It was after 8 p.m., cold, dark and the 15-year-old snowboarder was still missing.
He’d boarded down from Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park’s Chair 3, following wide-open meadows and deep powder off piste. Before he knew it, he was lost. He called his mom. But by 4:15 p.m. his phone died, its battery sapped by the cold winter air.
By 8 p.m. on Feb. 24, Mt. Spokane’s volunteer ski patrol had been looking for the teen for nearly four hours. Immediately after the snowboarder was reported missing, two patrollers followed tracks they believed to be his, crossing several service and logging roads. But they lost the trail on a plowed road and turned back.
Meanwhile, Joseph Ferraro, a 23-year patrol veteran, called the sheriff’s office requesting a GPS location for the teen’s cellphone.
After about 45 minutes the office got back to him. The result was the location of a cell tower in Idaho. Not particularly helpful.
But Ferraro, a former air force navigator, was able to glean some useful information. Head east.
And so he did. He skied down, following the same tracks that the two patrollers before him had. When they disappeared, he kept looking, finally picking them up on the other side of 12-foot berm of plowed snow.
Ferraro was alone. It was nearly 9 p.m. The teen had nothing in the way of survival equipment. No extra food. No water.
Ferraro stood on top of the berm and “screamed and screamed.”
Below him was “great backcountry skiing,” which explained the teen’s continued descent.
Finally, he heard a faint moan, farther down the hillside. Ferraro considered waiting for another patroller. Backcountry skiing alone, at night, is risky.
But considering the situation, Ferraro continued. About a mile down from the 12-foot berm he finally came upon the 15-year-old, curled up in the snow.
“He wasn’t hurt. Just lost. Disoriented and scared,” Ferraro said.
Ferraro gave him water and some food. Within 10 minutes, the teen started to “come back to life.” It was 9 p.m.
Soon another patroller, with skins on his skis, and a resort employee arrived. Behind them were snowmobiles. But the hill was too steep and the snow too deep for the machines to get to the lost teen.
So they gave the teen a pair of snowshoes and started trudging back up hill. The haggard group reached the road, and snowmobile, around 9:45 p.m. They returned to the patrol hut just after 10.
Despite the risk and effort required to find the teen, Ferraro wasn’t mad. Instead, he emphasized what can be learned from the experience.
“When they’re young like that, there is just inexperience,” he said. “They don’t mean to get themselves lost. They’re just going out and having a good time and not thinking about the next step.”
Resort skiing can inspire a false sense of confidence.
“People are very comfortable skiing in a resort and they think, ‘Oh, they’re (ski patrollers) going to protect me,’ ” he said.
But the stakes are higher than many realize.
“People have died at Mt. Spokane because they were never found,” he said. “We found them in the spring.”
Brad McQuarrie, Mt. Spokane’s manager, said on average ski patrol conducts 35 rescues a season. The mountain’s policy is to charge for “direct expenses” for out-of-bound rescues that involve the Spokane County Sheriff Search and Rescue. But McQuarrie said the resort has only charged one person in the 15 years he’s been there.
“The reason we charged him is because he told us he was lost, and in a specific area,” McQuarrie said in an email. “We told him to stay put, but he kept skiing. We searched all night, in a track covering blizzard, and never found him. He ended up getting out on his own, and found a house in the Blanchard area the next morning to call for help. Long search, and very expensive. He never did pay, though, and I didn’t want to take it to court.”
In the case of the 15-year-old teen from last weekend, McQuarrie said calculating expenses would be difficult.
“It sure could have been expensive and more dangerous if Joseph hadn’t found him when he did,” he said.
Although Ferraro is quick to point out that it was a team effort, Kristin Whitaker, who was the incident commander for the search, credits Ferraro with saving the teen’s life.
“He went back to an area he had already searched on a hunch, and found the drifted-over track. He’s very familiar with those fire roads and the condo area, having owned a condo there for years, so once he found the guest he was able to tell us exactly where they were,” she said in an email. “We are very lucky he was with us.”
All this highlights the importance of five key things, according to a Mt. Spokane Ski Patrol Facebook post about the incident.
- “Be familiar with the runs you are on (carry a trail map).
- Don’t drop into woods you are not familiar with.
- Don’t ski or ride alone, especially in trees or areas you are unfamiliar.
- If you are lost, and arrive at a fire road or developed area, stay on that. Don’t continue into treed areas.”
And most important:
- “If you feel you might be lost, stop. Stay where you are. Call 911 – they will get your location coordinates and will relay to us. We can easily and quickly find you that way. Another reason to call right away is that cellphones don’t last long in the cold. If you think you might be lost but tough it out and keep going, chances are your phone will be dead when you come to the realization that you may be in a life-or-death situation.”