Skier faces seven hours of survival on Ajax
December 9, 2006
Larry Miller’s third run on Aspen Mountain Friday turned into a seven-hour fight for survival.Miller, a pulmonologist from New York and experienced skier making his first trip to Aspen, took a run down Walsh’s, a double diamond, at 9:30 a.m., on the first day of his 4-day vacation.At the bottom of the run he passed through what he thought was a gate to another run, instead of going uphill on the Lud’s Lane catwalk back to the chair. “Let’s take the path of least resistance,” he remembers thinking, not knowing he was headed out of bounds.He wouldn’t find his way out of the woods until 4 p.m.An open field?Miller was surprised to find an open field of fresh powder, but the farther he skied the more dense the foliage became. He started to worry.He came to a short, steep drop-off. He stopped, wondering if it would be safe.”I went for it. I jumped,” he said. His downhill ski caught on something. He fell, and, when he did, he heard a pop and felt a jolt on his leg.
“I got my equipment all together and got my senses about me,” he said. He was injured, alone and estimated about 300 yards below the bottom of Walsh’s. He decided if he went down he might come to an open area and a lift.The walls of the gully became steeper and deeper with snow. Limping, he came to a stream and followed it for a time.”Suddenly I stepped and the snow gave way,” he said. “I realized I was on the edge of a waterfall.”With his feet sticking out over the watery ledge, he grabbed a branch.”That was the point I said ‘I’m going to die,'” he said. “I kept shouting out for help. I pulled on this branch, I don’t know where the strength came from, and I was able to pull myself up.”He then lowered himself down the side of the waterfall and noticed the thick ice and sharp rocks at its base.Lost For the next four hours, he estimated, he trudged through deep snow, the pain from his injured left knee was excruciating. He had just a smashed banana for sustenance, and took mouthfuls of snow to stay hydrated. “I’m not going to die on this mountain today,” he said to himself over and over.But he hung on to his ski gear – “I guess I’m a true blue skier,” he said – and didn’t think to try his cell phone. Both signs that he was in shock and not thinking clearly.
After hours of slogging through snow and underbrush, he came to an open field and saw vehicles on a nearby road.”At this point I knew I was going to live,” he said. Miller’s journey wasn’t over.He put his skis on and pushed himself across the field. When he came to a wide river, he found a section with what looked like thick ice and chanced it. Halfway across, he fell in the waist-deep frigid current with his skis on.He was able to get one ski off and drag himself to the river bank, and make it to the road, he said. He flagged down a vehicle that took him to guest services at the Silver Queen Gondola.Miller’s day ended with an ambulance ride to Aspen Valley Hospital where he was treated and released with a torn ACL.”I’m happy to be alive,” he said.”We have rescued people in that area before,” said Jeff Hanle, Aspen Ski Co. spokesman. “But generally it’s people who went under a rope intentionally and then got into trouble and had to be rescued. “The boundary is clearly marked,” he added. “I can’t suppose as to what he was thinking or what was going on, but it’s not a problem we’ve had before,” Hanle said.
Aspen has an open boundary policy, which states skiers are allowed to ski out of bounds, but can’t return to the area.”We discourage people from going under ropes unless they are experienced backcountry skiers,” Hanle said. “We’re just happy that everything turned out OK.”The Skico will rebate the cost of Miller’s three-day ticket, Miller said. He warned Skico officials to better mark the boundary at the bottom of Walsh’s. … is he suing?Digital photos taken after the incident showed the out of bounds rope was 10 feet high at what looked like an inviting gate to Miller. “I didn’t see it,” he said.”If you have such a dangerous zone there, why don’t you put a rope that’s at knee level or put some bamboo stakes to mark it?” Miller asked.Asked if he would take legal action against Skico, Miller said, “I think my life is worth something,” and he is upset that it was jeopardized by improperly marked terrain, he said. But Skico officials are “acting appropriately,” he added, and he is grateful for all the help he’s been given since the ordeal.Miller will be back in New York on Monday, and said he hopes to just enjoy the rest of his time in Aspen, albeit on a new set of crutches. He’s disappointed that his vacation was marred, but added, “I’ll come back here to ski again.”Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.