Lost in the backcountry
My friend Cameron and Greg came over to meet me at my house. When they arrived, they saw that I was planning to wear my Gore-Tex ski jacket, and informed me that it was supposed to reach the mid-40s and that I was over dressing.
So I chose to wear a cotton tee, covered with a layer of synthetic long underwear, and topped with a cotton sweatshirt. Mistake No. 1: I wore cotton on bottom and on top. It is very important to wear synthetic fibers that are specifically designed to wick moisture away from your skin. It is also paramount to have a waterproof yet breathable outer shell.
When we arrived at Vail, we began by skiing a few warm-up runs and then hit the Back Bowls. My friends were on snowboards and I on skis. My friends were also more skillful and overall stronger snow riders than me. This suited me just fine because when you ride with people more skillful, your skill level increases.
We skied hard for about two hours and eventually ended up in Blue Sky Basin. Here, while riding a chairlift, my two buddies noticed an almost untouched powder field across the valley. It was about 12:30 p.m. when we asked a Vail Resorts snowboard instructor whether it was difficult to get to that powder field. He said no, that you could ski almost directly over to it, and only had to hike for the last five minutes.
I told him that I was a solid intermediate level skier, with little experience powder skiing, and asked if he thought a skier of my skill level could conquer the slope. He said he thought it would be fine, but to go there at my own risk. Mistake No. 2: Do not consider backcountry skiing unless you are a true expert.
-It was 1p.m. when we were about to begin our journey into the backcountry, and I hadn’t eaten since around 9, when I had a bagel and egg sandwich. Mistake No. 3: Be sure you have enough food and water with you, either in your stomach, or in reserve.
We entered the backcountry at 1p.m. by ducking an out-of-bounds rope. Mistake No. 4: Never duck a rope. When entering the backcountry always use a gate!
After about 20 minutes of tree skiing through a rutted ice track, we came out and were on the saddle of the powder field. By the time I arrived here, I was very tired,and decided to drop in earlier than my friends, who hiked the additional five minutes to the top.
Then I began to realize how deep the snow was. Now keep in mind the fact that I am 6’7″ and 315 pounds, and the powder was at minimum waist deep, with some places reaching all of the way up to my armpits. Here is when I started to realize that I was in some real trouble.
I signaled my friends with a chorus of profanities, some directed at them. Sorry guys.
Now it was 3 p.m. and my friends had tried to help me get down the mountain for almost two hours. Then I made a few more mistakes. Greg and Cameron took the position that if they didn’t get down soon, the lifts would close and we would all be stuck in the backcountry for the night. So I asked them to go and get help because I had only made it down what I surmised to be about 30 percent of the way, and I was on the shady side of the hill, and it was getting cold fast. So they left.
Mistake No. 5: Greg and Cameron both left as opposed to the best rider leaving and the other staying with me. No. 6: In our haste they left and Cameron had my down vest in his backpack, along with water and some candy bars, in addition to a lighter to start a fire.
Now the gravity of the situation started to hit home. It was almost dark, and expected to drop into the high 20s. I was alone with no food or water, soaking wet without proper gear, or a way to start a fire. In addition, I was either dry-heaving, using the precious little energy I had left or I was actually vomiting, induced by overexertion, which further contributed to my unrest.
I made the decision to hike out. Mistake No. 7: Don’t leave your location. It is always easier for Ski Patrol to hit a stationary target as opposed to a moving one.
Bad to worse
Before I began to hike, I started to evaluate my gear to determine what was helping me and what was hindering me. Mistake No. 7: I discarded my skis with the thought that they were holding me back. Never discard your gear.
It was getting dark and the temperature was falling rapidly.
I was still just above tree line in a glade when I heard and then saw a plane overhead. At first I was elated, thinking it was a spotter plane and rescuers would follow shortly afterward. I was sadly mistaken when it abruptly abandoned its grid-search pattern and flew away. –
So I began my foot hike through the forest, always heading down hoping to find somewhere flat like a creek bed. In the forest the snow had accumulated so much that it was almost over
my head in places. I also had to change my strategy of getting through the “quicksand like” powder to make better time. I tried logrolling down the hill to stay on top of the bottomless powder.
I finally made it into a gully of sorts that was fairly tracked out, enough so in fact, where if I still possessed my skis I may have been able to ski back to the ski area, but I had only a vague idea of where I was going. As you might imagine with it getting darker, and the pine forest started to melt together. Not to mention that my skis were 350-500 feet up the hill, so by the time I hiked back up, I would then have to carry the skis in darkness back down through the forest.
I, of course, was screaming the whole while and at times it sounded as though someone were responding to my distress calls. Upon reflection, this just turned out to be an echo.
It was getting harder and harder to go on as each moment passed, with my energy leaving my body as quickly as the sun had abandoned me. The moon was not being cooperative, either. It was waxing but still only about an eighth of full, so it wasn’t shining enough to be of use.
It wasn’t a moment too soon when Kevin Latchford of Vail Ski Patrol returned one of my hoarse hollers. At first I thought I was hallucinating, and it was about another five minutes before I was actually able to see him drop out of the forest and come to my aid.
As soon as he reached me, I handed him my ski pass as I wept tears of joy. I have never really feared death until this episode, and it was a very emotional experience for me.
After I was found, Kevin then radioed our location to two other patrollers. Matt Cain and Dave Zrubreck skied down with a toboggan and on their way miraculously stumbled across my discarded skis that I was silly enough to hide under a tree. This was the cherry on top of the sundae, as I had my brand new skis in addition to my life.
Kevin, Matt, and Dave proceeded as a team of highly trained professionals, reminding me of what a NASCAR pit crew must look like in action. They immediately took what wet clothes they could and offered me some reserve gloves, instant heat packs and water to rehydrate myself. Then I was placed in the toboggan, strapped in and off we went.
All of this occurred in a span of about five minutes. They acted fast, because my arms and legs were completely numb, my hands were blue, and as I would learn momentarily, my feet were also blue with cold.
When we arrived at the bottom of the valley, there was another highly motivated Patroller on a snowmobile, Cory Miller. He ferried me up a little ways back into the ski area, where I met up with another patroller, Walt Olsen. Walt had a two-person snowmobile, and explained that we needed to go as fast as possible up to patroller headquarters on the mountain to warm me up.
When we got to Ski Patrol Headquarters, Walt had me remove my wet clothes and put them into a dryer for me. He gave me hot chocolate and hot tea, more instant heat packs for areas that suffered the most from exposure.
I ended up staying there for almost an hour and a half on a cot and under blankets, still shivering harder than ever. After my clothes were somewhat dry, and I was feeling better, we rode the remaining way down the mountain by snowmobile.
Lessons for life-
I owe these men my life, and have learned a few valuable lessons from my ordeal. Lesson No. 1: Become an expert at powder skiing in-bounds long before you ever think of heading out into the backcountry. Lesson No. 2: If you are an expert skier, get the proper safety and survival training to be in the backcountry. Lesson No. 3: Call ahead to find out the snow conditions in the area where you’ll be snow riding. Lesson No. 4: Never go into the backcountry without the proper gear, which basically means prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
Get a decent pack to put everything in that I will list here. Always carry a fire-starting tool (flint and steel or flint and magnesium), a tarp (for improvisational shelter), an emergency space blanket, high-energy food (powerbars) and water, also preferably a short-wave radio or cell phone.
Always go with at least one other person, and make sure someone who stays behind knows your and your companion’s whereabouts. In addition, carry a mountaineering shovel, and a dry change of clothes. It is also imperative that you carry a locator beacon, set to transmit, in case you are caught in a snow slide.
This advice in combination with experience, either yours or your companions’ that will save your life if you are ever in a tough backcountry situation.
Hopefully, you won’t learn the hard way.
Owen Garrity is a resident of Breckenridge.