'I was like ready to just let myself freeze': Lost skier describes harrowing survival story
VANCOUVER -- Mark Gayowski was skiing Red Mountain alone last Monday, planning to get a few runs in before watching the new Star Wars movie with friends, when he decided to explore a new area.
But before he did, he had an impulse that he should call his mother.
“For whatever reason, I don’t know why, I called my mom when I was going up the chairlift,” Gayowski told CTV News in a Skype interview. “I called her so she had an idea of where I was going.”
HIs mother asked that he text her when he was finished so she’d know he was OK – but that text never came.
Gayowski said he “ducked under a rope” heading out of bounds for the run, and ended up getting lost just 300 metres from a road.
“It was just all cliff face and I couldn’t get out,” he said. He was near a creek and followed that down the mountain, but the snow was too deep and there was thick brush all around him.
For the next 24 hours, Gayowski hiked up and down the mountain along the creek, looking for a way out.
“I had no supplies, no light or anything.”
Meanwhile, RCMP and Red Mountain had been alerted that Gayowski never came home. Crews mobilized and began searching the area he’d told his mom he was going to try.
Mike Hudson of South Columbia Search and Rescue said a total of nine teams with 90 members worked to find Gayowski in what he described as "pretty extreme and even horrific terrain."
When the sun came out on Tuesday, Gayowski began trying to hike again, moving to stay warm. But the weather turned, and heavy snow began to fall.
“I just couldn’t go any higher and I wasn’t sure because I couldn’t see. I wasn’t exactly sure I was going the right way,” he said. By then his gloves had soaked through so he took them off, and he lost them in the dark.
Frozen, hungry and exhausted, Gayowski told CTV News he felt it was time to give up.
“I ended up taking my jacket off and I was like ready to just let myself freeze,” he said. “I just screamed out. ‘Just take me then!’”
In thinking of his mom, friends and rest of his family, Gayowski mustered the strength to try and hike back down along the creek once more, hoping to find warmer temperatures lower down.
He said he just had to keep going, “because that’s the only way I might make it is if I just keep walking.”
Gayowski found a place under some trees that blocked some of the falling snow, and huddled for his second night lost.
“I pulled my arms in out of my sleeves and wrapped them around myself and then I stuck my head up into my jacket. And I was able to create a little bit of heat just with my breath inside my jacket.”
When the sun came up on Wednesday – New Year's Day – Gayowski decided to try again to find his tracks, and hike back up into the alpine. He was deliriously exhausted, and had been hearing voices and seeing things that weren’t there.
“I was like dragging my feet. My knees hurt so bad I couldn’t lift my feet up."
He said he was yelling at himself and his legs, to try to keep moving and then, “I heard something as I was yelling.”
Hudson told CTV News one of his crews, “managed to get a voice contact from someone without being able to physically see him.”
Everyone out searching went silent, so they could listen.
“I yelled some more,” said Gayowski, “but I was telling myself by then that ‘Oh you’re just hearing things again. Don’t get your hopes up because you’re just going to get disappointed.’”
But help had in fact arrived. “Within about 10 minutes from there they confirmed they had made contact,” said Hudson.
“That was… oh my God, what a feeling,” expressed Gayowski.
And while he was sore and exhausted, and hadn't ha danything to drink in days, luck was on his side. They were close to an emergency landing pad for helicopters, and the snow had stopped so they could launch.
“When we got to him he was surprisingly in really good health. And he was very happy to see us, for sure,” said Hudson.
When rescuers dropped him back at Red Mountain, Gayowski said he could hear skiers cheering as he rushed to hug his mom.
“Everybody was crying and hugging,” he said, calling it a “pretty happy moment.”
Gayowski was taken to hospital, but other than dehydration and exhaustion he suffered only bruises and cuts from tumbles he’d taken in his quest to find help.
“I was lucky I didn’t lose any fingers or toes or anything. I don’t even have frost bite.”
Now recovering back at his parents’ home in Rossland, Gayowski told CTV News he learned a lot from the experience.
Gayowski does not have any avalanche safety training, and was not properly equipped to be in the back country.
“I ducked under a rope, which is really dumb. I’m not going to lie about that,” he admitted.
Now, he's warning others to “be mindful, be educated, know where you are, and it’s not a joke. I took it lightly and it’s definitely not a joke up there.”
Gayowski told CTV News he plans to take an avalanche course in the coming months, and hopes to volunteer with the SAR team that saved his life.