"Lost Boy" back in Vail
Years ago, when Vail Mountain was still brand new and getting lost on the slopes was not so hard to do, a 14-year-old named Marty Koether did just that – and ended up becoming a permanent part of Vail history.
Koether, who accidentally skied into a yet-undeveloped Game Creek Bowl on April 1, 1964, spent a long, chilly night in a tree well near the bottom of the present-day location of the Game Creek lift before climbing out the next morning and being discovered by ski patrol.
The incident was chronicled in Skiing Magazine and became part of the young mountain’s folklore. It was an ordeal that Koether, now 53, has never forgotten and neither has the mountain – the winding, green trail in Game Creek Bowl “Lost Boy” is named after Koether and his disappearance.
And despite being the kind of traumatic episode that might scare most people away from the slopes for the rest of their lives, Koether, who now lives in Phoenix where he runs a soil-stabilization business, continues to ski.
Koether is in Vail this weekend for the first time since his notable overnight stay in Game Creek. He says he’s planning a return visit this April with his skis to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of his disappearance and subsequent reappearance.
“I haven’t ever been back, so it’s almost like I need some kind of closure for the event,” Koether says. “I’m still as embarrassed by the whole thing as I was when I was 14, but I would love to come back in April and track down some of the people who were involved in the search in 1964.”
Koether has a different objective for this weekend’s visit – celebrating the 90th birthday of his uncle, Denver’s Herbert Koether, with a family gathering at the Vail Cascade Resort. Marty Koether, who grew up in Winnetka, Ill., a Chicago suburb, was visiting a two-year-old Vail Mountain with his Uncle Herbert and Aunt Sally when the “Lost Boy” incident occurred.
“The whole thing was pretty big news then … the mountain had just started, and I have friends who said they interrupted a Blackhawks game at home to announce that I’d been found when I did reappear,” Koether said.
Imagine Vail Mountain in its earliest days – trail runs occasionally marked with 2x4s and much of the mountain still virtually unexplored territory. Koether, who described himself as an intermediate skier, had spent the day cruising the slopes with his family, but had managed to get separated.
“It was, as it always was, the last run of the day and I just couldn’t hook up with the people I’d been skiing with. For some reason, I was near the top of the Minturn Mile, and I missed the last turn to go back to Mid-Vail … so I ended up breaking new turf by skiing down into Game Creek,” Koether said.
“I guess it was the logic of a 14-year-old – I figured if I kept going downhill I’d eventually get back to Vail,” he said.
By the time Koether reached the bottom of the bowl, he realized the mistake he’d made. The sudden appearance of a massive spring blizzard didn’t help matters at all, reducing visibility to zero. Abandoning his skis and wading through waist-deep powder, Koether was in trouble.
“Reality suddenly hit me. I was there by myself and lost, and the sun was going to be going down and I was probably going to be there for the night,” Koether said. “So I remembered my Boy Scout training and burrowed into a tree well under a big fir, covering myself with tree boughs, and bedded down for the night.”
Koether didn’t realize it at the time, but when he failed to appear at the base of the mountain at day’s end, his panicked uncle and aunt contacted the authorities. Ski patrol immediately mounted one the most extensive searches ever conducted on the mountain.
By midnight, 65 ski patrollers and volunteers were traversing Vail Mountain, searching frantically for the lost boy – one group even descended into the untracked Game Creek.
“Apparently they came within 100 yards of me during the night, but I didn’t hear anyone,” Koether says.
Unable to spot the young man, rescuers called off the search at 3 a.m. and decided to reconvene at 7:30 a.m., hoping to bring in help from Rocky Mountain Rescue, Arapahoe Basin and Breckenridge ski patrols and even helicopters from the state government.
In the morning, Koether awoke a little cold but mostly unscathed, and realized he had a very long climb ahead of him.
“I knew I had to walk back up the bowl to reach Mid-Vail, but the snow was so deep you’d take three steps and then fall in up to your waist,” Koether said. “I’d also lost my glasses and I was kind of squinting to see where I was going.”
As Koether trudged through the trees, the front side of the mountain was a flurry of activity, with patrollers continuing their search. Koether’s father, meanwhile, was on his way from Chicago. Even Colorado Gov. John Love called in to ski patrol offering his help. Given the amount of snow overnight and the temperatures, searchers – and Koether’s own family – had begun to fear the worst.
At about 3:30 p.m., chief patroller John Adams and two other patrollers did another sweep along the top of the Minturn Mile, the last place Koether had been seen. In the distance, they noticed a thin figure walking through the snow without his skis. As Skiing Magazine reported at the time, the patrollers realized they’d found their lost boy.
Koether simply looked down at his boots and said, “Gee, you guys, I didn’t mean to cause you any trouble.”
“My family … and everyone … was totally ecstatic,” Koether says today. “The rumor had been going around town that I was gone, because of the snowstorm and the weather … they thought they might never find me.”
Years later, back at home near Chicago, Koether got word that his disappearance – and his happy self-rescue – had been commemorated with a new trail into Game Creek.
To this day, Koether remains an avid skier, visiting Arizona’s small ski hills when he has the time. Last year, his wife took him on a vacation to Utah’s Alta. A day of full-blown powder day prompted him to think about returning to Vail and skiing his namesake run for the first time. This weekend’s family gathering is a first step.