The search for a lost skier on Mt. Spokane in the middle of a stormy winter night was covered in this column last week. The guy everyone was looking for, Wayne Schuh, 66, also had a story to tell.
Schuh’s experience came out in a debriefing a few days after he managed to bushwhack down the mountain unharmed. The Mt. Spokane Ski Patrol wanted to analyze how he got lost, where he went and why he couldn’t be found.
“The ski patrol made it clear to me that they weren’t going to point any fingers,” he said. “They wanted to learn from my experience about how to make the mountain safer.”
Schuh was grateful for the professionalism and hospitality of the ski patrol. During the search they welcomed his family and a dozen of his friends to their Christmas dinner and put everyone up for the night at the ski patrol chalet.
At the debriefing Mt. Spokane general manager Brad McQuarrie handed Schuh a bill for the search totaling several thousand dollars. Mt. Spokane can’t take him to court over it, but McQuarrie told him he should know how much it cost to operate while the search and rescue team looked for him.
“Brad suggested that I check my homeowners insurance,” Schuh said. “They would deny a claim, but I’m going to give a donation to the ski patrol and send another check to the Winter Knights snowmobile club. Over the next several years, if I live long enough, I’m going to keep paying the mountain on a monthly basis until it’s settled.”
The circumstances that put Schuh in his predicament could have happened to anyone spellbound by untracked powder. His ordeal started midmorning when he followed two strangers on a route he had never taken before down the south face of Mt. Spokane.
“I lost track of them and ended up following the tree line in knee deep powder before I realized there were no other tracks,” he said. “Then I knew I missed a left turn that would have taken me back.”
Schuh called a buddy and told him he was going to find his way out. He should have called 911. If he would have, the ski patrol could pinpoint his exact coordinates and send someone to lead him back. But most skiers and riders don’t learn that until after they get lost.
Schuh thought that if he kept going south downhill, eventually he would emerge near the big switchback on state Route 206 at the Mt. Kit Carson trailhead. But he had skied too far west. Gravity sucked him into the Blanchard Creek drainage.
The creek led him west and then north, away from the area where search teams were combing. He couldn’t ski on the terrain. It started snowing heavily. In pitch darkness, Schuh fought through the tangled drainage on foot in waist deep snow, falling in the creek several times.
“About 1 o’clock I was soaking wet, tired and cold,” he said. “I sat down and leaned up against a tree for about five minutes and dozed off. I woke up in an instant shaking violently. That’s when I told myself I’ve got to keep walking downhill until I collapse.”
At daybreak Schuh emerged from the dense forest to a skid road. A slash pile was nearby. Wood smoke was in the air. After checking to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating, he saw a gate. It opened to North Blanchard Creek Road. He came to a cabin, staggered up and knocked. A woman answered the door.
“You must be our lost skier,” she said. “We’ve been expecting you.”