When you have 3 hours of waiting and nothing to do but pace the floor of the ski patrol office the worst case scenarios are what play through your head.
We moved to Washington state in March of 2014. Prior to that we had not lived in an area that was big on downhill skiing. The boys took some lessons early 2015 in Whistler B.C. Then we took them to Kellogg, ID for New Years 2015/16 where they each got another 2 days of skiing. After that they joined the ski club at their school and got another 6 afternoons of skiing experience in 2016. So far in 2017 they each also have had a half-dozen days of skiing. My youngest is very conservative. My older boy, who has always been fearless and confident, is less conservative.
Earlier this week I loaded up the SUV with the boys and my older sons BFF and headed for Idaho. My husband and my daughter were away on a trip out of the country.
The friend my son invited is a very experienced skier and just an all-around wonderful soul.
We arrived at Silver Mt. Resort early evening Presidents Day.
A bit about Silver Mt. resort.
It is nestled in the foothills of Kellogg Mt. and Wardner Mt. Kellogg’s motto according to wikipedia is “This is the town founded by a jackass and inhabited by his descendants.” I actually love the tiny town of Kellogg, and as you will learn reading this post I owe my son’s life and the life of his BFF to a number of folks who call Kellogg home.
To get to the slops of Silver Mountain one has to take a roughly 30 minute ride up the worlds longest gondola, 3.1 miles, traveling from 2,300 elevation to the mountain house lodge at 5,700ft above sea level. From the mountain house lodge snow-sport enthusiasts can ski down as far as chair four at a base of 4,100ft or ride chairs up to Kellogg peak at 6,300ft and/or Wardner Peak at 6,200ft. Silver Mt. Ski Resort has total vertical terrain of 2,200ft and covers 1,600 skiable acres. There are 77 named runs at Silver mt. Ski Resort ranging from beginner to Expert.
So before I begin my story let me just reiterate that the only way up to the skiable areas is by a gondola ride and it is the only safe way off the mountain. It is not like some ski-in/ski-out resorts. The mountain is covered in dense forest, steep ravines, wolves, creeks, and abandoned mines.
Tuesday 2/21, first day of skiing. Some fog and lots of falling snow. The two older teens (my son and his BFF who I will call Lucy) had a wonderful day of skiing with no incidents. The powder was perfect and there were only 400 other souls on the mountain which meant zero lift lines. My younger son didn’t feel like skiing, and I had never put on skis, so he and I enjoyed time at the tubing park just outside the mountain lodge followed by board games and hot beverages in the lodge.
My youngest wanted to return to the hotel room at about 2:30 so he went down the gondola alone while I stayed in the lodge enjoying a few more spiked hot ciders waiting on the older teens. At about 3:45 I went down by the gondola loading area to wait on the teens. The lift chairs close between 3:30 and 3:45 to clear the mountain by 4/4:15. There is no night skiing at Silver Mountain. While I was waiting I showed a photo of my son and his friend from earlier that morning to the female loading people into the gondola cabins. She wasn’t sure if she had seen them. As it approached 4pm I sent an iMessage to my youngest (no cell service at all – only iMessage using wifi) that I was still waiting on his brother. A few moments later he messaged back that his brother and Lucy had just arrived at the room. They went down the gondola without me. They basically forgot I was still waiting on them.
Upon returning to the room I laid into the teens about leaving me on the mountain. They were apologetic and promised not to do it again.
Morning of Wednesday 2/22. As we were all getting our snow gear on and finishing up breakfast I told my older son that we should invest in walkie talkies for future skiing trips to avoid incidents like the afternoon before. He said I was being weird. When loading the gondola to go up to the slopes the young women who I had shown the kids picture to the previous night gave the teens a bit of ribbing and told them not to leave me again. (If this was a book or a movie this would be considered foreshadowing). In the gondola I emphasized how they are to find me before heading down and we would all go down at 3:30 if they didn’t want to go down earlier. I had a my first ski lesson ever scheduled for 1pm. The older teens were taking my younger boy out skiing on intermediate slopes while I rented my gear. My son and Lucy brought my youngest son back to the mountain lodge at roughly noon because he wanted to watch me in my lesson. My older son said he would come back after my lesson to do a green run with me and he wished me luck. Wednesday was extremely foggy. Like maybe 35-50 feet of visibility.
That was about 12:15pm. If you’ve read this far, thank you. I know this part is like the super slow start to a movie you hope will get good.
Since my lesson wouldn’t start for another 45 minutes my youngest son decided to go down an easy run near the lesson area. I watched him ski off and disappear in the dense fog feeling very proud of him. After 10 minutes I started to worry that he was alone and it was foggy. I started to fret that he would miss a turn and end up on a more difficult slope. I paced in the snow by the lesson area until my trainer showed up. I convinced myself that my youngest would be fine and focused on my lesson. (In the movie version this would be additional foreshadowing)
My lesson went superb. My trainer, lets call him Bob, said I was a natural. After 3 runs on the bunny slope learning how to make a good wedge, turn, and side step Bob suggested we go down a green slope. My youngest returned from his run about 20 minutes into my lesson and had been encouraging me on the bunny slope. At about 1:40 we set off on a green slope and my youngest tagged along. It was still foggy but the fog was lifting a bit when we set off. I fell once. It wasn’t my fault, I blame my youngest. He kept skiing backward like my trainer to watch me but he kept falling. At one point he fell and I was going a bit fast so I had to turn quick to avoid him and my skis dug into a huge section of fresh powder. I went down in an unnatural way but was not injured. My trainer had to remove my skis for me to get upright since my left leg was pinned under me.
By the time we got to chair 1 the fog was gone and the blue of the sky was the brightest and most beautiful I had ever seen. We reached the mountain lodge and bid farewell to Bob at 2:19. My youngest and I went into the lodge for celebratory
hot cocoa while we waited to see if the older teens showed up to ski with me.
By 2:40 my youngest and I went out to do another easy slope but as I was putting on my skis the binding came off one and I had to get it fixed so my youngest went alone. When he got back my binding was fixed but it was 3pm so we decided to call it a day and returned the rental equipment. We gathered our bags and sat down on a bench in the gondola house to wait for the older teens. My youngest was excited to get down the mountain to go to the indoor wa
ter park. I told him that we weren’t leaving without the teens. He was disappointed but I explained that as a mom I couldn’t leave the mountain without them. He assured me they would be fine and that they probably went down already but I stood my ground. At 3:35 I went outside to look for them and my youngest checked the cafe. Outside the fog had rolled back in with a vengeance. Visibility was extremely low and it was already getting dark with heavy cloud cover.
If this was a movie this is when the ominous music would start.
When I was explaining to my youngest son that as a mom I couldn’t leave the mountain until I knew his brother and Lucy were safe, I was just being a mom and keeping with my word that we would go down together. But as I stepped outside in the fog something strong compelled me to act. A feeling I hadn’t felt since I insisted to my husband who believed my son just had a cold, that I take my youngest to the doctor on Feb 7th of 2007, the day he was diagnosed and would have likely died had I not taken him. Call it a mother’s intuition. Call it guidance from God. Call it a sixth sense. What ever you call it – it is what may have saved my oldest son and Lucy. Alexis Carrel wrote, “Intuition comes very close to clairvoyance: it appears to be the extrasensory perception of reality”. I am not patting myself on my back, I am recognizing that there were larger forces at play that are beyond my understanding.
I flagged down two ski patrollers who had just come off a chair lift. I asked if they had cleared all the runs yet. They confirmed that most runs were cleared and chairs were closing. I mentioned I hadn’t seen my older son and Lucy yet and they were just a few minutes late. The ski patrollers asked me to come to ski patrol to talk about it. I declined and said I’m sure the kids would show up – which was me trying to convince myself that whatever I was feeling, it was wrong. A moment later the head ski patrol guy showed up and I explained to him that the teens hadn’t returned and I was certain they would not have gone down the gondola after the previous days incident. None the less the head ski patrol guy kindly asked my younger son to head down to look for the teens. He also had me show the gondola operator the teens photo so he would stop them if they showed up while I went down to ski patrol.
The gondola ride is 30 min. I realized once I was in ski patrol that I hadn’t given my youngest a room key so I sent an iMessage to him that he should go to front desk to get a key. I knew he wouldn’t get the message until he got to the gondola house due to no wifi on the gondola. When we got to the ski patrol office the head ski patrol guy, lets call him Doug, called the resort lobby to inquire if the teens had come in for key and told them my youngest would be coming for a key.
30 minutes past and I didn’t hear from my youngest or the teens. The lobby called up to say that they had a small boy waiting outside the room and could house keeping let him in. House keeping let my youngest son in the room and he confirmed the teens had not been to the room.Meanwhile back on the mountain Doug was asking the ski patrollers to clock back in and started handing out assignments. This is where my brain gets a bit fuzzy because in my head I began to picture worst case scenarios. Doug sent ski patrollers out on various snowmobiles to run the ski boundary and check chair areas. That was at 3:55pm.
By 4:20 the chair lift areas were confirmed clear and there were multiple sleds (snowmobiles) out running the boundary lines.
While patrollers were out running boundary lines I answered Doug’s questions for a report. Birthdays, where did they plan to ski that afternoon (No idea), how experienced are they, have they ever gone out-of-bounds before, what are they wearing, etc. During this time I kept apologizing for the trouble of it all. In between asking me questions Doug’s radio would sound off with one patroller or another updating him on his progress and a new assignment would be given. These guys were extremely efficient and professional and I was nothing short of impressed at the level of calm they all seemed to possess. I remember consciously trying to keep my shit together because a hysterical mom would not have helped the situation. Inside I was a complete basket case, my stomach was turning on me, and my heart felt like it was trying to escape from my chest. It was during this interview that I told Doug that my son had type 1 diabetes. He asked when my son had last eaten and if he had supplies on him. I had no idea when the kids had last eaten since I hadn’t seen them since just after noon. I told Doug that my son had fruit snacks, jelly beans, and a tube of gel frosting on him. Then I made the mistake of looking at my Dexcom share application on my phone. The last time his phone had connected with wifi was when I had seen the teens just after noon. The graph I stared at showed my son with a blood sugar of about 150 going down. No other connection so he hadn’t been back to the mountain lodge since I had seen him.
The scenarios that played through my head at that point included Lucy being injured and my son going for help but going low and thus passing out in the deep snow. The kids going out-of-bounds and falling off a steep slope both being injured with his blood sugar dropping. I think the reason I worried that Lucy had been injured is because if it were my son than Lucy would have come for help.
After the questions I simply paced the ski patrol office, occasionally going outside to vomit or pressing my hands and face against the cold window glass asking in tearful whispers “where are you?”
By 5:00pm my youngest was still not responding to my iMessages. I sent an iMessage to my friend back home and asked her to call the hotel and have them ring the room so she could tell my youngest to turn on wifi. My friend confirmed that his wifi was on but the hotel wifi was down. Knowing my youngest has diabetes the hotel staff ordered food for him and delivered it to the room. Seriously the lobby staff was really great checking in periodically with my youngest.
Sometime between 5:00pm and 5:30pm a patroller found two sets of ski tracks heading out-of-bounds. The patroller began following the tracks out-of-bounds. I don’t remember when I had to talk to the sheriff’s department on the phone to provide the same information I provided Doug. But basically once folks go out-of-bounds the search and rescue falls under the sheriff’s jurisdiction. I think I heard Doug telling the sheriff that they had a promising lead and would follow it. I’m not sure if the ski patrol had to get permission from the sheriff’s department to continue the search. Again my brain was all foggy. Either way the sheriff’s department was on stand-by.
At 5:30pm I face-timed the same friend back home because answering questions via iMessage was difficult and I need to talk to someone. I explained the logistics of the mountain, how long they had been gone, and shared how scared I was. It was a comfort to hear a familiar voice and get the reassurances I so desperately needed that the kids would be found. Doug and the couple other men who were in the ski patrol office with me were very kind. They offered me tea, bagels, and coffee, not that I could eat anything, and they updated me on the search efforts. What they didn’t ever say is that the kids would be ok.
After face-timing with my friend back home I face-timed another friend at 5:50. I hesitated slightly before calling him since he was 3 hours ahead and I wasn’t sure if I’d be waking him. When I called he was in bed reading. I explained the situation and basically asked him to call in some favors. See this friend is a priest, and I really needed someone with a direct line. I don’t often ask anyone to pray and to be honest I don’t often pray and when I do it is more of a plea to the universe to provide comfort for those in need, healing for those hurting, strength for those struggling, etc. But at 5:50pm on that Wednesday I needed prayers.
I can’t recall if there was word before I called my priest friend or just after that a set of skis were found. The time seemed to slow to a crawl or almost stop while I paced the floor.
It was one set of skis found standing upright in the snow with only one set foot prints heading further down the mountain and then back up. Only one set of foot prints and one set of skis? If you were on the mountain you would have likely heard my heart break and my silent scream of terror. Yes it was something, but why one set only? Where is the other child?
That was at 6:04 based on a iMessage I sent my friend back home. Earlier in my face-time call to my friend back home I asked her in a panic when I should contact Lucy’s mom and she suggested I wait a little longer since there was nothing to be done from 300 miles away. I had asked Doug the same question earlier but he had suggested to wait a bit. At this point I wasn’t getting all the updates as they were coming in faster and Doug was busy redirecting search efforts for different patrollers. Another set of skis was found not long after. Deep Breath. Doug took a moment to show me on a computer where the tracks were first spotted and where the skis were found. It was hard to judge the amount of ground covered but it looked like a huge amount of terrain.
Face-time wouldn’t work to call Lucy’s mom so I borrowed a phone from one of the men in the ski patrol office with me. I explained what had been happening and that the patrollers had a good lead and I would update her as soon as I had more information. Lucy’s mom was extremely calm and supportive. Something that was a real God send since I was in panic mode.
Just before 6:19pm ski patrollers heard the kids yelling ‘we are here’. (I should note that I actually have no idea what the kids called out when they heard the patrollers calling for them. They could have yelled ‘help’ but in my head I had the Whos from Horton Hears a Who in my head. It was a safe animated image)
I sent an iMessage to Lucy’s mom letting her know that the patrollers could hear the kids responding to the patrollers yelling for them.
It was another 17 minutes until the patrollers had eyes on the kids since the teens had to hike up to the traverse where the patrollers were with snowmobiles and hot Gatorade. I still had no word on the teens condition but they were able to walk to the snowmobiles.
They were taken by snowmobile to a groomer (huge tracker type machine used to groom ski slopes) and were warming up and making their way back to the mountain house.
The groomer arrived at the mountain house at 7:08pm. The teens were soaked through and cold but otherwise unharmed.
The teens gave a statement and explanation to Doug about how they ended up out-of-bounds, what their thought processes were regarding where to hike to, and what their plans were if they hadn’t been found. He showed them on the computer were they were found and explained the truly dangerous situation they had been in. He impressed on them the seriousness of the situation and how incredibly lucky they were that their ski tracks were found. Doug asked them each for an email with all the details again and asked them to each share what they (the teens) learned from the experience.
The three of us were loaded on the gondola to head down the mountain by 7:30pm. The majority of the ski patrollers had not returned to the mountain house before we were sent down. They were not as lucky as the teens to ride up in a groomer so I couldn’t hug them all like I would have liked to. Between the gondola operators, official ski patrollers, and a mountain of a man who typically works maintenance but also volunteers for ski patrol, there were a dozen souls working to find my son and Lucy and return them safely.
We were in the hotel room a bit after 8pm. The kids took long hot showers and ate large hot meals.
My son’s blood sugar was about 170 before he ate dinner – I forget the exact number. I had not asked him to check his blood sugar when he and Lucy were brought in from the groomer. I hadn’t even asked him to check in the gondola. Honestly diabetes was the last thing on my mind from the moment I knew they were on snowmobiles. My boy and Lucy were safe. They were unharmed. They were on their way to me. Diabetes wasn’t a thought until the boy sat down to eat back in the room.
So what happened?
Due to the extreme fog the teens missed a turn off for a traverse to cut over to chair 4. The run they were on ended on a second traverse just above the boundary line but they didn’t see the signs identifying the boundary lines. They believed they were still on the run. When they realized they had missed the traverse they believed they were still above the boundary line and the second traverse would be just ahead. They had seen a pink flag and thought it was part of the trail. It was in fact part of an old mining route as they were already outside the boundary. By the time they fully realized they were out-of-bounds it was too steep to climb back up. They thought if they heading in the direction they believed chair 4 was, that eventually they would find chair 4. They knew based on the trail map that chair 4 was at 4,100ft and they knew they were at 4,000ft because my son used snapchat to take a picture and scrolled to get the elevation listed on the photo. They had a plan but did not realize just how far away they were from chair 4 or how deep the snow in the dense forrest would be. At times they were hiking in snow that was up to their chests and occasionally pulling each other out of tree wells. Their skis were too heavy and cumbersome to hike and climb with so they decided to ditch them. It was dark by 5:30 but thankfully where they were lost the fog had lifted and stars lit their way. During their time lost they discussed how if they got to chair 4 there would be a blankets and a radio they could use to call for help or could just stay the night in the chair house. They weren’t sure if anyone would be looking for them or if they could be found. They believe they went out of bounds around 2:45pm.
In the 4 hours before they were found my sons dexcom continued to show him dropping and he consumed 2 pouches of fruit snacks, the tube of frosting, and most his jelly beans. He was saving his remaining two pouches of fruit snacks in case they had to spend the night in the dense terrain or chair house, one for him and one for Lucy. They checked their phones periodically for service with no luck.
My son insists that the hot Gatorade was the best thing he’s ever consumed in his life. I’m fairly certain he only feels that way because he was starving and freezing and it was hot.
Ski patrol rarely, if ever, recovers ditched equipment from the mountain. Their job is to get people safely off the mountain. So in addition to being forever grateful to the men who rescued the teens and the women who stayed late to operate the gondola to get us and the ski patrollers off the mountain, I am also thankful that the patrollers risked their own safety a second time the following morning to recover the skis the kids ditched.
So over a late breakfast at the Morning Star lodge restaurant the teens shared more about their ordeal. During their hike they discussed how if their story ever became a movie the writers would ruin it by adding a bit of romance into the story and would also likely add injuries or other drama. They also said they thought they kept hearing planes overhead but I explained that the sounds they would occasionally hear were likely snowmobiles searching the boundaries. We also discussed all the real dangers the teens could have faced while out there including, wolf packs that roam the mountain after dark and the risk of avalanches. I think I began a number of sentences to them with the words, “you could have died…”
Lessons learned include:
- Staying in one place once you realize you are lost.
- Suspending or disconnected the insulin pump to help avoid the low blood sugars.
- If you feel compelled to hike, leave a trail by maybe ditching equipment in separate areas to help rescue teams know the direction you are headed.
- Always be sure other members of your party who are not skiing with you know which areas you plan to ski.
- If you don’t know the mountain and visibility is limited ski conservatively.
In the 3.5 hours between when the kids didn’t show up at 3:30 and when they climbed out of the groomer a bit after 7pm I aged at least 10 years. I vomited 3 times. I made a number of promises to the universe and to God. I pleaded with the mountain and the forrest to keep my son and Lucy safe. I cried. I silently screamed (I was carful to not actually scream because I was experiencing extreme fear of avalanches.) I prayed for the safety of the ski patrollers out searching. I apologized repeatadly to Doug and the other men in the ski patrol office for all the trouble. I saw visions of my oldest son from the day he was born through that afternoon in my head on repeat. I whispered the words ‘please be safe’ well over a hundred times.
Luck was with the kids and the patrollers. Finding their ski tracks was a huge break. But luck alone didn’t save the kids. The keen eyes, dedication, experience, courage, and selflessness of the ski patrollers and mountain staff saved the kids, but I don’t believe they worked alone.