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Lost In The Jay Peak Backcountry
| By: Tim Fater|
video filmed by Dan Gladu and Joe Fitzpatrick
video edited by Adam Mikaelian/ Jay Peak Video
Matt Boone chuckled as he looked out his front window on a snowy President’s Day morning. He called to his wife, Jessica, the owner of Hi Vue Maples in Richford, Vermont as he watched two lost souls dragging themselves up his driveway. To the wanderers, his welcoming wave signaled the end to a daunting ordeal.
You can’t blame Matt for finding some light humor in the situation; the country roads of Richford – being about 5 miles as the crow flies from Jay Peak Resort, don’t see a lot of skiers. Dan Gladu and Joe Fitzpatrick, best known for their skiing as part of the Jay Peak Video crew, made their way there the old fashioned way. “It’s amazing what runs through your mind when you're kicking through 6 feet of snow and lost in the backcountry; it's unbelievable what runs through it when you’ve made the decision to build a shelter and fire with only 15 minutes of light left … it gives you a new outlook on life”, Dan said.
Dan and Joe had skied beyond the ropes of Jay Peak’s Beaver Pond Glades hundreds of times – as many people have. They know the rules back there: Rule #1: Go Right. Rule #2: Go Right; and, as their buddy and fellow Jay Peak Video member Mike Steeves joked after the fact: Rule # 3: Tell Dan and Joe to Go Right.
“It’s crazy how quickly things went from recognizable to totally unrecognizable”, said Dan; Joe added: “probably 10 turns”. The snow was coming down at a steady clip on Sunday afternoon when they hopped on the chairlift to squeeze in a few afternoon runs. The sky was dark grey and the trees in Beaver Pond were coated with a few inches of fluff. “We started out further left than usual from the top because we saw some untracked lines”, Joe said, “we knew not to go too far; we thought we would just have to go hard right like usual to get back in-bounds”. Dan and Joe later found out that those few turns of freshies lead them down the wrong side of a double fall line. “The whole time we thought we were just too far left in Beaver. It turns out we were on a totally different bowl on the backside of the West Bowl”.
It was about 2:00 p.m. when they snuck under the line at Beaver Pond. “Very early on we realized we weren’t familiar with where we were – and almost immediately we started cutting right” Joe said. Convinced they were somewhere in the West Bowl, they made the best of their slow traverse. They figured they would eventually run into the Jay Peak Golf Course – or at very worst, Route 242 – the Jay Peak access road. Joe affirmed: “I remember saying to myself – we’ll make it back by dark, guaranteed”.
After two hours of traversing, Joe and Dan began to notice more marks and footprints in the otherwise virgin snow. A few minutes later, they stumbled upon a moose that was in their anticipated path. At the time, neither were panicked. They took out their Handycam video camera and still camera that they had stashed in their pockets and took a few photos and videos. “In retrospect, we realize that moose just don’t hang out by ski trails”, Joe said sarcastically. This was one of the first signs that they were lost.
With daylight subtly fading, the ridge line they were following suddenly flattened out. “That was when our hearts started racing”, admitted Joe. It was about 5:30 p.m.; they knew they had about 45 minutes worth of light left. Although starting to lose faith, Joe wanted to keep traversing. Dan thought it would be best to make the hike straight up from their traverse line to try to summit the ridgeline above; if it did get dark – at least they would be able to see the lights from the resort, he thought. So, up they went – trudging through waist deep snow. They searched for a clearing in the trees and peered out – not a single light as far as the eye could see.
“We started to freak a bit at that point”, Dan said. They quickly realized that they were likely spending the night in the woods. With limited battery left in Dan’s cell phone, they made three calls: they contacted home so their families knew their situation; they called Jay Peak Video ring-leader Kevin Joudrey, despite knowing he was home in New Hampshire; and they left a message with Sarah Piccioli – one of their friends who they knew was in the area. Kevin checked the weather and informed them the night was supposed to be in the 20’s with diminishing wind – not nearly as brutal as it could be on a Northeast Kingdom mid-February night. They also discussed the option of calling a Search and Rescue team. Kevin warned them that any team that would be dispatched wouldn’t be sent out until the morning. They made the decision to bunker down and spend the night; they would reassess calling SAR in the morning. Kevin’s next message was plain and simple: get a fire going and build a shelter.
Putting them at a major disadvantage was how poorly they were outfitted and equipped. “We were only planning on doing a few runs”, they both conceded. “We were underdressed for the conditions as is; Dan had his spring park gloves on”, Joe said. They had a half-eaten bag of M M’s, a bag of Reese’s Pieces, a lighter, and only one of them – Dan, had a cell phone, which had very little battery. Joe remembered throwing his cell phone on the car seat earlier that day, reasoning to himself that he wouldn’t need it. They had walky-talkies, but they were far out of range from Jay Peak Ski Patrol or any other useful channel. They had no water. “Second guessing many of our earlier decisions was tortuous”, Joe said.
“We immediately went from panic mode to survival mode; efficiency mode”, Joe said. They found a medium-sized pine tree and stomped out the tree well about 4 feet down. They began gathering pine branches to lie on the ground to keep them off the snow and to reinforce the tee-pee like shape to block the wind and snow. They got into their make-shift bunker as soon as they could. From within, Dan began trying to start a fire. It was still snowing and everything around them was icy and wet. Dan started peeling gathered pieces of birch bark to make them as small as possible in hopes that they would ignite; he bent the nail on one of his fingers backwards on one attempt.
Sometime towards the beginning of the evening – Joe mustered the energy to get out of the bunker to gather more pine branches to reinforce their shelter. “All of our movements were so labored – we were so cold”, Joe said. All the while Dan was working on the fire. “We were both trying to keep our minds off of how cold we were”. Dan finally got the small pile of bark, branches and his goggles bag smoking – he picked it up in his hands and started blowing on it and got Joe’s attention. Dan placed the smoldering mound on the snow – it, along with a large chunk of their remaining hope – melted, sank and was extinguished beneath the snow. Dan flipped on his cell phone – it was 2:30 a.m. on Monday morning; he had been working on the fire for 8 hours. The rest of the night was passed by 20 minute nod-outs between constant shivering. When one become too still, the other would nudge and ask if they were ok; “Yeah man, I’m good” was the redundant response.
As first light finally appeared, they were both overwhelmed with a sense of accomplishment, though they were too cold to celebrate. “I didn’t appreciate how quickly your body shuts down under those circumstances”, Dan said. “It must have taken a half hour to muster the energy to get up”, he said. The two explained how difficult the first few tasks of the day were – they could barely manage balancing themselves to click back into their skis. Having struggled through getting up and ready to go, they were again struck with fear that that they still didn’t know where they were or how to get out of the woods.
Despite some lingering snow showers and clouds which were limiting visibility, they found a break in the trees and peered out in hopes of being able to recognize something in the surrounding area. In the distance they saw a clearing which they figured was likely a field or a frozen pond. With no other options, they set out towards the distant clearing. Along the way, they made sure to maintain the elevation they had gained during the previous afternoon’s hike. With little energy left, they simply couldn’t deal with another trek uphill. They traversed towards their landmark for 2 or 3 miles.
At long last, they were able to see what appeared to be logged-out land ahead of them. “It was just a slash in the woods, but we knew it was man-made and that was really encouraging”, said Dan. They skied as quickly as their tired bodies would allow towards the slash. Their target was indeed cleared land, but they were forced to make yet another decision – to go left or right – both paths seemed to disappear into the distance without any promising distinctions. Going left was slightly more downhill so they decided that was the best path. After a mile or so, they came across some unoccupied sugar shacks – their most promising find yet. After nearly 20 hours in the woods, their moods begin to lighten. “When we saw those sugar shacks – we knew at very least we weren’t spending another night in the woods. That was a really good feeling”, Dan admitted. They continued skiing until they found a half-plowed road which lead to a plowed and salted road. After approaching a house with no one home, they continued down the road and walked straight up the driveway of Matt and Jessica Boone’s house.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Matt said as he opened his door and greeted the frozen couple. “Matt and his wife served us fresh eggs, pancakes, syrup, coffee – I’m telling you, it was the best food I’ve ever tasted”, said Joe. After a few hours of warming up and refueling, Jessica was nice enough to drive Dan and Joe back to their car in the parking lot at Jay Peak.
When asked what they would do differently in the future, Joe responded by saying, “First, I would have called for help sooner. Not necessarily to get a SAR team out, but to talk the situation through with someone, to see if anyone could help us figure out where we were. Second, I wish we accepted the fact that we were spending the night sooner and spent more time on building our shelter. Obviously, I will always be better equipped with a map and compass, food and water, too – even if we’re only heading out for a few runs”. Dan responded by saying he will always ski with a small trash bag to keep things dry, if needed, a candle, tin foil and a compass”. The fact is, no one chooses to get lost, injured or spend the night in the backcountry. But, bad things inevitably happen. Being prepared can do wonders in lessening the severity of your situation. Both Dan and Joe agree.
Joe and Dan would like to thank Matt and Jessica Boone. Check out their maple syrup company the next time you're up in the Jay area.