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The utility road running to the top of Copper Mountain was drifted with three feet of snow in some stretches. Three inches of solid ice covered most others. The top of the mountain was shrouded in clouds and a sustained 40-mph wind blew down the slope, flinging snow horizontally across the landscape.
Wyoming Public Radio's Thermopolis transmitter, KUWT 91.3 FM, was off the air. To fix it, Chief Engineer Reid Fletcher needed to get to the top, with tools and spare parts. Even a four wheel drive truck couldn't reach the transmitter site.
Fletcher had few options; locating a tracked vehicle called a Sno-Cat to rent would have taken several days; a snowmobile would be difficult to maneuver and impossible to pack with all his gear. He turned to Program Director Roger Adams, who had been concerned about a string of signal problems in the wake of severe winter mountain weather that all but prevented access to several sites. He worried that listeners would be without WPR for too long when transmitters on remote mountain sites went down.
Earlier in the winter, Adams had offered a proven but never before considered alternative. He would guide engineers into snowbound sites on horseback -- their tools and parts aboard a pack horse.
WPR is heard statewide on a network of 24 satellite-fed transmitters and translators located on mountaintops such as Copper Mountain, elevation 8,025 feet. In summer months, getting to these sites just means driving slowly in four-wheel drive. When winter sets in, these elevations create their own -- often vicious -- weather systems, making the roads treacherous and impassible much of the time. While regular transmitter maintenance is performed in the warmer months, the equipment cares little about weather and seems to choose the coldest day to break down.
KUWT, Thermopolis and KUWZ, Rock Springs/Green River, 90.5 FM, both went silent on Feb. 14. The Rock Springs site was accessible by truck. Fletcher and WPR Engineering Coordinator Shane Toven drove from Laramie to put KUWZ back on the air and returned Friday night, then faced the prospect of how to access the Thermopolis site. Adams' offer to use the horses, Wyoming's original ATV, looked better and better. They plannned to take two riding horses and a pack horse up Copper Mountain's snow-locked road the next day.
Toven and Fletcher began troubleshooting the transmitter from their engineering shop at the University of Wyoming, trying to anticipate what parts they would need and assembling a set of tools that would cover all contingencies. They had to be within the 200-pound limit the pack horse could reasonably carry. The transmitter was on but with no audio signal from Laramie.
Listeners in Thermopolis to KUWT and in Dubois and Worland whose translators are fed by KUWT heard nothing. The engineers narrowed the range of potential problems to the satellite receiver or the satellite dish itself.
Fletcher selected a range of instruments and tools that weighed well under 200 pounds. Adams got his horses and trailer ready for the trip. He chose Buck, a gray Percheron gelding, to carry Fletcher up the mountain. He picked Billie, a dark coffee-colored mare, for himself and Pepa, a light bay mare, to pack the radio gear.
The Bar None Morgan Ranch in Thermopolis offered a comfortable corral with water and great feed. Arriving in the afternoon, Fletcher and Adams left the horses in the care of Bar None rancher Harvey Seidel and went on to scout the trail they would take up to the mountain the following morning.
They were able to drive roughly half of the way in to Birdseye Pass from Highway 20 where they found a spot to park the truck and trailer. From there, they could just make out tiny radio towers atop Copper Mountain. It was sunny and 41 degrees.
In the dawn hours of Sunday, Feb. 17, weather on the mountain took an ominous turn. At the higher elevations clouds had rolled in. The peak was no longer visible, the temperature barely broke into the teens and the wind was getting stronger. As they saddled up, the horses looked skeptically up the mountainside. It was going to be a cold ride.
Walking into a violent snowy head wind, Buck looked back at Adams several times as if to ask, "Are you sure we're supposed to go up this way&?rdquo; The trip took two hours from the trailer to the transmitter and each time the horses stumbled through a drift or treaded gingerly on ice, it confirmed the decision not to attempt the trip in a truck; even a snowmobile would have made for a white-knuckle drive. Once at the top, the group picked its way through the small forest of radio towers to the WPR antenna and transmitter shed that provided a windbreak for the horses.
The engineers' earlier analysis of the trouble proved to be correct. The satellite dish that receives the WPR signal had been buffeted by wind and its central aiming component had been shaken loose. The dish was no longer aligned with the orbiting satellite.
Fletcher, outside in the howling wind, made incremental adjustments to the dish. Less than 10 yards away inside the shed, Adams watched readings on the satellite receiver and the radio spectrum analyzer. The roar of the wind was so loud that to communicate with each other the men had to shout a series of prearranged "hoots" to be heard.
Within an hour and a half, in time for the start of the Sunday rebroadcast of Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion," KUWT was back on the air.
With a sense of satisfaction and relief the men and horses started down the mountain. As if to poke fun at them, the clouds broke and the sun shone down, just as they set out. With the wind now at his back, and knowing that hay and a bit of grain awaited below, Buck stepped lively and the small train left the transmitter. The group shaved 30 minutes off the trip coming down.
Adams and Fletcher rewarded the gelding and mares; the men removed their saddles gave them a gentle brushing and a nice meal. Fletcher and Adams poured themselves a cup of coffee and headed for home.