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Expert skier lost five days in North Cascades without Essentials, map, compass and GPS

Saving Dan Witkowski:  Skier lost in Cascades to be released today from Seattle hospital
The Dailey Record
By Pat Muir
January, 2004

Dan Witkowski, looking healthy except for blackened toes and fingers, explained Friday morning that he had kept moving for four days, trying to stay alive in the wilderness as 20 inches of snow fell.

The 25-year-old Ellensburg man, who was rescued Sunday near the Alpental ski area at Snoqualmie Pass, recalled the story for a press conference at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center.

"I just didn't want to die, you know," Witkowski said.

For the first two days after skiing down the wrong side of a ridge on New Year's Eve and becoming lost, he kept a clear head and kept moving, stopping only for short breaks. When he did stop, he stripped the bark off of trees to lie down on, still never letting himself sleep, he said. He had a parka, a helmet, goggles, ski pants, long johns, a T-shirt and a fleece, but no survival gear.

There were times when he was delusional, but he knew he had to keep moving to stay warm, he said. Witkowski, an experienced "extreme skier," was alone and in a rugged backcountry area he had never seen before.

"I just realized I couldn't panic. I couldn't waste any energy," Witkowski said.

By day three, he was beginning to lose it physically and mentally, he said.

"I thought I was at home at times. The last day, I don't remember much at all," Witkowski said.

He prayed and he kept going, driven by thoughts of home and family. Then, as he tired on day four, he kind of gave up, found a place under a tree, hunkered down and tried to stay warm, he said. Then he thought about dying.

"I didn't think about it too much, though," Witkowski said.

His parents, Ellensburg's Bob and Maryann Witkowski, on the other hand, thought about the possibility a lot. Maryann said she and Bob, the city's director of community development, had all but given up on seeing their son alive again.

"It's a miracle," she said. "I feel it's a miracle."

At about 4 p.m. Sunday rescue workers, having spotted tracks and some snow gear he had dropped, found Witkowski and transported him to Harborview. He suffered from frostbite and hypothermia when he arrived at the hospital at 5:48 p.m. Initially, he was listed in critical condition, but he progressed steadily and was expected to be released today, said Dr. David Heimbach, who cared for Witkowski at Harborview.

It will be at least a month or two before the extent of the frostbite damage becomes evident, and Witkowski still may lose fingers and toes, Heimbach said. Beyond ointment to stave off infection, there isn't much to be done for treatment; Witkowski will just have to wait to
see how much his body heals itself, Heimbach said.

"What recovers by itself will recover by itself and what won't will remain dead," he said.

That Witkowski is young and physically fit, despite losing about 20 pounds during the ordeal, likely saved his life, the doctor said.

"That he lived at all is pretty remarkable Š I probably would have been an icicle pretty quick," Heimbach said.

Now Witkowski, a dishwasher who lives with his parents, plans to give college another shot, probably Central Washington University, he said. In the immediate future, though, he was mostly looking forward to returning to Ellensburg and sleeping in his own bed, he said.

"I just feel real lucky," Witkowski said. "It seems like somebody was standing over me."


Dan Witkowski, the skier who spent five days lost up at Snoqualmie Pass, left the hospital Thursday after losing both his feet;
but his will to ski again is still intact.


The will to survive kept a skier, lost in the mountains, alive for five days. Now that same determination and spirit is helping Dan Witkowski survive the loss of both his feet.

Six weeks ago, Dan Witkowski walked into a news conference, battered, exhausted and badly frostbitten, but he walked in.

Thursday, after a double amputation, he left Harborview Medical Center in a wheelchair with casts where his ankles and feet used to be. But his optimism remains constant.

"Not sure what obstacles are going to be but I'm sure I'll be able to take them on," he said.

Witkowski got lost skiing and spent five days wandering the mountains near Snoqualmie Pass. Rescuers, figuring him for dead, found him just as they were ready to end the search.

Days after his rescue, he talked about what kept him alive: "I just didn't want to die you know, I just didn't want to end up, up there."

With his feet and fingers badly frostbitten, his prognosis was still good and doctors were optimistic he could make a full recovery. But the tissue in his feet didn't recover, infection set in and Witkowski had a decision to make.

"Then I had to make a decision to either amputate my feet or keep my feet," he said.

Doctors agreed Witkowski's best chance for an active life later, was to amputate both feet now.

"I think he's a otherwise young and healthy person with a lot of motivation and a lot of support," says Harborview burn specialist Dr. Matthew Klein. "Those are all the critical ingredients for success."

"It was easy," to make the decision says Witkowski, "once I understood everything."

Witkowski doesn't know what's ahead. But he knows what he wants. "I want to be able to walk as soon as possible, and just be normal, a normal everyday life."

After that? "Skiing yeah. That's something I'm definitely going to be doing. I imagine I'll be on the slopes next season." As an afterthought he adds, "doing the best I can."

Doctors believe Witkowski could walk with prosthetics in as little as three months, and they agree he could likely be skiing again next season.


Dan Witkowski: Survivor. The loss of lower legs won't stop him
Dailey Record
By Pat Muir

It makes sense, in a way, that Dan Witkowski of Ellensburg was by himself when he got lost in the backcountry near the Alpental ski area on New Year's Eve.

Not only did he feel confident enough in his skiing ability to go by himself, he's also a bit of a loner by nature - the kind of guy who enjoyed working as a dishwasher so he could just be off in the corner working alone. A quiet young man, the 25-year-old has been somewhat overwhelmed by the attention he's received since being rescued after four nights alone in the woods.

"You don't always want to have people around you," Witkowski said this week. "Sometimes you want to be left alone, but I do appreciate it."

No expectation of being saved
When Witkowski went out to ski the backcountry on New Year's Eve, he didn't have the recommended survival gear - no extra food, no locator device. He had been a skier since he was a little kid, having learned from his father, Bob Witkowski, he said.

He'd dedicated much of his life to the slopes, even moving to Colorado for two years to ski bigger mountains. Those extreme-skiing shows they show on the outdoor cable networks, people skiing off of cliffs and dashing through chutes on treacherous mountains - that was the kind of stuff Witkowski did. His skills put him at an elite level, and he was thinking about training for big-mountain competition, he said.

Survival gear? For an extreme skier?
"I just didn't like carrying it," Witkowski said.

So, when he realized he was lost, having skied down the wrong side of a ridge into the wilderness, he had only a parka, a helmet, goggles, ski pants, boots, long johns, a T-shirt and a fleece. Still, for two days he wasn't worried, thinking he could find his way back to civilization, he said.

At the end of his second day out there, he tried to scale a hill to get his bearings, but he failed. At that point, he started to worry. He needed a plan.

"I knew I had to make a decision and stick with it," Witkowski said.

That decision - to keep moving, keep going and try to walk out of the wilderness - kept his body warm enough to survive and probably saved his life. After a few days without food in the cold, though, he found himself walking in circles. At one point during the third or fourth day, Witkowski, becoming increasingly delusional, thought he saw cars on Interstate 90. He also believed he came upon a group of

"I'd get real close to them and ask for things," Witkowski said. "They wouldn't respond. Š Sometimes they'd be shooting bows and arrows off in the corner."

He walked until he couldn't keep going then he found a place under a tree, hunkered down and tried to stay warm, he said. He had no expectation of being saved, but he couldn't keep going anyway, he said.

"I needed somebody to find me," Witkowski said.

At about 4 p.m. on Jan. 4, his fifth day in the wilderness with the fifth night approaching, rescue workers, having spotted tracks and some snow gear he had dropped, found Witkowski and transported him to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He doesn't remember much about his rescue, which was led by King County Search and Rescue and included several agencies such as Alpental Ski Patrol, who reached him by helicopter.

"I heard helicopters and all sorts of stuff," Witkowski said. "I don't remember seeing the helicopter or seeing the people helping me."

Back to life
Witkowski suffered from frostbite and hypothermia when he arrived at Harborview at 5:48 p.m. Initially, he was listed in critical condition, but he progressed steadily and was released from the hospital after about a week.

Life was still blurry for Witkowski in the hospital; he was in shock, he said. But soon he was surrounded by family and friends. The fog lifted.

"It was just like, 'Whoa, I'm back. I made it,'" he said.

He was in high spirits most of the time, happy to be alive, watching television, drinking Gatorade and thinking how strange his feet looked all swollen. People he hadn't seen for years came to visit, and he got dozens of cards and phone calls wishing him well.

His story became national news. At a Harborview press conference on Jan. 9, Witkowski, fingers and toes blackened, spoke with reporters. His doctor said he'd likely lose some toes, but otherwise would recover. His feet didn't recover though, and after three weeks at home, he returned to the hospital where a physician's assistant told him his feet would probably have to be amputated.

On Jan. 30, he had surgery to remove toes. On Feb. 13 he went back to have his lower legs amputated about halfway up his shins. The pain of the second operation was nearly unbearable, he said.

"The first two days I was in so much pain I couldn't get it off my mind," Witkowski said.

When he first looked at his legs after the surgery, it shocked him. The stubs weren't smooth like he expected.

"It just looked so strange," he said. "I was just misshapen."

But he has tried to stay positive. His hands are still discolored, but they're obviously better off than when he held his press conference. His legs are in casts now, and he gets around in a wheelchair. But he's not focused on that; he has goals. The rehabilitation is tough, he

Every morning he wakes up and takes a handful of assorted pills. He's not eating much, but he feels stronger all the time, he said. His program calls for him to do leg lifts, so he does them in sets of 10, getting about 100 in each day, he said.

"When they first put these casts on, I couldn't move them at all," Witkowski said.

What's next?
The main thing Witkowski realized as he lay in the hospital after being rescued was that he needed to find a purpose in his life. Rescue workers had risked their necks to save him, and it had better have been worth it, he said.

Just what that means, he's not sure yet, he said. But educating other skiers on how to avoid what happened to him is near the top of the list, he said.

Beyond that, he may go back to college. He took some classes at Central Washington University in the past, and he wants to get a degree from somewhere. He may try to join a ski patrol after he gets fitted for prosthetics and returns to the slopes. Having seen what those guys did for him, makes him want to do the same for others, he said.

"I just really want to help," Witkowski said. "They helped me so much. I had no expectations of being saved. I thought it was all up to me.  If I get half my skills back on skis, I think I could really help."

He said he expects to skiing again next winter. Things will be different from now on, though. He's pledged to always carry survival gear and to bring friends along, especially in rough terrain.

"Before all of this I really didn't think about backcountry safety," Witkowski said. "I felt safe."

One of the toughest things for Witkowski now is learning that he needs to rely on other people. He's always been independent, knowing he could rely on himself. But now, he's thankful for the support of his family and the support of the community, he said.

"I'm getting used to it," he said.
Daily Record, covering Kittitas County Washington from the Cascades to the Columbia



An advertisement in Rock and Ice, Issue 144, September 2005
Skier Dan Witkowski learned about the benefits of carrying a PLB the hard way. A misadventure in the rugged backcountry of Washington State's Cascade Mountain range left Dan hopelessly lost and near death in 2004.

He survived to tell the tale, though frostbite complications cost him his legs. Back from the brink and outfitted with new artificial legs, the 26-year-old skier returned to the slopes this past January, determined to remain active and equally determined never to roam the mountains without a new companion by his side-- a Personal Locator Beacon.

Having read about the plight of this young Ellensburg, Washington man in national media coverage, management at ACR decided that Dan's story would serve as a stark message to those who work and play in the remote outdoors without the benefit of a safety and survival plan.

As a result, ACR is featuring Dan in a national safety awareness campaign and has made sure that Dan and his family now carry the world's smallest and most function-rich Personal Locator Beacon
-- The TerraFix™ 406 GPS I/O.

See the Advertisement in PDF


Our TraditionalMountaineering Analysis:
If you are not lost, it is best to keep moving and generating heat rather than to wait in one place until found. If you know where you need to go to car or camp, it is better to keep moving, even if painfully injured. There are many extreme examples of self rescue in traditional mountaineering literature.

If you are truly lost, it is better to to mark your location for rescuers and stay in one place for hours or days until found.

Surely, you have followed the Basic Responsibilities of the Backcountry Traveler so that someone will be looking for you. Surely you are dressed for the forecast weather. Surely you have the Ten Essential Systems so that you can protect yourself from seasonal weather changes and can keep hydrating and eating the right fuel to maintain your ability to keep using your large muscle groups to generate heat. Surely you will protect and exercise your fingers and toes relentlessly.

Sadly, there are many examples of folks who lost their way without a map and compass (or without the ability to use them), and without the Ten Essential Systems, who have survived, losing feet and fingers and many more who have lost their lives.  See below. Surely, we can learn from the mistakes of others.

--Webmeister Speik


Warning: Traditional Mountaineering is an inherently dangerous sport!





Read more . . .
FREE Clinic on Real Survival Strategies and Staying Found with Map, Compass and GPS together
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Why are "Snow Caves" dangerous?
Why are "Space Blankets" dangerous?
Why are "Emergency Kits" dangerous?
How can you avoid Hypothermia?
Missing climbers on Mount Hood, one dies of exposure, two believed killed in fall
Missing California family found, dad dies from exposure and hypothermia
Missing man survives two weeks trapped in snow-covered car
Missing snowmobile riders found, Roger Rouse dies from hypothermia
Olympic Champion Rulon Gardner lost from companions on snowmobile!
Lost Olympic hockey player looses feet to cold injury

Expert skier lost five days near resort in North Cascades without map, compass, gps or cell phone
Mount Hood - The Episcopal School Tragedy
Mount Hood - experienced climbers rescued from snow cave
How can you learn the skills of snow camping?

  About Alpine Mountaineering:
  The Sport of Alpine Mountaineering
  Climbing Together
  Following the Leader
  The Mountaineers' Rope
  Basic Responsibilities       Cuatro Responsabiliades Basicas de Quienes Salen al Campo
  The Ten Essentials         Los Diez Sistemas Esenciales

  Lost and found
Climber disappears on the steep snow slopes of Mount McLaughlin
Hiker lost five days in freezing weather on Mount Hood
Professor and son elude search and rescue volunteers
Found person becomes lost and eludes rescuers for five days
Teens, lost on South Sister, use cell phone with Search and Rescue
Lost man walks 27 miles to the highway from Elk Lake Oregon
Snowboarder Found After Week in Wilderness
Searchers rescue hiker at Smith Rock, find lost climbers on North Sister
Girl Found In Lane County After Lost On Hiking Trip
Search and rescue finds young girls lost from family group
Portland athlete lost on Mt. Hood
Rescues after the recent snows
Novice couple lost in the woods
Broken Top remains confirmed as missing climber
Ollalie Trail - OSU Trip - Lost, No Map, Inadequate Clothing

  Map, Compass and GPS
Map, compass and GPS navigation training Noodle in The Badlands
BLM guidelines for Geocaching on public lands
Geocaching on Federal Forest Lands
OpEd - Geocaching should not be banned in the Badlands
Winter hiking in The Badlands WSA just east of Bend
Searching for the perfect gift
Geocaching: What's the cache?
Geocaching into the Canyon of the Deschutes
Can you catch the geocache?
Z21 covers Geocaching
Tour The Badlands with ONDA 
The art of not getting lost
Geocaching: the thrill of the hunt!
GPS in the news
A GPS and other outdoor gadgets make prized gifts
Wanna play?  Maps show you the way
Cooking the "navigation noodle"

  Backcountry Navigation
How accurate is the inexpensive hand-held GPS today?
Can you get me a $30 rebate on your favorite GPS: Garmin's Legend?    pdf form
What are some good Central Oregon Geocaches?
What is the Public Land Survey Grid?   pdf
What is a PLB?
What is the UTM Grid?   six pdf pages
Which GPS do you like?    
Which Compass do you like?   
How do you use your map, compass and GPS together, in a nut shell?
How can I learn to use my map, compass and GPS?
Do you have map, compass and GPS seminar notes?   six pdf pages

  Mountaineering Accidents
Three Mountaineers struck by rock-fall in North Cascades
Solo climber falls from Cooper Spur on Mount Hood
Climber dies on the steep snow slopes of Mount McLaughlin
Climbers swept by avalanche while descending North Sister's Thayer Glacier Snowfield
Wilderness Travel Course Newsletter  this is a large PDF file
Runaway glissade fatal for Mazama climber on Mt. Whitney
Yosemite's El Capitan tests rescuers' skills
Climbers fall from Mount Hood's Sandy Glacier Headwall
Solo hiker drowns while crossing Mt. Hood's Sandy River
Injured climber rescued from Mount Washington
Mt. Washington tragedy claims two climbers
Another Mt. Rainier climber dies on Liberty Ridge
Mt. Rainier climber dies after rescue from Liberty Ridge
Young hiker suffers fatal fall and slide in the Three Sisters Wilderness
North Sister claims another climber
Solo climber Aron Ralston forced to amputate his own arm
Portland athlete lost on Mt. Hood
Broken Top remains confirmed as missing climber
Grisly find: hikers on Broken Top find apparent human remains
Once again, cell phone alerts rescuers of injured climber
Storm on Rainier proves fatal
Mountain calamity on Hood brings safety to the fore!
Fall into the Bergschrund on Mt. Hood, rescuers crash!
Paying the price for rescue
Accidents in North American Mountaineering
Goran Kropp killed while rock climbing in Washington