This past Monday, four Colorado men found themselves lost in the Revelstoke backcountry after unintentionally finding their way out of bounds. After being lost, soaking wet, and nearly frozen for 11 hours, one skier and three snowboarders were able to find their way out of the woods and back to safety.
One of the group members, Mike, is a childhood friend of mine. Upon his safe return home, we sat down to recap the scary situation. We talked about what he and his group did wrong and what they did right in hopes his story can help others from finding themselves in a similar situation.
But let’s start out by addressing the elephant in the room – the tribulation started with a terrible decision. There is no denying it. But what’s the use of keeping the valuable lesson that came out of this a secret except for the fear of ridicule?
“If people want to call us out on being stupid, that’s fine. We were. We made some really bad decisions at the start of this but ultimately made enough good ones to survive.”
The group had ducked a rope along Gracias Ridge which separates North Bowl from Greely Bowl. They had done it three other times that day, continuing through lower Greely back to the Ripper Chair via Big Woody. Others were in Greely Bowl as well so they didn’t believe it was closed, just that they were accessing it through an illegitimate route.
Like many other stories that start with a bad decision, a big issue is that we’re not always convinced at the time that it is a bad decision. We have lazy brains that like to short cut critical thinking processes. If we observe something or gain knowledge of a piece of information which can be used as evidence to support what we believe, or what we want to believe, it natural for our minds to default to that belief rather than going to the process of fully breaking all the available information down. It’s natural for us to hold tightly to that single piece of evidence as a known, and continue to believe our assumptions are correct based on that known, even if that means rejecting additional pieces of information that become available that would disprove that initial belief.
On the fourth lap, they saw a pair of skiers ski towards the far east side of Greely bowl but didn’t see where they ended up going. The four decided to take a line they believed to be just slightly east of their prior runs, anticipating it would reconnect with the same exit below.
“We had seen a sign that indicated 13 people had spent the night on the mountain this year. It was never our intention to go out of bounds.”
However, snowmelt from the lower Greeley Bowl drains towards the north and east and pulls the terrain along with it. Following the natural fall line will initially lead about 60° off the path to the bottom of the Ripper Chair before turning further to a full 180° and heading due east into extremely dense and dangerous terrain.
“We weren’t the first tracks to go that way, and there wasn’t a rope or any signage, at least not that we saw… but that’s not on the mountain. We totally f’ed up by being there in the first place.”
They attempted to cut back, hard skier’s left in the direction towards the lift, however, they were already on the wrong side of the ridge that makes up the ski area boundary. Another track that had already been down this same route they were following took them past a boot pack leading up the ridge. They hiked the boot pack to see where it led, however, the footprints stopped and led back downhill before turning back to ski tracks that continued down. The four discussed among themselves their next move and agreed to continue following the tracks, rather than going where they saw none.
The tracks continued on a way before the group noticed the turns and changes in direction were becoming sporadic. At this point, they knew they were lost. They continued to generally follow the fall line which led them to a creek. None of them had cell service, however, they had an understanding of the direction to the highway due to a downloaded Google Map they’d saved prior.
The four were soaking wet inside and out by the time the sun went down. The effort required to hike miles through uneven terrain, through waist-to-shoulder deep snow made them sweat profusely. Their body heat melted the snow around them. After discussing, they agreed that stopping for the night was not an option even if they were able to build a shelter and fire. They knew they wouldn’t all be able to dry out and therefore the likelihood of freezing was far too great.
The sun went down and the temperatures dropped along with it. Being exhausted, they paced themselves to keep moving, roughly two minutes at a time of slow progress, then resting for 30 seconds. The near constant movement was enough to keep their body temperatures up and their clothes from freezing. They crossed the creek twice before one of the members ended up putting his foot in the water. It didn’t fully soak through, but it was too close of a call. They realized they couldn’t cross the creek again, even if the terrain on the other side was easier to navigate due to almost guaranteed onset of hypothermia if one them was to fall in.
Mike and another group member had been in regular contact with their wives who became worried when neither of them checked in at the end of the day. This was very uncharacteristic. Calls to all four of the group members’ cell phones went straight to voicemail.
We then received a call at home around 8:45 PM from Mike’s wife. She explained to us that she had made contact with the police who were unaware of any missing person’s report or distress calls from that day.
“Am I just being paranoid or am I right to be worried?”
We talked through the situation for a few minutes and determined whether or not their car was still in the Revelstoke parking lot was going to be the deciding factor to elevate the concern or not. I let them know where the group had most likely parked, along with the name of the hotel directly adjacent. Mike’s sister called the Sutton Hotel and got someone to agree to check the parking lot. Their car was found still in the lot.
A second call to the Revelstoke police led to a house check at the location where they were staying. Police returned the call after knocking to find no one home. It was evident at this point what had happened.
The call between Mike’s wife and the Police was then interrupted by another – it was Mike. After more than 10 hours the group had managed to follow the creek, nearly down to the Illecillewaet River along CAN 1. It was at that point they were back in cell range and were able to provide their coordinates to the police.
Because there were no injuries, the police did not dispatch Revelstoke Search and Rescue (REVSAR). They told them to sit tight and wait for a call while the officer drove as close to their location as possible where he would turn on lights and sirens. Although the group did not have visual on the patrol car when the officer called back, they continued downhill in the direction of the road seen on the map and before long hit it. The hard pack surface and moderate slope were welcome as it allowed them to ski the rest of the way to the patrol car.
Factors playing against the group:
- Lack of respect for the Skier’s Responsibility Code
- Lack of familiarity with the mountain and the surrounding area. Additionally, no trail map
- Lack of experience in the backcountry and with route-finding processes
- Lack of proper equipment for navigating the backcountry
- False Confidence – Presence of tracks leads to the belief that the person knew where they were going. They also had already gotten away with breaking the “no ducking rope” rule a few times already.
- Anchoring – The tendency to hold tightly to one piece of information, this piece being the false confidence in assuming the people who had laid previous tracks knew where they were going.
- Sunk Cost – Spent money ahead of time to ski powder in Revelstoke, however, the trip occurred during an extended dry period.
- Opportunity Cost – Having a perception similar to “If I don’t ski powder on this trip, I’m stuck with an overwhelming feeling of disappointment of getting skunked and finances wasted”
Factors the group was able to use to their advantage:
- Others were expecting members of the group to check in that night
- The group was carrying a water bottle, some snacks and a lighter
- The group had a downloaded map saved to their phone
- The group utilized screenshots of their GPS location and the map’s scale to determine how much progress was being made which kept morale up
- The group didn’t allow one another to get upset with each other or talk negatively about the situation
- The group maintained a solutions-oriented approach
- The group preserved cell phone battery for critical moments (IE: flashlight while approaching creek for water, checking the map, calling the police)
- Clear skies with a nearly full moon helped light their way
In the end, we’re just happy these four are alive to go home to their families and friends, share their story with the community and ski another day. Furthermore, we’re thankful they had the tenacity to find their own way out of a bad situation without having to put others at risk as well. Hopefully, their story helps others to make smarter decisions too.
** Also, shout out to Nico’s Pizzeria who stayed open late to help get these guys fed at the end of the night. Thank you!