Monday, February 24, 2003
Steamboat Springs Ann Vail lost her way in the backcountry Sunday without food, water or a way to call for help.
She decided her best chance to survive was to keep moving.
"I just kept on hiking," she said. "I didn't even know if anybody was looking for me."
The 25-year-old Steamboat Springs woman was still moving when Steamboat Ski Patrol caught up with her around noon Monday southeast of the Steamboat Ski Area.
Vail was cold, tired and dehydrated, but she walked away from the experience with only a touch of frostbite on her toes.
"I'm lucky," she said.
Vail's employer reported her missing late Sunday afternoon when she didn't show up for her 3 p.m. shift at Breeze Ski Rentals.
Vail, who often snowboards in the backcountry, exited the ski area on snowshoes through an access point along the Tomahawk ski run.
Search teams found her just beyond Tomahawk. She had managed to cross two ridges to the right of the run and loop back.
Vail realized she was lost shortly after leaving the ski area. Heavy snowfall covered other earlier tracks and left her disoriented, she said.
Search teams were called out Sunday evening. Inclement weather and potential avalanche conditions forced the teams to call off the search around midnight, Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke said. Rescuers resumed their search at 6 a.m. Monday.
Routt County Search and Rescue and Ski Patrol focused on a section of Routt National Forest -- locally referred to as the Bog and the Golf Course fields -- to the left of the top of the Pony Express lift line. Rescue teams relied on suggestions from friends as to where Vail might have gone riding.
A call Monday morning from someone who claimed to see Vail leaving the ski area through the access point along Tomahawk drew search teams to the area she was reportedly last seen.
"That basically shifted all of our resources over," Search and Rescue member Scott Havener said.
Vail was found about an hour and a half after search teams received the tip, Kohnke said.
Family members were contacted Sunday evening that Vail was missing. They were waiting with Vail's friends and coworkers at the bottom of the ski area when Ski Patrol brought her down on a sled.
Relieved smiles and thankful hugs greeted the rescued snowboarder.
"You scared me," someone in the welcoming party said.
"I scared me," Vail said. "I've never experienced anything like that."
Flushed cheeks and apparent exhaustion were the only visible signs of Vail's backcountry mishap.
Her clothing stayed dry through the ordeal. She stayed warm by constantly moving. The snowboard she lugged behind her became a dry place to sit when she needed to rest.
Her water bottle froze, so Vail ate snow. She sought shelter from the weather in tree wells, but would only doze off for a few minutes before moving again.
Vail recognized the sound of groomers on Tomahawk Sunday evening, but she didn't know how far away the machines were.
"It was crazy," Vail said.
Rescuers said Vail was fortunate to have survived the experience in such good condition.
But they encouraged riders and skiers to avoid venturing into the backcountry alone. Winter enthusiasts should be prepared for extreme conditions and should let other people know where and when they are going, Kohnke said.
Vail said she would take a few days off from snowboarding and bring along a friend the next time she ventures into the backcountry.
"It all seems to have a happy ending," her father Kevin Vail said.