Last Saturday, January 30th, 3 skiers got lost in the fog right as we patrollers were conducting end-of-day upper mountain sweep about 3:45pm. They were finally found and returned to the ski area around 1am—over 9 hours later! I figure others might benefit from knowing a bit more of how that sort of thing can occur to avoid getting similarly stranded.
Patrollers Mike & Ben were sweeping Southback that day–Ben, up the King and Mike toward Three Way Peak. They caught up with the 3 at Kirner’s Corner, just to the right of Little Alaska (informal names) which is the buttressy part of Avalanche Basin. As they hiked, the most-experienced of the group indicated he’d skied Southback many times before. I haven’t talked to the three, but mutual friends tell me that he’s an experienced South Backcountry skier who doesn’t do dumb stuff and normally has a great sense of direction. Once the group reached the top of the King, they told Ben they were heading down the Southeast side and that they planned to head left. If you’re familiar with that terrain you know that puts them on what we call “SE Left” or, if they continued and crossed the ridge, the North side of Silver King.
At the top, the 3 left Ben as skier’s usually do, making fairly fall-line turns. Ben didn’t stick right with them since he was sweeping and also checking for others who might be disoriented in the thick fog. He made wide traverses, periodically yelling “closing” and stopping to listen for responses.
We figured out later that it was so hard to see in the fog that the group ended up unintentionally traversing far to the right rather than veering left as planned. That’s how disorienting fog and the undulations of wind-drifted snow can be! The group went SO far, in fact, that they crossed the entire SE side of the King, crossed “The Beach” (informal name for the flat-topped ridge of Silver Basin) and headed down towards Crystal Lakes in Mount Rainier National Park.
Apparently the group realized they were lost around 6:45pm and used cell phones to call 911. It took until 7:30pm for them to finally get routed to Crystal ski patrollers. The lesson to take away may be that you’ll want to have the Ski Patrol Emergencies Only phone number (360-663-3064) handy in your cell phone Contacts list.
When they finally reached Patrollers by phone, they could tell they were by lakes, so were assuming they were by Henskin Lake rather than Crystal Lakes.
This Summertime view from Google Earth may help if you’re unfamiliar with the area. (North is at your 7:00 and the base lodge is just off-screen to the left.) See how in this view, Henskin lake is way over to the left, and Crystal Lakes are way over to the right? Pretty far apart, huh!
Patrol Director Paul Baugher could tell by the group’s description of the terrain that they were not where they thought they were. So teams of Patrollers were dispatched to search likely areas, and Mike and Max eventually caught up with the group and guided them out, down the Crystal Lakes trail. After the snow petered out, that was close to 2,000 vertical feet of downhill hiking in ski boots. Youch!
When they reached State Route 410 (in the closed-in-winter part of the Park) Ranger Monica was there with a vehicle to shuttle them back up to the Ski Area. Luckily for the 3 (and un-luckily for the rest of us) this is an el nino year and they didn’t have to wait for the road to be snow-plowed before vehicles could drive up it as is usually the case!
It’s pretty common–human nature perhaps?–for skiers & boarders to ride all day and save their biggest adventures for right at closing, when everyone’s the most tired and it’s closest to option-limiting darkness. Don’t be so attached to your "goal" that you overlook environmental factors that can turn an adventure into a tragedy. Luckily THESE guys were hearty and everything turned out OK.!