RENO, Nev. (AP) — Chris Montes and his fellow volunteer rescuers first saw what looked to be children's footprints in the snow. When they saw tire tracks lead into the remote canyon but not back out, they raced ahead until they could make out the overturned Jeep they were searching for in the frigid backcountry.
In minutes a desperate search for a couple and four children missing for two days in the below-zero cold of Nevada's rugged mountains turned to jubilation as rescuers guided in part by cellphone signals found the family alive and well, huddled around a fire near their overturned vehicle.
"It's a miracle. It really is," Pershing County Sheriff Richard Machado said outside the hospital Tuesday where all six were resting comfortably with not even so much as a case of frost bite.
"This is better than I could ever have imagined," added Dr. Douglas Vacek. "With the temperatures we've seen the last couple of nights, I've been very, very, very worried."
About 200 people had searched by land and air after the group of six failed to return Sunday from a trip to play in the snow near their hometown of Lovelock in Nevada's high desert about 100 miles northeast of Reno.
"They stayed together and that was the key that allowed them to live through this experience. You don't see that that often in search and rescue," said Paul Burke, search-and-rescue coordinator for the state. "They did some pretty inventive things, heating up rocks and things. Staying together, that was a big deal."
Rescuers started scouring the wilderness from the air and on the ground on Sunday night in search of James Glanton, 34, his girlfriend Christina McIntee, 25, their two children Evan and Chloe Glanton, and Shelby Fitzpatrick and Tate McIntee, a niece and nephew of Christina McIntee. The children ranged in age from 3 to 10.
Montes, a longtime friend of James Glanton who hunts in the area, said he didn't know who was more relieved, the rescuers or the rescued. He said the vehicle would no longer run once it rolled down an embankment, but the family stayed in the upside-down vehicle for shelter, burning the spare tire to keep warm.
"I think everybody was thinking the worst for a little bit," Montes said. "But it's a small tight-knit community and everybody in town was out there looking for them."
"They just said that they knew somebody was going to find them," he said.
The situation became dire as time passed without any sight of the missing party, the temperature plummeting to 16-below early Monday and 10-below early Tuesday.
"Everybody was worried about the sub-zero temperatures," said Patty Bianchi, CEO of Pershing General Hospital.
"Their father kept them alive and well," she said. "Everybody is in good shape. There was no frost bite. They are stable. They suffered a little exposure and dehydration, but that is all."
News of their rescue drew instant reaction.
"Very glad to hear the missing family in Lovelock has been found and they are safe!" Gov. Brian Sandoval tweeted. "Thank you to all who worked so tirelessly to find them!"
The Seven Troughs area is named after a series of seven parallel canyons below Seven Trough Peak — elevation 7,474 feet — in the Kamma Mountains stretching north across the Pershing-Humboldt county line. It's about 20 miles southeast of Black Rock Desert, where the annual Burning Man counterculture festival is held.
Glanton's Jeep had overturned just off the road, but it wasn't clear what caused it to flip over.
About 100 well-wishers lined the street outside the hospital and broke into cheers when two of the smallest children were taken from an ambulance Tuesday afternoon. The others walked into the hospital on their own.
"The mood where I'm at's ecstatic," said Col. Tim Hahn of the Civil Air Patrol, which used several planes to search for the group. "We are thrilled beyond words."
Rindels reported from Las Vegas. Associated Press videographer Haven Daley contributed to this report from Lovelock, Nev.