Contributed by Debra McGhan
The skies appeared gray and overcast when Lawrence Agosti and friends set out from the Primrose parking lot on the Kenai Peninsula one early February morning to ride their snowmachines. Lawrence grew up riding these mountains and knows them intimately. “I feel like I know every inch of this area from all different directions.”
He also thought of himself as a strong rider that is generally well prepared. “This day turned out to be pretty humbling,” he said.
As they rode, they quickly discovered the snow was deep and heavy from warming spring temperatures. “We had a great day riding, but it was definitely a stuck fest. We were easily digging six-foot trenches.” That effort left them sweating and exhausted.
At one point, Mark Wishall, one of the friends, decided to take off alone to check out other valleys around the area for better conditions. As the light began to fade the group decided to call it a day and head for the parking lot. Still unable to reach Wishall, Agosti and another friend, Ben Matlock, decided to ride up on a ridge to see if they could see Wishall and reach him by radio. The rest of the group returned to the parking lot.
“By this point the weather was really changing. The light went flat, fog rolled in and then it started snowing,” described Agosti. “Huge egg sized flakes.” The heavy snow further soaked through their already wet gear.
“It was about an hour before we finally reached Mark on the radio and realized he was stuck and couldn’t make it back. But he could see an island at Lost Lake that we could also see, so we agreed to head to that point and meet up.”
By the time they arrived it was getting dark fast and snowing heavily. “Ben and I looked at each other and knew, we were gonna have to spend the night out there.”
They located a small thicket of trees and dug out a snow cave just big enough for the three soaking wet men to crawl inside and wait out the night. That’s where the story should have ended; Three guys snuggling in a snow cave… Instead this is where it got tough. Really tough.
“We were literally packed into that cave cheek to cheek,” Agosti said. “There was hardly room to wiggle your little finger.” With just one space blanket and no dry clothes between the three of them, they tried to relax but Agosti said he started shivering and just couldn’t stop.
“After only a few minutes I realized, this was going to be one hell of a long night.” That’s when his leg muscle cramped up and began to spasm. “I couldn’t lay still and just knew, I had to get out of there.”
Matlock agreed and the two men popped out of that cave like a two-headed jack in the box. Exposed to the weather, they knew they needed a source of heat, so they tried to build a fire, but the lighter Agosti carried was soaking wet. Matlock had a lighter stashed in his sled… but that also turned out to be wet.
“That was the most demoralizing moment of my life,” said Agosti. “I couldn’t believe how totally unprepared we really were for this ordeal.”
While Wishall stayed in the cave, Matlock and Agosti started the sled they had positioned near the cave and took turns lying on the tunnel to keep warm.
“That was the most horrible night of my life. The hours just crawled by and we got buried by another eight inches of new snow.”
Finally, as the first glimmer of light began to brighten the sky, the guys agreed to head out. “It was so hard to move. My body was just pushed to the limit.”
Suddenly a familiar voice broke on the radio giving them new hope and a burst of adrenalin.
“It was my uncle. It felt like the best day of my life when we got to the trail and our family and friends were there waiting for us with hot chocolate, cider and dry clothes.”
Again, the story should have ended here but the group still had to ride several miles out to the parking lot and people kept getting stuck and having to be dug out along the way.
“Honestly, I don’t know how we did it. By the time we finally made it to our trucks we were all wiped out.”
Agosti said he thinks it’s important to remember the decisions we make when out riding with others will affect everyone in the group. And having a positive attitude is critical.
“We got through this because we helped each other, and we stayed focused on surviving. I just hope we all learned from this, so we never have to spend another night out like this again.
“I know I’ll pack more survival gear from now on. The simplest things like a flint and steel, hot packs and a survival blanket for each person would have made a huge difference for us.”