We went from being heroic survivors to jerks in two days. I'm very sensitive to that. I was not prepared to see myself called a jerk in the media.
—ELLIOT BROWN, one of seven skiers who beat death in the Colorado backcountry last week
On Friday, Feb. 19, the skiers disappeared into the rugged mountains just south of Aspen, stubbornly (and, some said, stupidly) bound for a weekend trek despite forecasts of fierce weather and warnings of avalanche danger. Two of them fought their way out the following day, but the other five remained missing for another four days and three nights despite a massive search over a vast area that was pounded almost constantly by blizzards. Hope drained away. Sheriff Bob Braudis of Pitkin County began to refer to them as Popsicles, and eventually he told reporters, "We are using real, live rescuers to search for probable dead bodies." Then suddenly, on Tuesday, Feb. 23, the five were found alive.
On the day they reappeared they were America's media darlings, basking in heroic headlines (MIRACLE IN THE MOUNTAINS blared the Rocky Mountain News) and live network adoration from the likes of Ted Koppel and Tom Brokaw. "We're a little bit embarrassed," Ken Torp, the group leader, told TV reporters. "We feel a little like errant schoolchildren, but we're elated to be alive."
The following day the climate changed abruptly. A large part of Colorado's mountaineering and skiing community publicly branded the skiers as fools, idiots and, yes, jerks for entering such treacherous terrain in such fearsome weather. A headline in the Rocky Mountain News bellowed, SKIERS BLUNDERED, RESCUE LEADER SAYS. The Aspen Daily News ran an editorial saying the survivors had exhibited "the brain capacity of arctic lichen."
Ah, but then came the third day, when the skiers found relief by deciding to sell their story to Hollywood. Now they could refuse to talk to the media, with the excuse that they wanted to preserve the exclusivity of their experience, sign on with the William Morris Agency and sit back to wait for producers to bid for the rights to their story. In these days of rampant Amy Fisher opportunism, this has come to seem like a normal part of the American dream. How the skiers' story would translate to the screen remains to be seen, but there are more than enough thrills and chills to captivate any audience.
Their point of departure on the morning of Feb. 19 was the ghost town of Ashcroft, 11 miles south of Aspen. Their destination was the Goodwin-Greene hut, located at 11,800 feet, about seven miles up Express Creek. Ordinarily this trip would not have been difficult for skiers as expert as these.
Torp, 50, the leader, has climbed Mount McKinley and is a frequent backcountry skier. Once the chief of staff for former Colorado governor Richard Lamm, Torp now works as supervisor of the Denver Center for Public-Private Cooperation at the University of Colorado. Lamm called him "half Thoreau and half daredevil." Elliot Brown, 43, a metallurgist, is a fine technical mountain climber who skis most weekends in the backcountry. Rob Dubin, 39, and his wife and partner in a video production company, Dee, 47, had already made three backcountry trips this winter. He has climbed Mount McKinley and toured in the Himalayas. She does a lot of winter mountaineering. Brigitte Schluger, 50, an art gallery owner, is a seasoned skier. Richard Rost, 34, a contractor, and Andrea Brett, 42, who works for Torp, are experienced skiers.
As they prepared their equipment at the trailhead, a local resident, Saville Ryan, skied down through heavy snow from her cabin about a mile up the trail. "I couldn't believe they were going into the backcountry," Ryan says. "So I went over and asked in a very calm voice if they knew the whole area was posted for severe avalanche danger. One man, Elliot Brown, said yes and added, 'Express Creek is always a crapshoot.' One of the women, Dee Dubin, said quite sharply to Brown, 'Well, thanks for telling us!' Then I asked if they had any communication equipment with them, and Rob Dubin said they had avalanche beacons. This time Dee Dubin said very nicely to me, 'Thanks for asking us.' "
Doug Bitterman, operations manager for the nearby Ashcroft Ski Touring Center, saw them leave and radioed the center to ask if the seven had been warned of the conditions. Told that they had, he cracked, "That's going to be the Rescue of the Year." Later, he explained his prescience: "Their whole trip was a profile in what not to do. First, they started late—10 in the morning. Second, a big storm was rolling in. Third, the avalanche conditions were the worst in maybe 100 years."
Later, at a press conference, Rob Dubin defended the decision to ignore these warnings, saying, "I would probably assume our experience is about 100 times their [his critics'] experience, because we know what we're doing." However, he also admitted, "We did have a little bit more cavalier attitude than we should have had." True enough. They were carrying only two winter-weight sleeping bags, one stove, no insulated sleeping pads and no tents.
The weather turned worse as the day progressed. At dusk the skiers, who would normally have reached their destination by then, were still moving through a blizzard. They had made a critical navigational error that turned them from the proper, east-northeast direction toward the south. They tried to dig a snow cave to protect themselves during the night, but the cave collapsed. The weary group slept in an open snow pit, and by morning some were treacherously wet. The blizzard had thickened to a whiteout, and the skiers agreed they should return as quickly as possible to the trailhead at Ashcroft.
Rost, the youngest member of the group, argued for heading back down the way they had come. Torp and Brown, the strongest skiers in the group, wanted to scout out another route back to Express Creek. Rost argued that it was too difficult for the female skiers. But Torp insisted on looking at the tougher route. He and Brown vanished into the blizzard, skied over a ridge and later, after looking at a compass, found they were heading southeast to Taylor Park Reservoir when they should have been going northwest to Express Creek. Rob Dubin afterward said that he believed Torp and Brown were going to reconnoiter the alternate route and then return to advise the others. "We waited for an hour and a half in the cold and the wind, then we decided to move on," Dubin said.
The skiers had broken the most basic backcountry commandment: Stay together, no matter what. As the remaining five members of the party moved on, the Dubins and Schluger, descending behind Rost and Brett, fell farther and farther behind and then mistakenly took a turn in the opposite direction. Now the commandment had been broken twice.
Rost and Brett made it to the trailhead by 4:30 p.m. Michael Vigil, caretaker at the Toklat Art Gallery in Ashcroft, described their arrival: "They staggered in, disoriented and shocked, and we called the rescue people immediately to tell them about the five other people missing. These two were so worried about their friends. 'They're goners,' they kept saying. We bathed them and fed them, and they cried a little together over how their friends might have to die."
The next day, Sunday, Feb. 21, the search for the other five skiers began. By then all of them had spent a second night without shelter. As Torp told the Associated Press, "Elliot and I made a bivouac above the Dorchester [Bureau of Land Management] cabin at around 10,500 feet. Elliot at that point had a very wet sleeping bag that was providing no insulation. So we talked all night and flexed muscles. We'd start with calf muscles, then go to thigh muscles, and then abdominal muscles to keep the circulation going in our bodies." When asked what they talked about, Torp replied, "That if we ever get out of here, we're going to be good people."
The promise of good behavior seemed to work: On Sunday the two men found the BLM cabin. They stayed there through the night, and the next morning Torp wrote a note addressed to "USFS/Whomever." It had an oddly funereal tone: "Elliot Brown and Ken Torp arrived here at 11 am on 2/21/93; we are in something of an emergency situation." He explained that they had left five others behind and that Brown had several frostbitten fingers and Torp had one. "Our plan is to ski all the way to Taylor Park Res. on 2/22. The snow is deep. The trail unpacked.... We have food for one day. We apologize for using the cabin, and for any residual mess. We have damaged nothing." They left at 8 a.m. on Monday.
The Dubins and Schluger were now lost along roughly the same route that Torp and Brown had taken. Both women were frostbitten, wet and weakened. Schluger had dropped her pack, along with her sopping-wet sleeping bag, on Saturday. For the next two nights Dee Dubin gave her sleeping bag to Schluger and crawled in with her husband. She was suffering. "Dee had got cold on day two," says Rob Dubin. "I had gaiters that attach to my boots, but Dee's were not as good and were not well attached. Snow got in her boots and the gaiters froze. On the second and third mornings I had to help Dee and Brigitte put on their gaiters. That night I pulled Dee's foot out of her boot, and her sock was frozen to the inside of the boot. Her foot felt like a chunk of wood. I woke her up 30 times during the night and told her to flex her fingers and toes so they wouldn't freeze."
Miraculously, they came upon the same cabin only two hours after Torp and Brown had left it. Unable to find firewood, Rob Dubin broke up furniture for the stove. "Dee and Brigitte warmed their feet in the cook stove," he says. "We left the door open, and they put their feet in it. When I started working on Dee's feet, I could see three colors: pink toward the heel, purple at the arch and gray or ghastly-white toes. I used a pen to mark her foot between the pink and purple areas. Each time the purple moved back toward her toes, I would mark the progress."
While the Dubins and Schluger spent Monday night in the cabin, Torp and Brown curled up on the protected porch of a house near the north end of Taylor Park Reservoir. The men were dry and knew exactly where they were, and on Tuesday morning snowmobilers found them while they were skiing to a trading post at the other end of the reservoir. Torp called 911 on a pay phone. He then phoned his girlfriend, Candyce Jeffrey, in Denver and was shocked to hear of the vast search that had been under way since Sunday. And he was crushed to learn that the Dubins and Schluger were still missing and that a helicopter had spotted the blue backpack and sleeping bag discarded on Saturday by Schluger. To Torp that added up to catastrophe: "That was almost a sure set of facts. The three of them were in an avalanche." Searchers had begun to assume that too. Eighty of them were out on skis, snowshoes, snowmobiles, snowcats, planes and helicopters. Six feet of snow had fallen in the mountains in the five days the skiers had been out, and another winter storm was roaring in that afternoon. There was only a small window of time in which aircraft would be able to fly over the search area. An Army Chinook helicopter from Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, had made it over the 12,000-foot Continental Divide on Tuesday morning after having been turned back twice because of weather. Rescue supervisor Tim Cochrane, who was in the area near the Goodwin-Greene hut, gave directions to the pilot. "I had seen some tracks going into the trees," says Cochrane, "and I had a particular area I wanted the copter to look." The Chinook swung over a ridge, and crew members quickly picked up ski tracks. They led to the cabin where the Dubins and Schluger were waiting.
Now everyone was safe, and the euphoria kicked in. The helicopter flew the trio to Aspen. Rob Dubin walked unassisted into the bear hugs of his two sobbing brothers, but the frostbitten women arrived on stretchers and were soon flown to Denver's Presbyterian/St. Luke's Hospital for the long, painful process of determining whether they would lose any of their frostbitten appendages to amputation. A few fingers and both of Dee Dubin's feet were in danger. The women immediately began treatments in the hospital's hyperbaric chamber, which sends 20 times more oxygen than normal into the bloodstream in order to revive cells damaged by freezing. It would be two weeks before they knew the outcome.
Meanwhile Torp and Brown arrived from Gunnison, 40 miles away, in a Lear jet provided by the local NBC-TV affiliate, and everyone blossomed in the radiance of the blazing media sun—but briefly. Even as Rob Dubin and Torp schmoozed with Koppel, there were rumblings of anger in the mountains about the group's behavior. The next day the critics were in full cry—some even insisting that the skiers pay whatever amount the search was expected to cost. Charley Shimanski, regional chairman of the Mountain Rescue Association, quickly put the kibosh on that demand, saying, "Search-and-rescue organizations do not charge people for their services, and it is a dangerous idea to spread around. We do not want some low-income couple who have lost a child during a picnic to hesitate in calling for help for fear they will be charged thousands of dollars. No one will ever be forced to pay." At week's end Torp said he and the other skiers would try to raise money to pay for the rescue.
Though there was bitterness among some rescuers, there was also admiration for the skiers' wilderness skills. Norbert Anthes, an Aspen area resident, says, "They made a grave judgment error, but they did a fantastic job to get out alive. To me, however, the only real hero is Rob Dubin, who stayed with the two women. The rule of the mountains is you only go as fast as the slowest person in your group. He's the only one who did that."
Only one hero? Maybe in real life. But it is safe to say that once the Hollywood hype kicks in and the suits at William Morris have the rights money in the bank and the script is in its eighth rewrite, you can be sure every one of the seven skiers will be covered with some kind of glory. Certainly, there will be no jerks.
The Dubins and Schluger reached the Dorchester cabin at 10 a.m. Monday and were found at 2:20 p.m. Tuesday. Distance: 10 miles
Route Rost and Brett took to Ashcroft, arriving 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Distance: 5 miles
Route Torp and Brown took to Taylor Park Reservoir. They called 911 at 11:45 a.m. Tuesday. Distance: 20 miles
Castle Creek Road to Aspen
Richmond Hill to Aspen Mountain
Spot where the seven campers spent Friday night together. Distances given are from this site.
Dorchester BLM cabin
Taylor Park Reservoir