Surviving the storm

Montevideo native looks back at his night in a snowbank during the deadly blizzard of 1975

Whether by divine intervention or quick thinking, Lon Kvanli managed to escape Mother Nature’s chilling wrath 41 years ago.

The headline from the Montevideo American News in 1975 tells the story of Lon Kvanli after he took shelter in a snowbank as the blizzard came through. Kvanli had been on his snowmobile (pictured right) during the blizzard but abandoned it when it became stuck. The snowmobile was found days after the storm had passed. News clipping thanks to Montevideo American News. Photo of snowmobile contributed.

Kvanli was an 18-year-old senior at Montevideo High School when one of the worst blizzards in Minnesota history struck on Jan. 10-12. It had been called “The Storm of the Century” by many news outlets as 14 people perished in Minnesota during the storm, while another 21 died of heart attacks while digging out after the storm. There were also over 15,000 farm animals killed over the three-day period.

Schools were closed throughout the state on Friday, Jan. 10 as high winds and heavy snow reduced visibility and forced the closings of many roads; some for up to as many as 11 days. Snowfall was reportedly up to 30 inches in some parts of the state. And coupled with 30-50 mile-per-hour winds and gusts reaching 70-90 mph, drifts had formed as high as 20 feet.

Kvanli had received permission from his parents to take the Arctic Cat Puma snowmobile into town – just a 1 1/2-mile trip from the family farm – so he could spend some time with his friends.

“I was 18 years old and could either spend the day cooped up at home with four sisters or go into town and be with my friends,” he laughed. “It was a no-brainer.”

Kvanli took off around 5 p.m., just as it was beginning to get dark outside. The storm was intense, but worsened as Kvanli was motoring west into town. Before the storm intensified, the temperature was 40 degrees, but the mercury quickly plummeted to -35 below later in the day. Wind chills were reportedly -75 degrees below zero.

“It got to a point where I could hardly see my hand in front of my face,” he recalled. “The snowmobile got stuck a few times in the drifts, and I had to get off and pull the back end up and around to get it unstuck.”

Because visibility was limited, Kvanli soon become lost and decided to follow the tracks from his snowmobile back home. But the blowing and drifting snow was eliminating the tracks like a giant eraser on a chalkboard.

“So I decided to keep heading into town. I tried to follow a barbed-wire fence, figuring it would lead to a farmsite,” he said. “But the fence ended up in the middle of nowhere.”

The snowmobile soon became struck in a drift again. And, as he had been doing several times during the short trip, he again got off the machine to lift the back end up to remove it from the drift.

“While I was lifting the back end up, the engine stalled,” Kvanli told. “I didn’t have a lot of gas in it, only about one-quarter tank, because I figured it was just a short trip into town.”

Because he was wearing his snowmobile suit, snowmobile ‘chopper’ mittens with wool inserts, snowmobile boots and helmet over his stocking cap, he wasn’t feeling the effects of the frigid temperatures yet.

With the snowmobile now out of the drift, Kvanli grabbed the handle of the pull cord to restart the engine. But the cord didn’t budge. He tried again. And again.

So Kvanli decided it was time to put a little muscle into action. After all, he was a stellar athlete who hadn’t lost a wrestling match to this point in the season, so he figured he certainly could win this battle, too.

“I put both feet on the snowmobile and grabbed the handle with both hands and tried to muscle the cord, and it wouldn’t move,” he explained. “The recoil had frozen solid. The heat from the engine was melting the snow, and just as quickly, it was freezing around the recoil.”

So Kvanli just plopped down on the seat of the Puma.

“I really thought I was going to die,” he admitted. “I didn’t know where I was or which direction to head. I couldn’t see a thing.”

Kvanli figured his only chance for survival was to get out of the wind and cold because, just as his snowmobile had moments earlier, he would soon be frozen solid.

“I remembered something my dad always told me if I ever got stranded in the cold,” Kvanli said. “He said to dig a tunnel in the snow. So I found a large drift against some cornstalks that were still standing in a field and started digging with my hands.”

His first attempt at a shelter collapsed as he dug into the drift.

“I built it too big,” he recalled. “And the second one I tried to build also collapsed.”

But his competitive spirit never waned, and he soon had constructed a moderate, but sturdy, tunnel the width of a sleeping bag. And he crawled inside.

“I remembered from science class that snow doesn’t get colder than 32 degrees (Fahrenheit) and it was -75 below wind chill outside, so I had a much better situation already,” he said.

Now Kvanli had to make sure he didn’t fall asleep inside his mancave for fear of not waking up.

“I prayed; I talked; I sang,” he said, “anything I could do to keep myself awake.”

He layed on one side, and when he got cold, he would try to warm himself up.

“Because I was in good shape from wrestling, I did a bunch of push-ups until I got tired,” he said. “Then I would lie on the other side.”

At the first sign of light, Kvanli decided to make the trek back home or to the nearest home he could find, wherever that might be.

“By then I had no feeling in my fingers or from my knees on down,” Kvanli said.

But as he tried to make his way out of the small tunnel, he realized that his passageway was partially blocked.

“My body heat had melted some of the snow and the entrance had become frozen,” he said. “So I layed on my back and started to kick the ceiling with my feet. I eventually kicked out an opening and crawled out feet first.”

Cold, scared and confused, Kvanli began his lonely journey to the unknown.

“It was still very windy, so I decided to walk with the wind at my back,” he said. “And I walked with my hands at my chest to keep them out of the cold, and I took my thumbs out of my ‘choppers’ and made a fist to try and keep all my fingers together and as warm as possible.”

Lon Kvanli’s senior photo, taken A month before the blizzard.

Eventually, Kvanli tripped over something and discovered it was the mailbox of his farm neighbor, Harley Christie. The Christie farm was about one-half mile from the Kvanli farm – a little less as the crow flies.

But Kvanli didn’t want to chance walking that far and instead headed up the long Christie driveway.

“When I got to their house, I looked at the front door, and a drift had formed so high that all you could see was about 6 inches of the top of the door,” he said, laughing. “But I remembered that they never locked their garage door. Nobody locked their doors back then.”

So Kvanli lifted up the main fiberglass garage door and walked through a door leading into the Christie’s kitchen.

“I didn’t knock or anything,” he said. “I just wanted to get inside where it was warm.”

The Christies were seated at the kitchen table, talking about plans to help look for their neighbor’s missing son.

Kvanli picked up the Christie’s landline phone to call home, but heard voices on the other end.

“We had party lines back then,” Kvanli said. “And when I picked up the phone, someone was already using the line.”

Kvanli immediately recognized the voices on the other end of the phone.

“It just happened to be my mom talking to one of my grandfathers,” Kvanli said. “So I just said ‘Hi Mom’ and she just about freaked out.”

Kvanli’s mother, Ardeth, handed the phone to his father, Arlen. But after a very brief conversation, his mother’s voice was back on the phone again. Kvanli asked her where his father had gone.

“He’s in the bedroom crying,” she responded to her son.

“They had all the feelings of guilt, sadness, fright, and you name it,” Kvanli said. “They didn’t think it would turn out like this from just a short trip into town.”

Kvanli’s parents had attempted to search for their missing son when they were informed that he had not shown up at his friend’s home. With his mother driving their 3/4-ton Chevy pickup, his father walked along outside while holding onto the side rearview mirror. He also wielded a large rod to assist him in navigating the vehicle by poking it through the snow to make sure they were still on the road. After a short distance, traveling became impossible, and they were forced to return home.

Until Kvanli’s phone call to his parents, the outcome seemed grim since it was nearly impossible for a search-and-rescue team to venture out in that type of weather.

For the time being, Kvanli remained at the Christie home. They telephoned a doctor who informed them to put Kvanli in a bathtub of lukewarm water.

“They had to use pliers to get the zipper down on my snowmobile suit because it was so frozen,” remembered Kvanli. “And the sweat from my feet had frozen my socks to my feet and my socks to my boots.”

When Kvanli got into the tub of water, “It felt like a thousand needles going through my body.”

Surprisingly, Kvanli never had any signs of frostbite.

When the storm let up enough, Kvanli’s father hopped on their other snowmobile and drove over to the Christie home.

Lon Kvanli attended Luther Seminary College in St. Paul and is now a pastor in Mitchell, S.D.

A few days later, Arlen Kvanli went looking for the Puma snowmobile that his son was driving that day. It was found near the airport, well northwest of his intended destination.

“That’s why I couldn’t find any telephone poles or fences to follow,” Kvanli said. “I had veered off course and was over by the airport where there were no houses or anything.”

Showing no ill effects from the survival, Kvanli was able to return to school, where friends quickly nicknamed him “Lucky” and “Snowman.” He also was able to return to the wrestling team for his senior year and eventually took his unbeaten record into the state individual championship at the St. Paul Civic Center.

“That was back when it was still only a one-class system,” he said proudly.

Kvanli lost his only match that season and settled for second place.

He would go on to become a three-time All-American wrestler, first at Willmar Community College (now Ridgewater College) and then at Augustana College in Sioux Falls. Initially, he wanted to become an engineering major.

Lon Kvanli and his wife, Heidi, are co-pastors of First Lutheran Church of Mitchell, S.D.

After being at Augustana, Kvanli enrolled at Luther Seminary College in St. Paul, and in a twist of irony, is now a pastor. Currently, he and his wife, Heidi, are co-pastors of the First Lutheran Church in Mitchell, S.D.

“A lot of people think I had a promise to God to become a pastor,” he laughed, referring to his survival. “But that wasn’t the case. But I do believe God had a plan for me, and it wasn’t time for me to die.”

#BelowZero #blizzardof75 #Survival

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