How one skier survived a fall into a ravine

BY Brett Popplewell

27th Feb 2023 Life

How one skier survived a fall into a ravine

When Mark Gayowski took an unmarked ski trail into a deep ravine, every attempt at escape only left him more lost

Mark Gayowski was determined to squeeze as much fun as he could out of the last days of the year. Shortly after 9am on December 30, 2019, the 34-year-old carpenter from Rossland in the western Canadian province of British Columbia said goodbye to his roommate and headed to nearby Red Mountain, one of North America’s oldest ski resorts. He planned to ski all morning, and then in the afternoon he'd watch the latest Star Wars movie with a friend. 

Gayowski had spent his youth at the ski resort; its three peaks towered over the town. He knew the 119 ski runs as well as anyone. But the challenge of the routes that weren’t marked on the trail maps—the “back country” skiing—appealed to him the most.

By 10am he had headed up the mountain and then pushed off for the first run of the day. For two hours, he cut tracks all over the mountainside. Then he got on the lift for one last ride up. 

The chairlift hummed as it ferried him to the resort’s easterly peak. Gayowski pulled out his phone and called his mother, Cindy Reich.

"The challenge of the routes that weren’t marked on the trail maps appealed to him the most"

Reich, a 56-year-old retired figure-skating coach, lived in Rossland with Gayowski’s stepfather, Raymond. She and her son spoke nearly every day. He told her how he’d spotted what looked like untouched powder on the far side of the 2,048-metre-high mountain. He planned to follow it for a few minutes, then return to a run lower down and ski back to the parking lot. 

She listened, then wandered to a whiteboard in her kitchen and pulled out a marker. After suffering a concussion in a bike crash four years earlier, she didn't trust her memory. Reich wrote the name of the trail and peak on the whiteboard: “Left of Unknown Legend, Kirkup side.” She asked him to call or text her when he finished the run.

“I will,” he replied. Then he put his phone back in his pocket, slipped on his gloves, got off the chairlift, and began gliding along the left side of a steep trail for experienced skiers, looking for the ideal point to dip into the trees

Red Mountain ski resort

View from Red Mountain Ski Resort

He found his spot alongside fresh ski tracks next to an out-of-bounds sign. He ducked under the rope barrier, lowered his goggles, and snaked his way through the alders and pines, dodging cliffs and boulders and descending deeper and deeper into a ravine. It took a while for him to realize that he may have overshot his planned exit. Then the snow beneath his skis grew thin and the brush thicker. Soon there was no way for him to ski around the logs and downed branches that boxed him in. 

Gayowski slid to a stop and took a look around. He’d lost the fresh ski tracks he’d started with almost as soon as he’d gone into the bush. In fact, he’d veered so far off-course that he was now stuck 1,500 metres into a ravine, with no easily discernible exit. He pulled out his phone but there was no cell service here. He clicked out of his skis and looked back up the mountain. The climb was too daunting.

He could feel the weather starting to change as he slowly made his way down deeper into the ravine. The winds were picking up, and clouds gathered overhead. Then snow began to fall. He didn’t yet realize how much trouble he was in. 

Alarm bells

Reich wondered why her son hadn’t texted or called when he’d finished his run. She credited it to forgetfulness, but as the hours passed and he failed to reply to her half-dozen texts, she began to worry. She called him but got his voicemail. She knew he’d been planning to meet a friend that afternoon for a movie, so she reassured herself that he’d turned the phone off and was sitting in a theatre. At 5pm, when she still couldn’t reach him, she drove to her son’s apartment to make sure he’d made it off the mountain. 

Gayowski’s roommate was also perplexed when Reich knocked on the door—he’d received a call from Gayowski’s friend earlier that afternoon, when he didn’t show up at the theatre to catch the movie. It wasn’t like Gayowski to just disappear unannounced. Outside, it was -3°C and already dark. Reich began to panic and called her husband. She and Raymond agreed: it was time to call for help. 

While they waited for the search and rescue teams to arrive, Raymond and a group of Gayowski’s friends raced around the base of the mountain on their snowmobiles, looking for him. But it was too dark, and the snowfall was too heavy; they gave up and planned to return the next morning.

Mike Hudson

Mike Hudson, a volunteer search-and-rescue manager

Mike Hudson, a 41-year-old heavy-equipment operator and a volunteer search-and-rescue manager in the neighbouring village of Fruitvale, was just starting to unwind for the evening when his phone buzzed. It was a call from the Emergency Coordination Centre, asking if he could lead a mission to find a missing skier. They had information about where he’d planned to ski. The case was urgent: a metre of snow would fall on the area over the next 48 hours.

Early on the morning of December 31, Hudson arrived at the mountain with a unit command centre—an eight-metre cargo trailer with multiple work terminals to log radio transmissions, document clues, and coordinate the movements of rescuers. The terminals connected to a larger screen used primarily for viewing topographical maps.

Then word came down from the top of the mountain. There had been a positive sighting of what were believed to be Gayowski’s initial tracks heading out of bounds, more or less where he had told his mother he planned to ski. They were disappearing fast beneath the falling snow.

During his first 12 hours in the ravine, Gayowski wandered deeper, reaching a creek that he assumed would ultimately take him to a roadway. His phone battery died, and he’d abandoned his skis three hours into the ordeal.

He’d travelled roughly four kilometres on foot but wasn’t sure how far he was from civilization. The ruggedness of the forest around the creek’s shoreline forced him to cross the stream; it was the only way to keep moving forward. He had to wade shin deep through the water. The temperature hovered below freezing, and his feet and legs were soaked. 

"Gayowski was so disoriented that he was no longer sure if he was really making progress"

Gayowski was hardened to the cold, having spent eight years building pipelines in northern Canada. But he’d dressed lightly that day in a Gore-Tex jacket. He knew he had to keep moving or risk hypothermia. He was parched from exertion but also knew he couldn’t consume snow to rehydrate, as it would lower his core temperature even further.

By 2am on December 31, after he’d followed the creek for what felt like forever, Gayowski gave up any hope of finding his way out of the ravine by pushing forward. He decided that the only way to get out was to turn around, retrace his steps, and head back up the ravine toward the peak.

Through the night he climbed. When daylight broke, he saw that the falling snow was filling in his tracks. He quickened his pace, but it didn’t matter. By mid-morning they’d disappeared. Gayowski was so disoriented that he was no longer sure if he was really making progress up the steep incline.

He threw away his soaking gloves and pulled his numb hands inside his coat for warmth. By late afternoon, his legs were beginning to give out on him, his feet blistering after more than 30 hours of hard trekking in ski boots. 

Gayowski’s mind had been playing tricks on him for hours, filling his head with visions and sounds of salvation—a building, a person, a shadow. It was never anything more than a tree or a boulder. Exhausted and defeated, he pulled off his jacket, lay down in the snow, and waited for his breathing to slow and his body to freeze. 

The rescue

Hudson had dispatched two teams of four rescuers into the ravine at 7am on December 31. One team had descended from the top of the mountain, trying to mimic Gayowski’s initial trajectory, while the second team moved in on snowshoes and trail skis from the mountain’s base, navigating their way along the creek.

Hudson had started the day feeling optimistic because he had a general sense of where Gayowski was. But as the hours slipped by, it became clear that none of his rescuers were going to be able to penetrate deep enough into the ravine to actually locate him.

Rescue team

A rescuer searching for Gayowski

As daylight began to fade, the chances of Gayowski’s surviving a second night alone on the mountain were grim. Hudson looked over at Gayowski’s mother and stepfather, who had joined him at the command centre that afternoon. He told them what they didn’t want to hear: that the day’s search was coming to an end. The conditions were just too difficult to navigate. 

Cindy and Raymond nodded silently; they could see how hard Hudson’s team had been working to locate their son. They left the command centre and started for home.

Hudson looked at weather patterns for the coming day. He could see that the storm should be gone by morning. But he also knew that there was only a 30 per cent chance that Gayowski would survive the night. 

Thoughts of not wanting to leave his parents broken-hearted compelled Gayowski to open his eyes, brush the snow from his body, and pull his jacket back over his torso. 

The darkness was setting in again. He needed to keep moving. He had no idea how far he’d climbed or how much further there was to go, so he gave up and, thinking it’d be easier than more climbing, began to once again head back down into the ravine. 

For another eight hours, he descended in the dark and arrived back at the creek, where the snow was wet and thick. New Year’s Eve came and went. By 2am he was completely depleted. He hunkered down under a thick tree, pulled his arms inside the body of his jacket and tucked his head beneath his collar to warm himself with his breath. Then he lay on a log and tried to sleep. 

At daybreak, Hudson returned to the command centre to prepare his teams for another push. This time, a group of three would follow a ridgeline until they were about midway up the mountain and then veer right into the ravine. All the while, another group waited next to a campfire on the gravel road near the creek’s exit, just in case Gayowski came close enough to smell or see the smoke. Gayowski’s friends continued to run their snowmobiles back and forth along the road, hoping he might hear them and find his way out.

As Gayowski’s parents sat at home, feelings of helplessness gave way to hopelessness. Cindy Reich had spent much of the night updating Gayowski’s sister, Ayla, who was returning from a vacation in Mexico.

The phone rang. No news. It was only a member of Hudson’s team asking Reich to describe specific details about her son’s appearance—tattoos, scars, missing teeth. It wasn’t until she hung up the phone that she realized why they might need to know.

"Gayowski woke up. It was New Year’s Day. Though he was still lost, he was grateful to be alive"

Sunlight filtered through the trees in the ravine. Gayowski poked his head out from inside his jacket and looked up into the sky. It was New Year’s Day. Though he was still lost, he was grateful to be alive. He sat upright on the log and wiggled his toes inside his ski boots. His feet and legs ached.

For the next four hours, he struggled to move forward through knee-deep snow. He had to wrap his hands around his thighs and use them to lift his legs. At some point, he stopped and screamed out in anger. It took a few moments for him to realize that the shouts coming back in his direction weren’t just an echo. Then he saw three figures on skis in the distance, closing in fast. He wanted to run toward them, but it was taking almost all of his energy just to stand. He could hear them yelling out his name. He was in tears by the time they reached him.

The phone rang. Reich picked up, listened to the words coming out of the receiver, and shouted to her husband.

“They found him!” 

Minutes later, she was back at the mountain, flanked by Raymond and Ayla, listening to a radio crackling with her son’s location as the rescue team made their way to a small clearing where a helicopter could touch down. It felt like forever before they heard the helicopter cutting through the sky over their heads. They stepped outside and ran toward it, catching Gayowski moments after he stepped out on his own two feet. 

Mark Gayowski on Red Mountain

Mark Gayowski on Red Mountain

For the next three days, his family kept vigil by his hospital bed. He’d suffered tissue damage to his feet, and muscle fatigue. After leaving the hospital, he convalesced at his mother’s home for two weeks.

A year later, he realizes that he could have died alone in the snow if he hadn’t thought to call his mother from the ski lift to let her know about his plans. And if he hadn’t kept himself moving, climbing up and down the mountain, he would certainly have died of the cold. 

His skis are still out there. “I know where they are,” he says. “But I’m not going back for them.” 

If ever he ventures back into that ravine, it will be as a rescuer. Before the pandemic hit, he attended meetings to join a search-and-rescue squad. The next time someone is lost and alone in the bush, he plans to be part of the team that sets out to save them.

Photographs by Kari Medig

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