TOWNSEND - What started as a beautiful spring day outing in Avalanche Gulch almost ended in tragedy last weekend.
But this third major search and rescue operation of the year for Broadwater County had a happy ending.
"It turned out really great," Broadwater County Sheriff Brenda Ludwig said Tuesday.
The Broadwater County Sheriff's Department received a report at 8:30 p.m. Saturday that a rig had slid off Avalanche Gulch Road in the Big Belt Mountains east of Canyon Ferry Lake.
A disabled woman in the vehicle reported that she and three other women were on an outing with their foster care giver when their vehicle slid off the road earlier in the day, Ludwig said.
Wendy Ochadleus, their caregiver, had hiked farther up the gulch, planning to turn down Magpie Gulch and get assistance. She had seen a sign that Magpie Gulch was three miles ahead.
The four other women later left the vehicle in search of Ochadleus. One of them, Evie, couldn't make it and returned to the vehicle.
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Searchers found the other three disabled women, who ranged in age from 27 to 40, at 3 a.m. Sunday.
One of them was diabetic. None of them were dressed for the weather, which turned from warm and sunny to wintry within a few hours.
"It really started snowing up there Saturday afternoon," Ludwig said. "It was pretty hairy up there."
They also had no food or water with them.
Searchers brought the four women back to town and continued the search, Ludwig said.
One party of searchers had originally headed up Magpie Gulch, expecting to find Ochadleus heading down, Ludwig said.
The snow was very deep, and "we got our four-wheeler stuck," Ludwig said.
Searchers realized that Ochadleus must have missed the Magpie Gulch turnoff, which isn't well-marked, Ludwig said.
They then all continued their search further up Avalanche, Ludwig said.
A Department of Natural Resources helicopter located Ochadleus at 4:10 p.m. Sunday, 3.5 miles north of Snedeker Basin, which is beyond the top of Avalanche Gulch Road.
"She was happy that we found her," said Tal Williams, DNRC safety and training pilot.
When a crew member got out of the helicopter to help her, "she hugged the stuffings out of him," he said.
Ochadleus had her two dogs with her, a Chihuahua and a German shepherd mix, which rescuers believe helped her keep warm.
Williams estimated that she was at least nine miles north of where her rig left the road.
She was also 3.5 miles and two substantial ridges north of the ground crew searching for her.
Williams was able to fly the helicopter low enough to follow her tracks in the snow.
Ochadleus had tried to call for help with her cell phone, but first there was no coverage and then her batteries were dead, Ludwig said.
"We appreciate all the assistance everyone gave," said Ludwig.
Forest Service, DNRC, Meagher County Search and Rescue and Sheriff's Department all helped Broadwater County officials with the search, as did private citizen Bill Galt, who used his personal helicopter.
Lewis and Clark County Search and Rescue also responded, arriving just as the DNRC helicopter located Ochadleus, Ludwig said.
Two earlier search and rescues in Broadwater County this year ended in tragedies - one in January involved finding an apparent suicide victim, and the other, recovering the bodies of two men killed in an avalanche in February.