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How one skier endured 50 hours lost on a frozen mountain

BY Nicola Scott-Taylor

11th Jan 2024 Life

10 min read

How one skier endured 50 hours lost on a frozen mountain
After a near miss from a piste basher, a skier faced two days fighting his way down a Romanian mountain, confronting the cold, the dark and the terrifying wild
Rudi Gonsalves could barely contain his exhilaration as he sped downhill. It was the first day of his holiday in the Romanian ski resort of Poiana Brasov and he was 6,000 feet up one of its highest mountains, breathing in the cleanest air.
Weather and snow conditions were perfect. An experienced skier, he tackled the difficult "black" run with ease, knees gently bent to meet the uneven surface of the snow.
Rudi, a part-time youth worker from Epsom Downs, Surrey, regularly booked a winter holiday with his wife Sue. But Sue was scared of heights and could not overcome her sense of foreboding as the skiing season approached.
So this time Rudi, a keen sportsman and fit for his 57 years, had come alone.

Coming down the mountain

As he snaked his way down the mountain on that March afternoon last year, snowflakes began to fall—lightly at first, then more heavily until the clouds blotted out the sun entirely, transforming everything into a ghostly whiteness.
He could just make out other skiers descending the slopes as fast as they could. I'd better stay close to them for safety, he decided. This could be tricky.
Straining to see ahead, Rudi was only vaguely aware of a looming outline lumbering up the mountain.
"Did anyone see me fall? Where am I?"
Recognising it at the last moment as a "piste-bashing machine" flattening the snow into smooth runs, he only just had time to swerve out of the path of its huge steel blades. The manoeuvre took him off the ski-run and sent him hurtling down the steep mountainside.
Suddenly he was living Sue's worst nightmare. "Whoa, Whoa there!" he yelled as he spun over and over at breakneck speed, finally crashing hard on to the snow.
About a hundred feet above him, the piste-basher ground on inexorably. Why doesn't the driver stop? Rudi thought angrily, picking himself up. Then, as the roar of the machine died away, he realised that the driver could not have heard his shouts.
Rudi felt as if the guts had been shaken out of him. He struggled to pull himself together. At least I don't seem to have broken any bones, he thought with relief, and I've still got my skis. But his predicament worried him. Did anyone see me fall? Where am I?

The first escape route

Snow covered Postăvaru in Romania
He looked around him, trying to get his bearings, but in every direction there was only the same mesmerising whiteness.
Then he took out his gold watch, a treasured present from his wife. It not only told him the time, 1.54pm, it also seemed to give him strength.
Rudi tried to think logically. Only two and a half hours before the cable car finishes for the day. Soon the slopes will be empty. I must get back up to the ski-run.
Ignoring his bruises and aching muscles, he turned his right side on to the mountain and began side-stepping—lifting up his right ski and digging its edge into the precipitous slope, at the same time moving his ski pole uphill, then repeating the action with his left ski.
It was still snowing, and time and again he slipped out of control, his upper ski sliding down and pushing the lower one from under him. Often he ended up on his back, buried in the snow.
It was getting dark when Rudi finally gave up his futile attempt to scale the mountain and decided to head downhill instead. He knew it would mean moving away from the best route back to his hotel, but there seemed to be no alternative.
"It was getting dark when Rudi finally gave up his futile attempt to scale the mountain"
Despair began to dog Rudi as he faced up to the reality of spending a night in the open. It was 5.30pm and the temperature was dropping fast. He began to shiver, his teeth chattering uncontrollably. He felt very alone.
The worry that he had not telephoned Sue since he'd arrived in Poiana Brasov started to nag at him. She doesn't even know that I got here safely. She's bound to be worried, he thought, reflecting grimly that now there was something concrete for her to worry about.
Sue meant everything to him. When they met, he had been at his lowest ebb: his first marriage was at an end, his three children felt let down because they barely saw him. She had made his life worth while again.
Concentrate! Rudi told himself sternly. How am I going to get to the bottom of this mountain? Surely there'll be a stream or something that'll lead me to the village once I get down.
The deep snow made it impossible for him to ski. Hoisting his skis on to his shoulder, he set off on foot, but his rigid ski boots made walking slow and clumsy.

Darkness falls

Snow covered trees in Postavaru mountains, Romania
After three hours he was very tired, stiffer and colder than he had ever felt. Hunger and thirst gnawed at his stomach. And, with no moon or stars for light, he had lost all sense of direction.
The sound of wind rustling through frozen branches was Rudi's first clue that he was nearing some trees.
Anxious to see his surroundings, he forced his fingers to bend enough to strike life into his lighter. By its faint glow he could dimly see an overhanging branch, against which drifting snow had settled to make a protective tent high enough for him to shelter underneath.
This cheered him. He was not about to give up.
"You won't get me!" he cried out again and again into the darkness. Breaking the silence around him bolstered his confidence.
"He didn't dare fall asleep for fear that he might never wake up"
Using a ski as a spade, he spent half an hour scraping away the snow beneath the branch until he reached the drier soil below.
To protect himself further, he used the dislodged snow to build walls for his new home. Then he stabbed around with his ski pole, collecting fallen branches for a fire and burning his two spare hats and all his Romanian paper money to kindle the flames.
Rudi was exhausted. Stretching his skis across two branches, he made a seat on which to wait out the long night ahead. He didn't dare fall asleep for fear that he might never wake up. For six hours he sat listening, hoping to hear someone calling him or to see some lights.
In the stillness, every little sound was magnified. His gloves creaked as he tried to dry them, his boots cracked when he wiggled his toes to keep his circulation going.
As the fire cast strange shadows on the snow, Rudi came to a realisation: if I want to survive, I'm going to have to do it on my own. There's no one around to help me.

A close encounter

European brown bear in snow
Shortly before dawn, Rudi suddenly heard something crashing through the trees. Now fully alert, he listened hard. Snuffling noises—and they were growing louder. A wild animal?
It's getting closer, he thought, unable to see anything or even to tell if the pounding in his ears was his heart beating in fear or an approaching animal.
"Get back! Go away!" he yelled hoarsely. Then, shaking with fear, he grabbed his skis and furiously banged them together until he heard something dash off across the snow.
It took all his nerve to settle back on his makeshift seat and wait for daybreak. But he knew there was no point in moving until it was light. When this is all over, he promised himself, I'll take Sue on the holiday of a lifetime. We'll go together this time. Somewhere warm.
At 6am Rudi felt an overwhelming urge to urinate. With frozen fingers he fumbled to undo his snow-suit zip, but it was iced solid. He could not hold back. The warm rush comforted him for a moment, then stiffened into icicles down his legs.
Relief turned to disgust. His once-green outfit, now frozen with mud, looked like a brown suit of armour.
In the light of day, Rudi could see animal footprints about five inches wide in the snow. They were only ten feet or so away from his shelter. The thought of having been so close to such a large creature sent a sweaty surge of fear through him.
He had read that the dangerous European brown bear was common in these parts. Was I visited by a wild bear last night? he wondered. One powerful swipe from its paw could have killed him. He had to put as much distance as possible between him and the beast.

Mind tricks

Hoof prints in snow
Frantically he jumped, slid, heaved himself forward to get some momentum going.
In some places the snow was so deep that he sank up to his knees, then to his waist and eventually to his neck.
He was now on a densely forested mountainside, barely able to make his way down through the trees. Every bone in his body ached for him to stop, and he felt faint from lack of sleep and sustenance. He sucked pieces of ice to stem his hunger, but they made his throat burn.
After four hours he had covered only a frustrating 500 yards or so. Every few minutes he had to stop to rest. Once on the move again, he would focus on a tree or rock ahead and count how many steps it took to reach.
Don't look back, he ordered himself, knowing that to do so would make him feel desperate about his agonisingly slow progress. He had no choice but to keep going. I've got to go on hoping that I can make it alone.
Sounds broke Rudi's concentration. People? He looked at his watch. Ten thirty. The ski-lift would have been open for half an hour.
"He discovered that the skiers were nothing more than rocks rising out of the snow"
He saw skiers ahead, some 200 yards above him, but it was difficult to focus in the glare of the snow. Confused and disorientated, not even sure he was still heading downhill, Rudi struggled towards the figures.
After three hours of enormous effort, he was close enough to attract attention. He waved and called out, but nobody turned round. "Look at me," he shouted. "Why don't you look at me?"
Then he discovered that the skiers were nothing more than rocks rising out of the snow. Devastated, he looked around him in silent misery.
Later, Rudi spotted a yellow car on what looked like a road below him.
Rolling, sliding, falling to get there quickly, he found the car was just a bush and the road, hoof prints left by deer in the snow. He felt numb.
In the animal tracks, walking was a little easier. But his mind was wandering. If Sue knows I'm lost, will she come looking for me? I don't want to endanger her life. I must keep going—for her sake.
At around 5.30pm, the sun started to go down behind the mountain. It grew colder again. Rudi's body no longer seemed to be part of him. It was as if he were floating above himself, watching somebody else's feeble struggle.
"Nonsense," he muttered over and over again, but his brain was so muddled that he could not quite remember what the nonsense was.

Fighting sleep

Under an overhang of tree roots growing out from the side of the hill Rudi slumped down, tired out. His lighter was frozen now—no hope of a fire tonight.
Shivering, he tried to sleep, his head under the tree roots, but the cold kept waking him. He lay there until midnight, struggling against the sensation that darkness was engulfing him. I've got to fight it, he told himself. If I don't I'll die.
Then he heard a deep, throaty, clear call—the unforgettable cry of a wolf preparing for the chase. Three pairs of eyes approached him. By the light of the moon, their forms cast menacing shadows against the all-white landscape.
Fear generated a surge of energy and he pulled rocks out of the frozen ground, throwing them with all his might in the creatures' direction. Only 20 feet away, the grey shaggy wolves stood watching, twitching their small pointed ears. Then they turned and scattered.
"I mustn't lie down or I'll freeze to death"
His mind was lucid again. I mustn't lie down or I'll freeze to death, he realised. He walked on through the early hours, dragging his skis behind him by their tips.
To give himself strength, he repeated a little mantra that had come to him from nowhere: "My body is still working, my brain is still thinking, the mountain will not get me."
Although he had now reached flatter ground and the trees had thinned out, movement was becoming increasingly difficult. His joints were almost rigid in the subzero temperatures.
When he could go no further, he found a low-hanging branch of an isolated tree for support. With one arm slung over it to hold himself up, he rested his head along the bough and dozed fitfully.

The last-minute rescue

Postăvaru Massif in Romania
The low throb of some kind of machine woke him. He saw from his mud-encrusted watch that it was 6.30am and he could clearly see tractor tracks. Stumbling, tripping over tree roots, falling over branches, he put everything he had into moving in the direction of the noise, his hopes fading as it died away.
Fence posts! He let his spirits rise again. For two hours he followed them, until, dizzy and exhausted, he collapsed on to a well-used country lane.
He was barely aware of two horses drawing a manure wagon along the lane towards him. The weather-beaten driver saw Rudi's slumped form, hoisted him into the cart and took him to his farmhouse.
There Rudi, drifting in and out of consciousness, felt himself being lifted out by farm workers. But even when someone cut away his ski boots and socks, he could not feel his hands or feet. The Romanians could see that in places his toes and fingers were black from frost-bite.
His rescuers revived him with three bowls of milk. "You saved my life," he managed to say, his speech slow and painful.
The farmer, who understood more English than he could speak, nodded and grinned, before driving him to his hotel, which was about 45 miles away.
Locals marvelled at Rudi's ability to survive for almost 50 hours in temperatures that dropped to minus 10°C at night and rarely rose above freezing during the day.

What keeps you going

After he had been flown back to Britain by air ambulance and checked over by doctors at Epsom General Hospital, Rudi went home and spent two days in a state of shock with Sue at his bedside.
Rudi knows it was more than luck that kept him alive through his ordeal.
"Sue was always there in my mind. Her strong presence brought me back to lucidity when I started to hallucinate. If it had not been for her, I don't think I could have made it. For Sue's sake I had to survive."
For months after Rudi Gonsalves's ordeal in the Romanian mountains, he relived the experience in nightmares.
Earlier this year, he underwent an operation to remove the tip of the frost-bite-damaged middle finger of his left hand, and is gradually returning to a normal working life as the nerve endings heal.
His wife Sue has been his constant support. "Now I've got him back safely," she says, "I won't be letting him out of my sight again."
This article is part of our archival collection and was originally published in December 1994. While we strive to present historical content accurately, please note that circumstances and information may have changed since the article's original publication. Some individuals mentioned in the article may no longer be alive, and events or details may have evolved. We encourage readers to consider the context of the original publication and to verify any current information independently
Banner credit: , CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr
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