When Darrell Neil finally found his friend Rick Sheaves last Thursday night, he was ready for the worst.
“I found a skidoo with a man’s legs hanging out,” said Neil. “It wasn’t a good sight, I tell you.”
Neil had gone looking for Sheaves after he didn’t return home from his cabin outside Margaree. Sheaves’ wife Theresa had been expecting him home in Port aux Basques around five, and when he didn’t return on time she called Neil.
Sheaves generally parks his truck at Neil’s home when going out to his cabin, and he often leaves his snowmobile in Neil’s garage.
Neil said he jumped on his snowmobile and went all the way to Sheaves’ cabin, retracing his steps. When he didn’t see him there, he was pretty sure the only place he might be was a gorge, just 500 or so meters behind his house.
Sure enough, once Neil found a way to access the gorge, his headlight reflected off a snowmobile taillight. Then he saw Sheaves’ legs.
“When I saw him I figured, ‘If the skidoo hasn’t killed him, the snow will have,’” said Neil.
But Sheaves was still hanging on after three hours buried in the snow. Neil said when he got close, Sheaves’ legs moved. He was able to clear the snow away from his face so he could breathe better.
Both men suspect the track of the snowmobile allowed air to get down at his face. Otherwise he might have smothered.
Neil’s problem then was extracting Sheaves from the snow. He couldn’t move the 800-pound snowmobile on his own, so he asked his friend to hang on and he rushed back to his home for help.
“Mom was here at the house,” said Neil. “I told her to call the ambulance.”
He then rounded up two neighbors, Matthew Sweet and Travis Walters, who had been working outside trying to thaw a frozen water line. They came with Neil to lift the snowmobile off Sheaves. Even then, they were unable to get him free.
That was when they realized why Sheaves was buried in the snow. The snowmobile ski had hooked his backpack, and was keeping him pinned down.
“Matthew said ‘I’ve got a knife,’ and I said, ‘Well give it to me,’” said Neil.
They cut the straps on the knapsack and pulled Sheaves free. Then using his sled, they moved him back to the house, just in time to meet the ambulance.
Sheaves said the accident happened after he became blinded by snow.
“It was a total whiteout, I couldn’t see,” he said.
He brought his snowmobile to a full stop and realized he was about 20 feet off the main trail, on the edge of a cliff with a 15-foot drop. Just as he started to reverse the vehicle, the snow gave way and he tumbled down.
Right away, he knew he was trapped in the snow. What followed was a long three-hour wait.
“I thought I was still conscious all the time,” said Sheaves. “On the end of it I was not in my own state of mind then. I thought I was peaceful and ready to go.”
The snow that nearly killed him may have helped protect him to a certain extent. There was a windchill of -25 to -30 degrees Celsius at the time. In the gorge and in the snow, he was out of the wind.
Neil noted that there was barely any blood in the snow, yet Sheaves needed 23 staples to close a cut in his head. The accident had knocked his helmet off. Neil thinks the packed snow helped clot the blood more quickly.
Besides the cut on his head, Sheaves had a dislocated shoulder. He underwent surgery in Corner Brook but was back home after a three-day stay in hospital.
Sheaves said he is incredibly grateful to the three men for saving his life.
Neil dropped by to visit Sheaves at home once he was out of the hospital. Sheaves told him then he didn’t know how to thank him.
“I said, ‘My son, seeing you sitting there on that chesterfield is thank you enough for me.’”