By Bill Murphy
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Then, look! There! Across the snow! The three guardian angels descended, borne on a white cloud, a flowing snowdrift, and Bear and Eve Feight knew they'd be going home.
READY FOR ANYTHING -- Gary Batson, Daniel Harbour, and Orlando Griego (left to right), members of the Sandia Security Force's Special Response Team, were in the right place at the right time last month when their annual winter camping trip turned into a rescue operation for an elderly Belen, N.M., couple snowbound in the Gila Wilderness. The three are seen here near Tech Area 3; the Manzano Mountains are in the background. (Photo by Randy Montoya)
Bear and Eve are the Belen, N.M., couple who took a wrong turn into the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico at just the worst time of year, early February, when clouds are fat with snow and dark, dark, dark. Instead of visiting their daughter in Tucson, they spent a week hunkered down in their white Ford Explorer in temperatures that dropped to well below zero at night, stranded deep in the Gila in that magnificently empty nowhere southeast of Reserve.
They prayed for a miracle, Eve says, and they got one in the form of her "guardian angels." That's what she calls, unabashedly, the three Sandians, Orlando Griego, Daniel Harbour, and Gary Batson, who showed up just when things were looking pretty bad for the Feights.
The three are members of the Labs' highly trained, highly demanding Special Response Team (SRT). These are guys trained to protect the nation's most sensitive assets, and they're very good at what they do. They happened to be on a winter camping/backpacking/snowshoeing expedition into the Gila. For fun. For the challenge. They do it every year. Sure it's tough -- that's the idea. "We like to put a stick in the spokes," says Daniel. This year, the three planned a winter climb to the top of the nearly 11,000-foot-high Whitewater Baldy. They were driving in toward Snow Lake as a jumping-off place.
But, Gary says, "We knew the emphasis of our trip had changed" when they stumbled on the Feights.
Day eight. After staying with their vehicle for a week, Bear and Eve had decided to hike out with their little dog Riley. They didn't get much more than a snowball toss away from the Explorer, though, before Eve realized there was no way she'd be able to manage. The snow was three feet deep; it was crusty. It was cold. She fell. And fell again. And again. She said she had to head back to the car. Bear insisted that he'd go on alone, but for two hours only -- no more! -- and he promised to turn back at that point regardless of whether he'd found help.
As the couple parted, little Riley started to bark. And Bear saw something strange, out of place, out of whack: a snowdrift moving toward him. Huh? Rub the eyes and look again. This snowdrift had chrome wheels.
It was Gary, Daniel, and Orlando, moving ahead slowly downhill in Gary's white F-250 pickup. Gary remembers what Bear said: "Boy, am I glad to see you."
It isn't hard to imagine Eve's relief. Orlando says she told the three Sandians that they were the handsomest men she ever saw -- next to Bear, of course. The three men kid each other now, the way guys will, that Eve must have been hallucinating -- badly.
Orlando remembers what he was thinking when they came upon Bear and Eve. As an SRT officer, he's trained to assess a situation and draw a pretty good, quick picture of the tactical situation. It's second nature. Instinct, almost. So: He sees tire tracks going in but not coming out. He sees an elderly gentleman standing in the snow. A dog barking. An elderly woman. He sees a car practically buried in drifts. It's obviously been there for a while and isn't going anywhere. All of this he processes instantly.
"And it just sort of washes over you. Oh my God. 'Are you guys all right?' "
Incredibly, they were. Eve and Bear made their precious few candy bars and cookies last the week. They drank melted snow. And -- Bear knows cold. He's an insulation contractor. Really.
It just so happens he'd tossed a few insulation samples and some plastic sheeting into the back of the Explorer before they left home. (They'd planned to do a little business on the trip.)
When Orlando, Gary, and Dan came to the Explorer, they were pretty impressed with what the Feights had managed to accomplish. "It was amazing. They were really resourceful," Daniel says. "Bear had wrapped plastic around the inside of all the windows and they'd made a space within a space in the back of the Explorer using the blankets and insulation. It was like a cocoon back there." During daylight, the sun would heat the car; after dark, Bear and Eve would do everything they could to keep as much of the warmth inside as possible.
They tamped an "SOS" in the snow, on the chance that someone might be hunting for them from the air. (The Feight's daughter had called in a missing person report, but who knew where to search? Eve and Bear had decided on their itinerary only the morning they left, and then they strayed even from that route into an area where nobody, but nobody, would be looking for them.)
Gary's blunt. The Feights, he says, "are lucky we found them that day." The Sandians almost didn't even go, he says. For one thing, they almost delayed the trip. And then, when they were getting ready to leave Albuquerque that morning, Gary called the Forest Service for an update on conditions in that part of the Gila. "They advised us not to go." Deep snow and more on the way. Wouldnšt be prudent. "We decided to make the trip anyway," Gary says. "We just loaded up with extra chains and shovels."
The Explorer was too bogged down to move, so the Feights and Riley loaded into Gary's pickup and they headed up the hill, back toward civilization. There were some tense moments even then. The wheels spun. Maybe the Feights exchanged nervous deja vu-ish glances. Been there. Done that.
"We assured them we would get out," Daniel says. On the way back toward Reserve, they stopped at a pay phone. Eve called her daughter and many a tear flowed . . . at boths ends of the line.
Gary says it was a lot more than a two-hour walk -- nine or more miles through the snow -- to the nearest ranch, even if you knew how to find it. Assuming Bear had kept his promise to Eve, he would have had to head back to the Explorer long before finding any help. A freezing ice and snow storm moved in that afternoon. It probably would have caught Bear out in the open. Could have been bad. But then, the guardian angels came down the hill, through the light, in a moving snowdrift.
"I think these folks are the heroes," Orlando says now. "Given the circumstances, they did practically everything right. We just did what anybody would do."
Well, maybe. But how many "anybodys" would be miles deep in the Gila in the middle of winter?
The Sandians got Eve and Bear back to Reserve, where they were checked out and given a remarkably clean bill of health. The new friends said goodbye.
"Eve asked us what we were going to do now," Orlando remembers. "We told her we were going to go camping in the Gila, like we planned.
"She laughed and said, 'You guys are crazy.' "
Last modified: March 22, 2000
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