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Lost Skier Describes Ordeal in Cascades


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SEATTLE, WA, Jan. 9, 2004 (AP by Gene Johnson) — His fingers and toes blistered and blackened by frostbite, Dan Witkowski stumbled deliriously during his last day in the wilderness, sometimes believing he was at home instead of lost in the Cascade Range.

His body temperature had fallen to 89 degrees, and he had lost 20 pounds. He wasn’t sure if he had slept. He remembers almost nothing except the whirring of the helicopter that reached him just a few hours before he would have died Sunday.

Witkowski spoke publicly Friday for the first time since his five-day, four-night ordeal in the backcountry near Alpental ski area about 40 miles east of Seattle. It began the morning of New Year’s Eve, when the 25-year-old extreme skier plunged down an out-of-bounds chute he had never skied before and soon lost all sense of direction.

“The last couple of days were kind of hopeless,” he said, flanked by his doctor and family during a news conference at Harborview Medical Center. “I couldn’t stand up or think very well. … I just didn’t want to die. I didn’t want my parents to have to put me in the ground.”

Witkowski has been in the hospital all week. He was expected to be released Saturday morning, and his doctors, who heated his hands and feet by soaking them in warm water, plan to monitor him over the next several months.

Most likely, Dr. David Heimbach said, a few of his fingertips and toes will have to be amputated because of the frostbite. Nevertheless, Heimbach said, Witkowski should be back on the slopes next season.

“It’s a testament to how well you can do when you’re young and healthy,” Heimbach said.

Witkowski, of Ellensburg in central Washington, began skiing by himself at Alpental Dec. 31. He soon decided to ski out-of-bounds, as he often did.

He skied north along a ridge and then sailed down a chute. When he reached the valley below, he knew he was lost, but figured that if he kept heading downhill, he’d be OK.

But Witkowski had no food, not so much as an energy bar. He tried to keep moving to maintain his temperature, never stopping for long because whenever he did he began shaking. Eventually, he covered about 10 miles, though he was found only five miles from the ski area.

About 20 inches of snow fell during the time he was missing, so the scores of rescuers had trouble finding tracks. It was only when the weather cleared Sunday and helicopters were able to fly over the area that he was spotted.

Witkowski had been working as a dishwasher, but won’t be able to do that for a while. He hopes instead to return to Central Washington University and earn a degree — in what, he’s not sure.

One thing he is sure of: He will be back on the slopes.

“I’m definitely going to go back. I’m going to be safer,” he said. “At the time, it didn’t seem that stupid. … If I go out of bounds, I’ll have my gear, and I’ll have my friends with me.”

Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press