This B.C. Skier Got Lost in a Snowstorm—Could Rescuers Find Him in Time?

Mark Gayowski took an unmarked ski trail into a deep ravine. Every attempt at escape only left him more lost.

Mark Gayowski on Red MountainPhoto: Kari Medig
Gayowski has skied B.C.’s Red Mountain since he was a kid.

Mark Gayowski was determined to squeeze as much fun as he could out of the last days of the year. Shortly after 9 a.m. on December 30, 2019, the 34-year-old Rossland, B.C., carpenter said goodbye to his roommate and headed to nearby Red Mountain, one of North America’s oldest ski resorts. He planned to ski all morning, followed by an afternoon watching the latest Star Wars movie with a friend.

Gayowski had spent his youth at the ski resort; its three peaks towered over the town. He knew the 119 ski runs as well as anyone. But it was the challenge of the routes that weren’t marked on the trail maps that appealed to him the most.

By 10 a.m. he’d clicked into his skis and pushed off for the first run of the day. For two hours, he cut tracks all over the mountainside. Then he got on the lift for one last ride up the mountain.

The chairlift hummed as it ferried him to the resort’s easterly peak. Gayowski pulled out his phone and called his mother, Cindy Reich.

Reich, a 56-year-old retired figure-skating coach, lived in Rossland with Gayowski’s stepfather, Raymond. She and her son spoke nearly every day. He told her how he’d spotted what looked like untouched powder in the unkempt bush that ran down the far side of the 2,048-metre-high mountain. He planned to follow it for a few minutes, then return to a run lower down and glide back to the parking lot.

She listened, then wandered to a whiteboard in her kitchen and pulled out a marker. She’d suffered a concussion in a bike crash four years earlier and hadn’t trusted her memory ever since. Following her mother’s instinct, she wrote the name of the trail and peak on the whiteboard: “Left of Unknown Legend, Kirkup side.” She asked him to call or text her when he finished the run.

“I will,” he replied. Then he put his phone back in his pocket, slipped on his gloves, got off the chair and began gliding along the left side of a steep trail for experienced skiers, looking for the ideal point to dip into the trees.

He found his spot alongside fresh ski tracks next to an out-of-bounds sign. He ducked under the rope barrier, lowered his goggles and snaked his way through the alders and pines, dodging cliffs and boulders and descending deeper and deeper into a ravine. It took a while for him to realize that he may overshoot his planned exit. Then the snow beneath his skis grew thin and the brush thicker. Soon there was no way for him to ski around the logs and downed branches that boxed him in.

Gayowski slid to a stop and took a look around. He’d lost the fresh ski tracks he’d started with almost as soon as he’d gone into the bush. He’d veered so far off-course that he was now stuck 1,500 metres into a ravine, with no easily discernible exit. He pulled out his phone and found that it had no service. He clicked out of his skis and looked back up the mountain. The climb was too daunting.

He could feel the weather starting to change as he slowly made his way down deeper into the ravine. The winds were picking up, and clouds gathered overhead. Then the snow began to fall. He didn’t yet realize how much trouble he was in.

Shortly after he left the main trail, Gayowski realized he’d overshot his exitPhoto: Kari Medig
Shortly after he left the main trail, Gayowski realized he’d overshot his exit.

Reich wondered why her son hadn’t texted or called to let her know he’d finished his run. She credited it to forgetfulness, but as the hours passed and he failed to reply to her half-dozen texts, she began to worry. She called him but got his voicemail. She knew he’d been planning to meet a friend that afternoon for a movie, so she reassured herself that he’d turned the phone off and was just sitting in a theatre. At 5:00 p.m., when she still couldn’t reach him, she drove to her son’s apartment to make sure he’d made it off the mountain.

Gayowski’s roommate was perplexed when Reich knocked on the door—he’d received a call from Gayowski’s friend earlier that afternoon, when he didn’t show up at the theatre to catch the movie. It wasn’t like Gayowski to just disappear unannounced. Outside, it was -3 C and already dark. Reich looked toward the mountain, began to panic and called her husband. They agreed it was time to call 911.

While they waited for the search and rescue teams to arrive, Raymond and a group of Gayowski’s friends raced around the base of the mountain on their snowmobiles, looking for him. But it was too dark, and the snowfall was too heavy—they gave up and planned to return the next morning.

Mike Hudson, a 41-year-old heavy-equipment operator and a volunteer search-and-rescue manager in the neighbouring village of Fruitvale, was just starting to unwind for the evening when his phone started to buzz. It was a call from the Emergency Coordination Centre in Victoria, asking if he could lead a mission to find a missing skier. The missing man’s mother had passed along information about where he’d planned to ski. The case was urgent: a metre of snow would fall on the area over the next 48 hours.

Early on the morning of December 31, he arrived at the mountain with a unit command centre—an eight-metre cargo trailer complete with multiple work terminals to log radio transmissions, document clues and co-ordinate the movements of rescuers. The terminals connected to a larger screen used primarily for viewing topographical maps.

Then word came down from the top of the mountain. There had been a positive sighting of what were believed to be Gayowski’s initial tracks heading out of bounds, more or less where he had told his mother he planned to ski. They were disappearing fast beneath the falling snow.

Mike Hudson in his rescue command centrePhoto: Kari Medig
Mike Hudson in his rescue command centre

During his first 12 hours in the ravine, Gayowski wandered deeper, reaching a creek that he assumed would ultimately take him to a roadway. His phone battery died, and he’d abandoned his bulky skis three hours into the ordeal. He was willing to let his skis spend eternity on the side of the ravine if it meant he could get out alive.

He’d travelled roughly four kilometres on foot but wasn’t sure how far he was from civilization. The ruggedness of the forest around the creek’s shoreline forced him to cross the stream in order to keep moving forward. He had to wade shin deep through the water. The temperature still hovered around -3 C, and his feet and legs were soaked.

Gayowski was hardened to the cold, having spent eight years building pipelines on the frozen tracts of northern Alberta. But he’d dressed lightly that day in a Gore-Tex jacket. He knew he had to keep moving or he’d risk hypothermia. He was parched from exertion but also knew he couldn’t consume snow to rehydrate, as it would just lower his core temperature even further.

By 2 a.m. on December 31, after he’d followed the creek for what felt like forever, Gayowski gave up any hope of finding his way out of the ravine by pushing forward. He decided that the only way to get out was to turn around, retrace his steps, and head back up the ravine toward the peak.

All through the rest of the night he climbed. When daylight broke, he saw that the falling snow was starting to fill in the tracks he’d been following. He quickened his pace, but it didn’t matter. By mid-morning they’d disappeared. He was so disoriented that he was no longer sure if he was really making progress up the steep incline.

He threw away his soaking gloves. His fingers were pruney, his hands numb. He pulled them inside his coat for warmth. By late afternoon, his legs were beginning to give out on him, his feet raw and blistering after more than 30 hours of hard trekking in ski boots.

Gayowski’s mind had been playing tricks on him for hours, filling his head with visions and sounds of salvation—a building, a person, a shadow. It was never anything more than a tree or a boulder. Exhausted and defeated, he pulled off his jacket, lay down in the snow and waited for his breathing to slow and his body to freeze.

Bc Skier Lost On Red Mountain Rescue TeamCourtesy of Mike Hudson
A rescuer searching for Gayowski

Hudson had dispatched two teams of four rescuers into the ravine at 7 a.m. on the morning of December 31, while Gayowski was still trying to find his way back up the ravine. One team had descended from the top of the mountain, trying to mimic Gayowski’s initial trajectory, while the second team moved in on snowshoes and trail skis from the mountain’s base, navigating their way along the creek.

Hudson had started the day feeling optimistic because he had a general sense of where Gayowski was. But as the hours slipped by, it became clear that none of his rescuers were going to be able to penetrate deep enough into the ravine to actually locate him.

As daylight began to fade, the chances of Gayowski’s surviving a second night alone on the mountain were grim. Hudson looked over to Gayowski’s mother and stepfather, who had joined him at the command centre that afternoon. He told them what they didn’t want to hear: that the day’s search was coming to an end. The conditions were just too difficult to navigate.

Cindy and Raymond nodded silently; they could see how hard Hudson’s team had been working to try to locate their son. They exited the command centre, made their way through a crowd of skiers at the base of the hill and started for home.

Hudson looked at weather patterns for the coming day. He could see that the storm should be gone by morning. But he also knew that by morning there would only be around a 30 per cent chance that Gayowski would still be alive.

Red Mountain in British ColumbiaPhoto: Kari Medig
Skiers go missing on the mountain each year.

It was thoughts of not wanting to leave his parents broken-hearted that led Gayowski to open his eyes, brush the snow from his body and pull his jacket back over his torso.

The darkness was setting in again. He needed to keep moving. He had no idea how far he’d climbed or how much further there was to go, so he gave up and, thinking it’d be easier than more climbing, began to once again head back down into the ravine.

For another eight hours, he descended in the dark and arrived back at the creek, where the snow was wet and thick. New Year’s Eve came and went. By 2 a.m. he was completely depleted. He hunkered down under a thick tree, pulled his arms inside the body of his jacket and tucked his head beneath his collar to warm himself with his breath. Then he lay on a log and tried to sleep.

At daybreak, Hudson returned to the command centre to prepare his teams for another push. This time, a group of three would follow a ridgeline until they were about midway up the mountain and then veer right into the ravine. All the while, another group waited on the gravel road near the creek’s exit beside a campfire, just in case Gayowski came close enough to smell or see the smoke. Gayowski’s friends continued to run their snowmobiles back and forth along the road, hoping he might hear them and find his way out.

Gayowski’s parents sat at home on a couch next to the phone, feelings of helplessness gave way to hopelessness. His mother had spent much of the night updating Gayowski’s sister, Ayla, who had been on vacation in Mexico and was catching an early flight home.

The phone rang. No news. It was only a member of Hudson’s team asking Reich to describe specific details about her son’s appearance—tattoos, scars, missing teeth. It wasn’t until she hung up the phone and processed the call that she understood why they might need to know.

Warning sign on Red Mountain in B.C.Courtesy of Mike Hudson
Skiers are warned about dangers.

Sunlight filtered through the trees in the ravine. Gayowski poked his head out from inside his jacket and looked up into the sky. It was New Year’s Day. While he was still lost, he was grateful to be alive. He sat upright on the log and wiggled his toes inside his ski boots. His feet and legs ached. He looked around and took stock of his surroundings.

For the next four hours, he struggled to move forward through knee-deep snow. He had to wrap his hands around his thighs and use them to lift his legs. At some point, he stopped and screamed out in anger. It took a few moments for him to realize that the shouts coming back in his direction weren’t just an echo. Then he saw three figures on skis in the distance, closing in fast. He wanted to run toward them, but it was taking almost all of his energy just to stand. He could hear them yelling out his name. He was in tears by the time they reached him.

After his ordeal, Gayowski began training to join a search-and-rescue teamPhoto: Kari Medig
After his ordeal, Gayowski began training to join a search-and-rescue team.

The phone rang. Reich picked up, listened to the words coming out of the receiver and shouted to her husband.

“They found him!”

She braced herself and asked: “Is he alive?”

Minutes later, she was back at the mountain, flanked by Raymond and Ayla, listening to a radio crackling with her son’s location as the rescue team made their way to a small clearing where a helicopter could touch down. It felt like forever before they heard the helicopter cutting through the sky over their own heads. They stepped outside and ran toward it, catching Gayowski moments after he stepped out on his own two feet.

For the next three days, his family kept vigil by his hospital bed. He’d suffered tissue damage to his feet and muscle fatigue. He convalesced at his mother’s home for two more weeks.

A year later, he realizes that he may have died alone in the snow if he hadn’t thought to call his mother from the ski lift. And if he hadn’t kept himself moving, climbing up and down the mountain, he would certainly have died of the cold. His skis are still out there. “I know where they are,” he says. “But I’m not going back for them.”

If ever he ventures back into that ravine, it will be as a rescuer himself. Before the pandemic hit, he attended meetings to join a search-and-rescue squad. He plans to complete the training once he’s able, so that the next time someone is lost and alone in the bush, he’s part of the team that sets out to save them.

Next, read the incredible life-or-death story of a woman who wrestled a cougar in the B.C. wilderness.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada