Summit County residents barely survive backcountry detour near Monarch Ski Area
Dillon resident Kelsey Malin was skiing at Monarch Ski Area for the first time on Jan. 25 when she and her friend made a fateful decision: Without ducking a rope or seeing any sign that they were leaving the ski area, she said, they dropped into a powder stash on the backside of the mountain.
It was one of the best ski runs of Malin’s life, but it was nearly her last. What followed was a grueling 52 hours lost in the wilderness with no survival gear, food or water. When the pair was finally rescued, they were delirious with hypothermia and severely frostbitten but had managed to survive two nights of subzero temperatures by huddling in snow caves.
“Ski patrol looked at our snow cave and told us, ‘This saved your life,’” Malin recalled. “It had dropped below zero, and if it wasn’t for the idea to build a snow cave we would’ve just died of exposure.”
Malin and her friend, who didn’t want to be named in this article, first realized they were lost when they saw a snow-covered road sign on Old Monarch Pass Road, which they had thought was a cat track.
They spent the rest of the day re-tracing their tracks through waist-deep snow, but as night fell the pair realized the extent of their predicament. Earlier, Malin had accidentally skied into a creek, soaking one of her feet. It had gone completely numb, and the other foot wasn’t doing much better.
As they prepared to hunker down for the night, they tried to start a fire for nearly an hour before accidentally dropping their only lighter in the snow, rendering it useless.
It was a gloomy start to what would be a nerve-wracking and bitterly cold night.
“On the first night, there were points when I woke up and got really nervous and said, ‘We’ve got to get moving or we’re going to freeze to death,’” Malin recalled. “But it was dark and my friend kept telling me we would just get more lost if we tried to go out there.”
The next day, the two tried to hike up the mountain a second time as heavy snow began to fall, obscuring their tracks. At first they side-stepped on their skis, but eventually started to posthole in boots. Soon, Malin was so exhausted she simply crawled on her hands and knees.
“There was a really intense moment when I was crawling up the mountain looking for my friend and yelling for help, and I just laid down exasperated,” she recalled. “I thought about my family and the idea that I’d never get to say I love them again. And then shortly after that my friend came down and said, ‘There’s nothing up there.’”
The mood was grim as the two contemplated a second night shivering in a snow cave, hungry and chilled to the bone. They occasionally talked about food fantasies as they plodded back down the mountain, and at one point, they stopped and drank creek water out of Malin’s ski goggles because they didn’t have a water bottle.
As night approached again, they dug another snow cave out of a tree well, lining the bottom with pine needles to try and stay dry. It had gotten even colder, and snow continued to fall.
“There were moments when I would wake up and my friend had stopped shivering,” Malin said. “That would scare me, so I’d kind of freak and wake him up and be like, ‘Are you still alive?’”
The next morning, they tried to hike up another time but were eventually blocked by snow banks. Trying to go down the mountain hadn’t worked either.
“Every time I tried to get up, I’d collapse,” Malin said. “I was in and out of consciousness and delirious. At that point I just said, ‘I can’t go. Just find help.’”
Help eventually found them, when a backcountry skier stumbled upon Malin’s friend and skinned up the mountain to alert rescuers.
Ski patrol soon arrived in a snowcat and took them to a hospital in Salida, where they were initially told they would lose all of their toes and possibly parts of their feet.
A hefty dose of blood thinners and a helicopter flight to the hospital ultimately prevented that, but Malin’s toes are still black with frostbite. She could eventually lose a pinky toe.
Malin, who works as a ski instructor, said she’s counting down the days until she can ski again — although if she loses any toes she would have to get new, custom boots.
Looking back on the ordeal, she stresses that she and her friend had no idea they were leaving the ski area boundary. A lot of people incorrectly assume she ducked a rope, which is frustrating, she said.
“Both me and my friend are very experienced skiers and we know the rules,” she said. “So the idea that this could happen to us means it could happen to anyone.”