A large hunting party endured a struggle for survival after a blizzard marooned them for 10 days in the snowbound wilderness in the Blue Mountains near Pomeroy, Wash., in November of 1945.
Several groups of elk hunters ignored warnings of an impending snowstorm on November 10, 1945, and were camping on a mountaintop in the Blue Mountains northeast of Walla Walla when the storm hit. When it became obvious that they wouldn’t make it out of the mountains immediately, the groups banded together to share expertise and supplies.
Lester Riley, a Snake River cattle rancher, started out on horseback for Pomeroy to bring help. He fought through snowdrifts up to 40 feet deep and arrived in Pomeroy with his horse almost dead from exhaustion. He spent $600 to arrange for a bulldozer to attempt to clear the road back to where his fellow hunters remained huddled together for warmth and protection. Three days later, the dozer bucked through the last huge drifts to where 25 cars belonging to the parties were buried under the snow.
By Saturday, Nov. 17, the party was digging out the cars and rationing what food was left amongst them. The cars assembled into a caravan on Sunday morning and started for Pomeroy with the bulldozer clearing the road ahead. By Sunday night the caravan had made it three miles, and was forced to sleep overnight in the limited protection of their vehicles. Meanwhile, Washington Governor Monrad Wallgren and state game commissioner Virigl Bennington had arranged with the Walla Walla airbase for the use of three rotary snowplows, which started out from Pomeroy to meet the party coming the other way.
By late Monday the hunters were battling 70-mile-an-hour gales that dropped visibility to a few feet in front of them. They were frequently required to leave the safety of their cars to shovel by hand while the bulldozer labored ahead of them. A string of mules carrying supplies got off the road in the storm, and five of them plunged over a cliff to their deaths. Two more mules were lost but ultimately recovered, one of them weighed down by its pack and kicking feebly out of a snowdrift. Both were saved.
The hunting party had struggled just another three miles through the drifts before meeting the rotary snowplows and an army rescue party late Monday evening.
Members of the party praised Lester Riley for risking his life to ride for help, and Otis Banks, the mule skinner, who several times rescued people who became bogged down in the snow. Casualties in the party included a woman who suffered a heart attack, a man who contracted pneumonia, another with a broken leg, and a third with a ruptured kidney. All were treated at local hospitals.
J.C. Coleman of Kelso, Wash., said, “I wouldn’t take a million dollars for this experience, but I wouldn’t give two cents to do it again. It was the most terrible thing I’ve ever been through.”