again before we left this morning. I hoped they would consider this as their temporary home and head there for more food. Our hands and feet were so cold we couldn't feel them. I couldn't bend my fingers to hold the reins, if I had wanted to. I had not considered how much the snow would slow the horses down, and how it would drain them of their strength. I told the guys my mule was staggering, and I wasn't sure how much further she could go. Ricky said his little horse was wobbling so bad, he was afraid she was going to fall over. Tim's mule was doing the best, but he was exhausted. We thought it would take about three hours to get back to camp. We had been traveling five hours. We thought the horses were lost too, since we were sure we had been traveling more than enough time to reach camp. Just as we were about to try and find another makeshift camp, the horses walked into our camp. We all yelled out, "Thank You Lord."

That camp was the prettiest site I had seen in my life, even though the tent had collapsed from the weight of all the snow. As I stepped down from my mule, my legs collapsed under my weight, and I fell to my knees. I had no feeling in my feet, and my hands wouldn't work. My truck was parked near camp. I started it, and let it run and warm us up. Once my hands were warm enough for my fingers to work, we unsaddled the horses and gave them an extra big feeding. We shook the snow off the tent, straightened it up, and unrolled our sleeping bags. It sure felt good to be in camp in dry heavy down filled sleeping bags. We laid there a while talking about our close call. As the warmth began to build in the sleeping bags, we drifted off into a warm peaceful sleep.

We awoke to a very cold morning. I dressed and went out in the cold to check on the horses. All three were still standing and very much alive. I gave them a generous portion of feed and went back in the tent to eat something, since we had not eaten since the rabbit and grouse. We opened some smoked oysters and sardines and had a cold, but nutritious meal.

We were definitely in much better shape than we were the day before, but our ordeal was far from over. The truck was up to its hood in snow and wouldn't be going anywhere for a while. My horse trailer was at the bottom of the mountain. The trail to the top was much too narrow, and too sharp with switchbacks, to pull a trailer up. There was a ranch not far from us called, The Switchback Ranch. It was an isolated ranch surrounded by National Forest land and at least 25 miles from any other living soul. We decided to walk over to the ranch and see if they had a phone, so we could at least contact my wife, Donna, and tell her of our predicament.

When we arrived at the ranch, we were invited in by Gary and Betty Cline. They were caretakers of the ranch for a family in New York who were the owners. I told them of our predicament, and they let me use their phone to call Donna. Donna was really relieved to hear from us and to know we were alright. She said all the roads were closed due to the heavy snow. The news said that lots of hunters were caught out in the storm and were unaccounted for. She asked if we were alright and when would we be home. I told her we were stranded, as my truck was back up in the mountains and buried in snow, but we were alright and would be home as soon as we were able.

The Clines were wonderful to us. They fed us a good hot meal of homemade chili, took us out to the bunkhouse, and told us we could stay there as long as necessary. The bunkhouse was very warm and nice, with several nice comfortable beds and a hot shower. This was really first class, compared to staying in a tent in 20 below weather.Gary also told us to go get our horse and mules and put them in the barn. He let us have two sets of tire chains and a shovel to try to get my truck back to the ranch headquarters.

We arrived back at our campsite, and the horses were really glad to see us. We put the tire chains on all four tires of the truck and shoveled a trail. I took the truck and finally got it to the ranch. The boys took the horses. We got to the ranch and put the horses up. Betty fed us an early supper. Gary told us we should go to the back part of the ranch and go into a canyon to try to get our elk. He said in cold weather and heavy snows, elk tend to go up in the canyon for protection from the harsh weather.

It was about two hours before dark, and we started walking through the snow toward the canyon, Gary told us about. From a distance of about 800 yards, we spotted a herd of about 30 elk in the canyon. We hid in the snow covered weeds and tried to figure a way to get to the elk. By now, it was less than an hour to dark. We decided to crawl through the snow and get as close as possible to the animals. Slowly, we crawled until we were within about 150 yards. I told Ricky to pick out an elk and shoot it. As soon as he fired his shot, I was going to shoot one also.Ricky shot at his elk and missed. They all started running up the side of the canyon. As one reached the top, I shot her. She came sliding back down nearly too where we were. Ricky and Tim climbed the canyon wall looking to see if they could tell where the elk went. It was nearly dark by this time, and I was gutting my elk out. I heard a shot, and the boys came back down to where I was dressing out my elk. They said they were looking over the area where the elk had gone through, and all of a sudden an elk jumped out of the brush, right in front of them. It had been hiding, and Ricky shot at it. They said it ran off, but they found blood where he had jumped it. They tried to track it, but it was so dark they couldn't see much. When I was finished, I took my flashlight and climbed up the ridge to try to locate the elk. I found the blood trail, but it soon ran out. It was so dark, we could see nothing. I told the boys we would go back to the bunkhouse, get a good night's sleep, and come back in the morning to get my elk and look for his.

In the bunkhouse, we each took hot showers and climbed into our good warm beds. I have never enjoyed a warm room and cozy bed so much. We were almost instantly asleep, and morning came very quickly. We walked over to the house and told Gary what had happened the evening before. He said Betty was fixing sausage, gravy, eggs and biscuits. "You guys eat with us, and then you can go and retrieve your elk." We had a great breakfast, and we were anxious to retrieve my elk and see if we could find Ricky's.

We were able to get my truck nearly too where my elk was laying. It was so cold that my elk was frozen solid. With some difficulty, we were finally able to get the elk to my truck and load her up. We then climbed the ridge to where we last saw the blood trail. We started following the blood. Sometimes we had to circle and walk in many directions to spot another drop of blood. We couldn't rely on tracks, because elk tracks were everywhere and going in every direction. Sometimes the blood spots were as much as 100 yards apart. This made slow going, and it was getting near noon. We had been trailing this elk for about four hours and had covered less than one mile of distance. Just when we were wondering if he had hit the elk in a vital area or if it was only a flesh wound, with which she could continue on, we spotted her about 30 yards ahead of us laying dead in the snow. We field dressed her and started the difficult drag back to the truck. A cow elk field dressed, will weigh approximately 400 pounds, and even with three people dragging her, it wasn't easy. The snow kept building up in front of her, making the dragging more difficult. Finally we were back to the truck and loaded both elk. It had been a very difficult life threatening hunt, but finally, we had filled both tags, and the hunt was over. All that was left was to get home. This wouldn't be easy, since the road up the side of the mountain, that ran to the ranch was still 3 feet deep in snow.

We spent the rest of the day having our meals with the Clines and talking until midnight. We retired to the bunkhouse and went to bed. The next morning we got up, had breakfast, and spent the day cutting up our elk. That evening, I told the Clines, I thought we would try to leave in the morning. Gary said he thought we could make it down the mountain road, if we kept all 4 wheels chained up and went extremely slow. The road was 10 feet wide and in some places, it was 1000 feet straight down along the side, with no guard rails. If we slid off the side, we would free fall for 1000 feet before crashing into the rocks at the canyon bottom. Gary once had a truck go over the side. It still lays in the canyon floor in a crumpled up mess of bent and twisted metal. He was going very slowly, and the truck started slowly sliding over the side. Gary was able to jump out before the truck went completely over. Just the same, we were devising a plan to get down the mountain in the morning.

We got up the next morning and had breakfast with the Clines. We thanked them for their hospitality and said our goodbyes. I drove the truck. The boys were riding their mounts, and Tim was leading my mule. I was in front with the truck, and I started slowly descending the mountain. It wasn't as bad as I thought, because since the storm hit, it had not gotten above zero. The daytime highs had been around zero, and the nighttime lows were in the minus 20s so the snow was very frozen and crusted. It actually gave some side support to help keep the truck from sliding sideways. The descent wasn't easy, but it didn't throw us any major surprises either. We did have one little incident, where some rocks had fallen from the mountainside. We had to stop and take about a half hour to clear the road enough to get through. We made it to the bottom and hooked up the horse trailer. Then we loaded the mules and horse and started the drive for home.

Now, the roads were in fair shape. It had been four days since the storm hit, so the highway department had been working on them. We made it back to Belfry without incident. Donna was glad to see us and know we were safe. We were equally glad to see her, too. She asked us about our experience and wanted to know all the details. The boys were busy telling her how we almost froze. She told us she had heard that four different hunters had frozen to death the same night we were trapped in the cold, under the cliff. Two of them were only about two miles from us. Donna asked if it was cold that night, and Tim said, "Are you kidding? It was so cold that I thought hell froze over!"


Footnote: A bunch of hunters had been caught by that same storm. Two hunters froze to death in the same area where we were, and two more froze to death in the Bozeman area in the Gallatin National Forest. Eight others had been rescued in the general area, some suffering with severe frostbite. If things had been different for us, such as not finding the overhang, being unable to get a fire started, or if the mules weren't able to find their way to camp, there would have probably been seven frozen hunters.


This story was posted on 2014-03-03 14:02:47
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Montana Story: Bill and Tim



1991-10-03 - Wyoming, near Montana Border - Photo by Bill Troutwine. Bill and Tim. Weather had been in the 70's and turned to freezing rain. Notice Tim is wearing a denim jacket. That is the only jacket Tim had. Ricky and I both had army field jackets with us. All our heavy water proof clothing was back in camp some 10 miles away.
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Montana Story: A Picture of Camp



1991-10-03 - Wyoming, near Montana Border - Photo by Bill Troutwine. The temperature went from a high of 72 degrees to a low of 20 below zero in less than 10 hours. The official snowfall was 32 inches. It fell in a three to four hour period.
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