Backcountry Skier Survives after getting Lost and Spending the Night Outdoors | If You Only Read One Thing Today, Read This

Steven Agar | BackcountryBackcountry
backcountry, colorado, lost, overnight, self rescue, facebook
Backcountry skiing can be a lot of fun, but not if you get lost. Credit:

As reported in the Aspen Times on Monday, a man got lost on Saturday whilst skiing in the backcountry alone and had to spend the night outdoors before finally ‘self-rescuing’ and emerging unharmed.

That man has since come forward and written his own humble version of events, on what went wrong, what he would do differently and his appreciation for the rescue teams that came looking for him.

The entire post is below, verbatim, and is worth a read in the hope that there are some words of wisdom/advice that could save your life one day…

Some Who Wander *Are* Lost – Greg Berry

SUMMARY: I had quite an adventure this weekend. This is a pretty long report. You don’t have to read it.
OVERVIEW: On Saturday, January 20th, I got lost in the West Elk Wilderness. As a result of multiple bad decisions, I ended up skiing approximately 18 miles over 28 hours, including an overnight bivouac deep in the wilderness, during a snowstorm. The good news is that I came out OK, save a little bit of frostbite. The whole time I was confident about getting out, remained calm and focused, and was certain it would all turn out OK. The bad news is that I catalyzed quite a ruckus, including a full search-and-rescue (SAR) attempt from Aspen Mountain Rescue (AMR), and struck the fear of my death in the hearts of some of my closest friends and ski partners. For this, especially the last part, I am deeply sorry.
I’ve debated if and how to share about this. In the backcountry ski / mountaineering circles, there’s an ethic that we share our mistakes to help others learn, and to avoid future repeats of this mistake. In reflection, I’m pretty embarrassed about my decision-making, but I’m going to let go of all of that, and be honest about what happened, even though it’s easy to criticize.
BACKGROUND: I have debated whether or not to share the details of exactly where I was. The backcountry ski location is one of my favorites in the state. It’s a complex, steep, challenging and avalanche-prone, with difficult skin tracks, nuanced access, and high consequences for making mistakes. In short, it’s a zone to be respected, if not revered. There’s also the ongoing tension regarding pressure on backcountry ski zones, as the population of our state continues to grow, and as backcountry skiing grows in popularity. (more on this, below). I want to withhold the location out of respect for the people who live and ski there all the time, and to keep curious minds from exploring out beyond their capacity. I can understand this might come off as arrogant, ironic, or hypocritical. For people who know the terrain, I’ll be more specific about routes and where things went wrong in person. But, in this public forum, I’ll stay a little vague.
If you don’t know me well, you should know a little bit about my skiing background. At age 47, it’s my 45th ski season. I estimate I’ve skied about 2,500 days in my life. Although I got out for my first backcountry day in my late teens (Tuckerman Ravine, NH), most of my backcountry skiing has happened in the past 20 years, probably something like 400+ days total. Of that, 80% has been on familiar terrain in the Front Range of Colorado, and the remaining skiing has happened in the great mountain ranges of the Rockies, the Elks, the San Juans, the Tetons, the Wasatch, and more.
DECISIONS: The most important question is, how did I get myself into this mess? There were four decisions made over the course of about 4 hours that led me to getting so lost. I think I could have recovered at each point:
  1. My partner bailed. When I reached our meet-up at 10am, Marco Lam, my ski partner for the day had an uncharacteristically stiff neck, and reported he was unable to ski that day. I was pretty fired up to get out, and decided I would head up anyway for a relatively easy skin to treeline, to stretch my legs, get the blood pumping, and take a look at the snowpack, before heading back to the birthday party we were both attending at Avalanche Ranch hot springs. Was it a mistake to ski solo in a complex environment with a storm coming in? Not if I followed my plan.
  2. I changed my objective. Marco and I had set a plan for an easy skin for the day. I had reached out to Matt Lanning, a friend who lives in the area and skied 200 days last year. I knew Matt had the latest beta on skiing, and just wanted to confirm our plan with him. When I arrived at the parking area, I shifted my objective, and took another route up within the same area I had planned to ski. Was it a mistake to change the objective? Not if I stuck to the skin track, and took an obvious route down, keeping the skin track in sight. This was confirmed during my climb.
  3. I followed tracks. The skinning felt great. Although there was a storm coming in, it was relatively warm, and although I was moving slowly (for the locals), I was at my own pace, and my body and spirit were feeling excellent. I reached the first turn-around point, and wanted more exercise, so I continued up the skin track a ways. By the time I topped out, I was still on the skin track, and there were several sets of tracks heading back down, which I had observed during the climb. The skiing was pretty good up high, but was a mess down low, and I had decided to ski within sight of the skin track in the upper section, and then ski out the skin track once the conditions deteriorated on the lower section. However, once I had transitioned to ski mode, I skied maybe 20 yards down the slope, and then saw what looked like a great line off to the left, with two tracks in it. Was it a mistake to follow tracks down a slope that was not the same one I had committed to? Why, yes, yes it was. This was my second biggest mistake of the day.
  4. I abandon those tracks. At the bottom of that pitch, the two riders ahead of me had re-skinned and climbed back up. I was tired enough to not want to re-climb, and assumed, incredibly wrongly, that I would be able to ski out through the drainage to a lower point on the ridge. This was incredibly wrong, and is the point where I began a roughly 24-hour journey through an enormous drainage, and some VERY VERY wild country. I could have easily recovered from the previous three minor mistakes by just climbing back up from here. I even thought about it again in another 30 minutes, which would have also provided an exit that was so much easier than the path I had accidentally chosen. More on this decision, below.
  5. My fifth decision was more about preparation. Since my plan was to “take it easy,” and “just do a simple recon tour,” I had a moderate, but not fully prepared pack. Most importantly, I did not take a map with me, even though I had one in the car. I definitely let my (limited) knowledge of the area, and basic plan, lull me into a sense of complacency. I had limited food, and moderate layers, since it was pretty warm, and I had a short tour in mind. Fortunately, I keep minimal emergency supplies in my pack (more on the pack, and how to improve it, below).
THE SLOG: Another contributing factor to this challenge was that, by now, the storm had set in, and I couldn’t see the peaks, nor get a good point for reckoning. I did take some compass readings, but with the complexity of terrain, and limited visibility, there were not entirely conclusive. I had enough of a mental map of the area that I thought I was somewhere other than my actual location.
At this point, I knew that I was lost. My inaccurate projections would have taken me 2-3 hours to get out, I figured, just as it got dark, and I would have been something like 5-8 miles from my car. I was still planning to be in the hot springs before midnight.
And — for evermore, I will know — I should have just re-climbed to the last time I 100% knew my location. If I only learn one thing from this episode it’s that I will always re-climb from now forward.
However, I was pointed 180* away from my car, and began walking through some deep deep wilderness. As it got dark, I realized I was in trouble, and at this point, a cocktail kicked in that was equal parts: decades of wilderness travel, a strong self-preservation instinct, and an inexorable focus on staying present to the immediate challenges in front of me. I had picked up a trail with a very faint track a few times in the late afternoon, but it was climbing too much, and I after two short climbs that just resulted in getting pulled back down the drainage, I was more focused on preserving energy, so I began to bushwhack down the drainage. This began the most harrowing part of the journey — I’ll save those stories for close friends — and ended when my second light ran out of power.
Another mistake was pushing on for too long. During the bushwhack, I had come across two pretty excellent spots for a bivouac — under huge pine trees, with little to no snow on the ground, and a ton of low-hanging dead branches with which to start a fire. Although my “getting out of here tonight” drive was strong, I waited until my batteries were dead before I stopped. That, plus exhaustion, plus a much smaller (medium-sized) pine tree zone left me with no energy, drive, or light to make a decent bivvy. Due to this deep exhaustion, I was not able to get a fire started. Instead I hunkered down, sitting on my pack, with my back to the tree. I pulled out the space blanket, tied it to my lower legs, and pulled it up and over my head, wrapping down to my back and under my butt. In the middle of the night, I pulled out a hand-warmer. Using only one of the pair (saving the other, in case…), I put it under my armpits (one at a time), and then on the back of my neck. After this was the longest period of “sleep” that I got that night.
Although I didn’t sleep much — shivered is more like it — I peeked out from under my blanket a few times. I was ready to move, and get warm again, but it was till dark. On the third peek, it was light, and my first thought was, “this is the day I get out.”
Within 30 minutes of setting out, I re-found the trail I had not stayed with the night before. There was one set of human boot tracks that appeared to be coming up. I surmised, correctly, that anyone on foot who was coming up a trail had to have started from a trailhead somewhere. I also knew that I would move faster through snow on skis than they would on foot, so that any trip they would take up a creek, I could take faster going down. Knowing, also, that water flows down towards people, I was 100% certain that I would get out, and from there on, I followed that trail wherever it went. Although I was right, it was still something like six hours (?) before I got to the trailhead. I was lucky to find a vehicle there, and a father-son snowmobiler pair returned within 30 minutes, and gave me a ride into a town. Where I came out, I was 35ish highway miles from my car, and by the time I got into town, I was 45 miles from my car. Fortunately, I have some good friends who live there — Mark Fischer and Carrie Skye Fischer — and they took me in, fed me warm soup, and took me back to my car.
CONSEQUENCES Once I had moved into survival mode, and was out after dark, I knew that Marco had called in to Search and Rescue. I also knew that I was pretty far from where they would be searching for me, and was pretty sure they wouldn’t be out in the field until morning. I realized that, even in the unlikely case they had figured out my route and sent someone after me, and assuming that they could travel twice as fast as I was, it would still be a half-day, minimum, before they found me — best case. And I wanted to be out by then. So, Search and Rescue was not going to find me.
But, as I learned later, Marco had gone out the night I went missing. He had been on the phone with two of my closest, longest term ski partners, Larry Hall and Kevin Bound, and they collectively had one of the most frightening nights of their lives, pushing away thoughts of my death, and working hard to stay positive about finding me on Sunday. Each of us have had friends die in the backcountry, and many of us still mourn Lacy Meadows at his memorial at the top of Lift 1 at Loveland. Larry made the drive from Evergreen, and joined up with Marco and the Search and Rescue team from Aspen. The fact that these friends, plus the rest of our group at Avalanche Ranch, plus another couple people (Larry’s wife, Susie, and some friends Kevin has told), spent 24 hours fearing for my life weighs heavy on my mind. I’m truly sorry, friends.
Sunday morning, Aspen Mountain Rescue had their A-Team all over the area I had planned to ski. Dozens of deeply experienced mountaineers teamed up to search for me, including some of the most skilled, talented and experienced in the country, if not the world. I later learned that a bona-fide backcountry skiing legend was on the search team. Although family, career, and community conspire to keep me anchored in Boulder, CO, I have always deeply respected Mountain Rescue, and aspire to one day join them. To everyone who searched for me (sacrificing a rare powder day to do so), I have only the deepest gratitude, humility and respect. I was once taught that there are three steps to asking for forgiveness: apologize, make amends, and change your behavior. To that end, I’m deeply sorry for my careless decision making,and I’m making amends through substantial donation to Colorado Search and Rescue (corsar), and also Aspen Mountain Rescue, and, for good measure, Friends of Berthoud Pass and Colorado Avalanche Information Center. In addition, I’m sharing this info widely, and will work with my community to ensure everyone has a deeper emergency kit in their pack. There is no question that this episode will change my behavior, and help me turn myself — and groups I’m with — back to safety sooner.
It’s really important to put the experience of AMR into perspective. Last summer was traumatic for this community, with multiple hikers going missing and dying in the high peaks; it seemed like one a week for a while. I don’t know for a fact that it was a record, but it was substantially higher than average. The toll that these rescues and recoveries take on the small community of rescuers is intense, and radically under-appreciated. And, more and more people are launching into deep wilderness and challenging routes while being woefully unprepared. It’s a real problem, and I feel terribly that I somehow contributed to the stress and risk that AMR has taken on.
In particular, I’m sorry to Matt Lanning. I first met Matt when he showed up at my house to help us recover from the Boulder floods, over 4 years ago. Matt was a stranger, who found me through our mutual friend, Tom Winter. Matt’s a member of the Search and Rescue community in Aspen, and I had checked my plan with him before leaving. Unfortunately, as the search began, Matt got entrained in the work, and was under extra scrutiny. It’s easy to see how his colleagues thought he had provided me (a city-living, non-local, over-eager, under-prepared skier) with the info that led to me skiing up there, which catalyzed this search. While he and I know both know that’s not an entirely accurate picture, it’s not completely wrong, either.
Finally, the biggest consequence was avoided. In the end, I was able to “self-rescue,” to use the SAR term. But, I’ve had ample time to realize how many lives would have been affected by my death. Not only would my kids had their lives permanently altered, but many loved ones would have grieved deeply. I would have left two companies without leadership, many colleagues confused and disoriented, and a huge community of people dumbstruck and lost that someone so vibrant was gone. It’s a hard thing to integrate, but I realize that my life means more, in some ways, to others than it does to me. It can be easy for us to die, but it’s really rough on the people who love us.
PSYCHOLOGY That leads me to some thoughts on personal psychology. In the end, I’m not going to dump all that here, in a public forum, but know that I’ve been doing the inquiry to see how I let things go so sideways.
One thing I do want to mention is being overly-positive. I know it’s really easy to let enthusiasm and the inherent positivity of being out in the wilderness in the winter overcome conservative decision making. I know that I often treat time in wilderness as an escape, or a respite, or a home for my soul, to balance out the crazy stress of modern life. I know I’m not the only one who yearns for a simpler life, and for more time in touch with not just nature, but wilderness. And, while the positive mindset is what helped me get myself out, it also contributed to getting into all that trouble. The same is true of stubbornness. I could have easily dropped into the hot springs on Saturday morning, but I wanted — NEEDED — to move, to climb, to get up high on a mountain. It’s a powerful drive. And, the crazier the society gets, the more and deeper some of us are driven into the wilderness.
For me, in truth, this adventure only reinforces my love for solo time in the wilderness. I know it’s counter-intuitive for most people, but in many ways, the time I had to myself was quite rewarding. I was completely focused, and, for the vast majority of the time, I was at peace. I was focused, and sometimes scared, and sometimes frustrated, but mostly I was moving at my own pace, with a clear goal. I’ll be more prepared the next time, but, friends, I’m sorry that I’m not going to promise to always go out with a partner.
And, that leads me to “lessons learned.”
  1. As alluded above, my life has so much value to so many people, including my kids, my family, and many loved ones. When I returned from my adventure and faced my friends, the depth of their experience was overwhelming for me. I’m still processing the impact I had on them, and, worse, what would have happened if I had died. Although I was hyper-focused every moment on the task in front of me, I had visions of my kids, family, many friends, lovers, business partners, the dearly departed, and more. I didn’t have time (then) to think about how you would all feel if I died, but I have now. It’s a strange feeling to realize that my life is, in some ways, more important to others than it is to me. The implications of this revelation are substantial. For a while now, I’ve wondered about what it would be like to have a funeral, but still be alive for it. Well…. be careful what you wish for.
  2. If you even *might* be lost in the mountains (or wilderness in general), re-trace your steps until you absolutely know where you are again. If you have to ski that slope a second time, so be it. We’ve learned this lesson before, but will not have to learn it again.
  3. Full pack. With the exception of my shovel and probe, and my First Aid kit, I used everything in my pack. I know the trend is toward lighter gear to move faster. But, I’m going to replace and enhance all of my emergency gear. At a minimum, I think we should all carry:
    1. Space blanket.
    2. Hand warmers.
    3. Bivvy sack (is that over-doing it with the space blanket? No!)
    4. Fire-starter
    5. Non-digital timekeeping (old watch, or something).
    6. Two headlamps and spare headlamp batteries.
    7. Extra, extra gloves. I had two pair, and they were both soaked by Sat night. Good think I always have a spare pair of mitten shells, they saved my fingers.
    8. Full hat quiver, from super light to very warm. I always have at least two, and that now goes up to three.
    9. In addition to the basics, I think a First Aid kit should include sutures, a few ace bandages (not just one), and I choose to carry a Sam Splint (light and super useful).
    10. Emergency food.
    11. Water treatment? I ended up drinking stream water, thinking that dehydration is worse than giardia. Taking one of the new filter straws along can be a great low-weight solution here.
    12. More than enough layers. My mid-layer was wet and frozen. Glad I had a puffy vest and outer layer to put over my long underwear. I would normally have had one more layer, if it was any colder.
    13. Of course, this doesn’t cover avvy tools, or a repair / tool kit.
  4. Spot beacon. Although they seem expensive when you pay the bill, I’m committed to carrying a Spot. These are GPS-based transmitting devices which can send out very limited pre-programmed messages, like “I’m hurt, send help immediately,” or “I’m lost, but OK,” or “the snowmobile is broken, but we’re OK,” but they transmit the message to a list of people you designate, and also alert the authorities over the GPS network. Stupid not to carry one. It would have saved a lot of people a lot of worry on Saturday and Sunday.
Today, as I write this, I’m realizing I’ve got a minor case of frostbite, mostly on fingertips, but maybe in a couple toes, too. I’m a little out of it, generally, and letting my body, mind, and soul come back into balance. I’m grateful that I had the hot springs at Avalanche Ranch for my initial recovery, and grateful for the healers in my life, especially Marco and Chuck Hyde, who will help me integrate all of the trauma and the pain of exhaustion. The masseuse at Avalanche Ranch was a gift from the universe, and helped me start moving some of the stress out of my body.
I’m sorry to put a scare into so many people. Thanks for reading this far.

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