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We went from being heroic survivors to jerks in two days. I'm very sensitive to that. I was not prepared to see myself called a jerk in the media.
On Friday, Feb. 19, the skiers disappeared into the rugged mountains just south of Aspen, stubbornly (and, some said, stupidly) bound for a weekend trek despite forecasts of fierce weather and warnings of avalanche danger. Two of them fought their way out the following day, but the other five remained missing for another four days and three nights despite a massive search over a vast area that was pounded almost constantly by blizzards. Hope drained away. Sheriff Bob Braudis of Pitkin County began to refer to them as Popsicles, and eventually he told reporters, "We are using real, live rescuers to search for probable dead bodies." Then suddenly, on Tuesday, Feb. 23, the five were found alive.
On the day they reappeared they were America's media darlings, basking in heroic headlines (MIRACLE IN THE MOUNTAINS blared the Rocky Mountain News) and live network adoration from the likes of Ted Koppel and Tom Brokaw. "We're a little bit embarrassed," Ken Torp, the group leader, told TV reporters. "We feel a little like errant schoolchildren, but we're elated to be alive."
The following day the climate changed abruptly. A large part of Colorado's mountaineering and skiing community publicly branded the skiers as fools, idiots and, yes, jerks for entering such treacherous terrain in such fearsome weather. A headline in the Rocky Mountain News bellowed, SKIERS BLUNDERED, RESCUE LEADER SAYS. The Aspen Daily News ran an editorial saying the survivors had exhibited "the brain capacity of arctic lichen."
Ah, but then came the third day, when the skiers found relief by deciding to sell their story to Hollywood. Now they could refuse to talk to the media, with the excuse that they wanted to preserve the exclusivity of their experience, sign on with the William Morris Agency and sit back to wait for producers to bid for the rights to their story. In these days of rampant Amy Fisher opportunism, this has come to seem like a normal part of the American dream. How the skiers' story would translate to the screen remains to be seen, but there are more than enough thrills and chills to captivate any audience.
Their point of departure on the morning of Feb. 19 was the ghost town of Ashcroft, 11 miles south of Aspen. Their destination was the Goodwin-Greene hut, located at 11,800 feet, about seven miles up Express Creek. Ordinarily this trip would not have been difficult for skiers as expert as these.
Torp, 50, the leader, has climbed Mount McKinley and is a frequent backcountry skier. Once the chief of staff for former Colorado governor Richard Lamm, Torp now works as supervisor of the Denver Center for Public-Private Cooperation at the University of Colorado. Lamm called him "half Thoreau and half daredevil." Elliot Brown, 43, a metallurgist, is a fine technical mountain climber who skis most weekends in the backcountry. Rob Dubin, 39, and his wife and partner in a video production company, Dee, 47, had already made three backcountry trips this winter. He has climbed Mount McKinley and toured in the Himalayas. She does a lot of winter mountaineering. Brigitte Schluger, 50, an art gallery owner, is a seasoned skier. Richard Rost, 34, a contractor, and Andrea Brett, 42, who works for Torp, are experienced skiers.
As they prepared their equipment at the trailhead, a local resident, Saville Ryan, skied down through heavy snow from her cabin about a mile up the trail. "I couldn't believe they were going into the backcountry," Ryan says. "So I went over and asked in a very calm voice if they knew the whole area was posted for severe avalanche danger. One man, Elliot Brown, said yes and added, 'Express Creek is always a crapshoot.' One of the women, Dee Dubin, said quite sharply to Brown, 'Well, thanks for telling us!' Then I asked if they had any communication equipment with them, and Rob Dubin said they had avalanche beacons. This time Dee Dubin said very nicely to me, 'Thanks for asking us.' "
Doug Bitterman, operations manager for the nearby Ashcroft Ski Touring Center, saw them leave and radioed the center to ask if the seven had been warned of the conditions. Told that they had, he cracked, "That's going to be the Rescue of the Year." Later, he explained his prescience: "Their whole trip was a profile in what not to do. First, they started late—10 in the morning. Second, a big storm was rolling in. Third, the avalanche conditions were the worst in maybe 100 years."
Later, at a press conference, Rob Dubin defended the decision to ignore these warnings, saying, "I would probably assume our experience is about 100 times their [his critics'] experience, because we know what we're doing." However, he also admitted, "We did have a little bit more cavalier attitude than we should have had." True enough. They were carrying only two winter-weight sleeping bags, one stove, no insulated sleeping pads and no tents.