The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published February 17 by Grand Junction Free Press.
The Widegren family, with nine children and eight grandchildren ranging in age from a few months to over 40 years, has long been a pillar of the Palisade community, with connections spanning much of the west and beyond. That’s one reason why, when Mark Widegren and his friend and coworker Brian Axe went missing near Price, Utah, dozens of people responded to the emergency, driving and flying in from around the country to meet in Price to help with the search. Family and friends of both men played key roles in the search.
When the young men’s vehicle finally was found on February 5, the news was tragic: their vehicle had crashed down a steep cliff a week previously on Saturday night, and the sheriff’s department deemed the crash “unsurvivable.” Mark and Brian were driving through the treacherous Cottonwood Canyon, off of Nine Mile Canyon, northeast of Price on their way to their base camp. They worked for an energy company there.
The one silver lining to the horrible tragedy was seeing dozens of the men’s family, friends, and coworkers heroically join the search. Todd Widegren, Mark’s oldest brother, told reporters, “These guys were friends and family of a huge, huge number of people. And everybody that is here is here for the love of those guys.”
Because Ari went to school with several of the Widegrens and has long known the family, he too traveled to Price to witness the search (and perhaps in some small way to help with it). In retrospect, the efforts of the searchers pay tribute to the memory of the lost friends. We won’t mention their names here because we don’t want to make anybody feel uncomfortable, but we wanted to describe their valiant efforts to the broader community.
Volunteer ground searchers first discovered the secluded vehicle and hiked to it, giving the family and friends at least the comfort of learning what happened. Obviously the hope had been to find the men alive and assist them. Finally we learned that had been impossible, but the fact that, at the time, we thought they might still be alive made it crucially important to find them as quickly as possible. As terrible as the news turned out to be, at least the news allowed the recovery effort to proceed, and it gave the family and searchers a bit of peace from the constant anxiety and stress of not knowing.
Two young men from Grand Junction first spotted the vehicle by scrambling down a steep, snowy decline and then peering down the face of the cliff. The vehicle had been difficult to see from the air because it was crumpled and it blended into the surrounding rocks. After those men called in the news, another group, consisting of two family friends from Denver and two family members, drove and hiked to the vehicle, again through heavy snow, to check for survivors and help guide the recovery effort.
For several days, other search teams had covered the area extensively by ground and by air. One group of friends and family searched throughout the night with spotlights.
At the Holiday Inn hotel in Price, which was very accommodating to the search parties, others organized the search, verified that everyone returned safely from searching, organized written reports from the searchers, reported to friends elsewhere and to the media, and worked with the local authorities.
Local law enforcement agents helped track down credit card receipts, cell phone data, and security camera footage that helped narrow down the search area. Carbon County Deputy Sheriff Wally Hendricks helped organize the search and bring updates to the family.
Of course the search took money and resources, and many people responded with donations of food or money. One local “cage” fighter even donated his fight purse to the recovery effort and raised additional funds from sponsors.
Plenty of others also helped out. The Abby and Jennifer Recovery Foundation sent representatives from Grand Junction to Price to help. Several Price locals also joined the search with their ATVs and other vehicles. The owner of a small air company paid for the hotel rooms of the searchers. Pizza Hut delivered an order of free pizzas to those involved. (No doubt we’ve inadvertently left some people out.)
When the emergency hit, many people from the Western Slope, Utah, and beyond answered the call. Their efforts are an inspiration and a credit to our communities.
We only wish the final outcome had been the one we had hoped for. Mark and Brian will be deeply missed.