Skier shares harrowing story of night out in Gunnison County backcountry
January 24, 2018
A Boulder man who got lost Saturday while backcountry skiing near Marble and then self-rescued Sunday said he had made “multiple bad decisions” that resulted in him skiing about 18 miles over 28 hours in the Raggeds Wilderness and gutting out a night in the high mountains.
Greg Berry, 47, said Tuesday he got lost after skinning up the slopes and getting enticed by some ski tracks that led him away from his intended route down. Those skiers ended up skinning back up to the top of the slope, something Berry, who has an extensive skiing background, wasn’t prepared to do. He planned to keep skiing down the slope and return to the trailhead even if it was more circuitous than he originally planned.
After he realized he was lost, he said, clouds rolled in and made it difficult to reorient himself. He ended up heading southwest rather than skiing north to the trailhead outside of Marble.
During a long slog of roughly 12 additional hours that carried into Saturday night and Sunday morning, Berry encountered a brief snow shower that, at the time, had the makings of a perilous situation.
“I had a blizzard for about 10 minutes,” he recounted in a phone interview. “I said, ‘Wow, this is really trouble.'”
Fortunately the squall blew over. Berry kept pressing through dense spruce and fir forests until his second light ran out of power. Pressing on was another in a series of mistakes, he said, because by that time he had passed by huge pine trees that provided good shelter and fuel for a fire. In survival mode, he kept going to a place where the trees were smaller and he had little energy to create a good bivvy.
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In a Facebook post detailing the ordeal, Berry wrote, “Due to this deep exhaustion, I was not able to get a fire started. Instead I hunkered down, sitting on my pack, with my back to the tree. I pulled out the space blanket, tied it to my lower legs, and pulled it up and over my head, wrapping down to my back and under my butt.”
He used one of two hand warmers later in the night to try to warm up. He alternated placed it under his armpits and on the back of his neck. It was a long night of waiting for light, he said.
He was recovering Tuesday from mild frostbite on fingers and possibly some toes. He said he was able to keep his composure while out in the wilds.
“It’s in my nature,” he said by phone call Tuesday.
He was uncertain of the temperatures, but said it wasn’t brutally cold thanks to the storm that was blowing through.
“It was surprisingly warm for that time of night in the mountains,” he said.
Once moving, he came across a pair of boot tracks that had been faint the night before but that he had decided not to follow. This time he decided to stick with them because he surmised they would continue down drainage to a trailhead. He was right, but he said it was still six hours of bushwhacking to get to where a snowmobiler had parked a vehicle and trailer.
The lack of snow made for tougher travel than what would probably be the case in a normal winter. Berry said he encountered a lot of downfall in the drainage.
Eventually, he came out at Erickson Springs, a campground and trailhead for the Dark Canyon hike off the Kebler Pass Road.
“I still didn’t actually know where I was,” he said by phone. “Of course, the first thing I did was use the pit toilet.”
The snowmobilers returned to their vehicle about 30 minutes after Berry arrived and gave him a ride to Paonia, where he had friends. Berry was about 35 miles, by road, from his car in Marble when he reached Erickson Springs. His friends in Paonia fed him and got him warmed up and then reunited him with his group back at Avalanche Ranch.
Berry titled his Facebook post, “Some Who Wander Are Lost.” It is a very detailed account of his ordeal and loaded with humility.
“In the backcountry ski/mountaineering circles, there’s an ethic that we share our mistakes to help others learn, and to avoid future repeats of this mistake,” he wrote.
Berry gets into detail about his mistakes in hopes that someone else will avoid similar steps. His post is available to the public.
Berry said he was extremely sorry for the worry he caused his friends and family, and the effort he caused Mountain Rescue Aspen and other search-and-rescue organizations. When he failed to show up Saturday at Avalanche Ranch, a friend called the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office, which mobilized the West Elks Search and Rescue out of Paonia and the Crested Butte Search and Rescue. They sought aid from Mountain Rescue Aspen since many members of the Aspen group know the terrain of Marble well.
Some of his friends and the search organizations spent Sunday looking for him. They learned late Sunday afternoon he was safe.
Berry wrote he would make a “substantial” donation to Colorado Search and Rescue and Mountain Rescue Aspen. He said he wasn’t billed for the incident. He also will make donations to Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
During the phone interview, Berry said he is familiar with the work of Mountain Rescue Aspen and admires their skills and dedication.
“These guys do an amazing job on not much of a budget,” he said.
In his outline of mistakes, Berry said he continued on his trip after a friend canceled due to a stiff neck. That wasn’t necessarily a bad choice, he said. Once at the trailhead outside of Marble, he altered his objective when he spotted tracks made by other skiers skinning up. That decision also was acceptable if he stuck to that ski track, he said.
Once he topped out, he planned to ski a line within sight of the ski tracks from the climb and return to his starting point. However, after 20 yards, he got enticed by tracks heading into what looked like a great line.
“Was it a mistake to follow tracks down a slope that was not the same one I had committed to? Why, yes, yes it was,” Berry wrote in a self-deprecating manner.
At the bottom of a pitch he learned the other skiers had reapplied skins and climbed back up the slope. Berry said he didn’t have the energy to do that and he thought he could ski back to Marble by following a drainage.
His biggest mistake of the day was not making that climb, he said. His main advice to others in a similar situation is to stop when you are at a point where you “might” be lost and retrace your steps until you are certain where you are again.
He said he also will make the investment in a spot beacon, a GPS-based transmitting device that can send out pre-programmed message to designated people and can alert authorities about an incident.
Berry was fortunate that he had limited food, moderate layers and minimal emergency supplies, including the space blanket. He said he would never go out again without being fully stocked.
On his Facebook post, Berry said he was focused and, most of the time, at peace. The experience reinforced his love for solo time in wilderness, he wrote.
“I’ll be more prepared the next time,” he wrote, “but, friends, I’m sorry that I’m not going to promise to always go out with a partner.”