The weather turned worse as the day progressed. At dusk the skiers, who would normally have reached their destination by then, were still moving through a blizzard. They had made a critical navigational error that turned them from the proper, east-northeast direction toward the south. They tried to dig a snow cave to protect themselves during the night, but the cave collapsed. The weary group slept in an open snow pit, and by morning some were treacherously wet. The blizzard had thickened to a whiteout, and the skiers agreed they should return as quickly as possible to the trailhead at Ashcroft.
Rost, the youngest member of the group, argued for heading back down the way they had come. Torp and Brown, the strongest skiers in the group, wanted to scout out another route back to Express Creek. Rost argued that it was too difficult for the female skiers. But Torp insisted on looking at the tougher route. He and Brown vanished into the blizzard, skied over a ridge and later, after looking at a compass, found they were heading southeast to Taylor Park Reservoir when they should have been going northwest to Express Creek. Rob Dubin afterward said that he believed Torp and Brown were going to reconnoiter the alternate route and then return to advise the others. "We waited for an hour and a half in the cold and the wind, then we decided to move on," Dubin said.
The skiers had broken the most basic backcountry commandment: Stay together, no matter what. As the remaining five members of the party moved on, the Dubins and Schluger, descending behind Rost and Brett, fell farther and farther behind and then mistakenly took a turn in the opposite direction. Now the commandment had been broken twice.
Rost and Brett made it to the trailhead by 4:30 p.m. Michael Vigil, caretaker at the Toklat Art Gallery in Ashcroft, described their arrival: "They staggered in, disoriented and shocked, and we called the rescue people immediately to tell them about the five other people missing. These two were so worried about their friends. 'They're goners,' they kept saying. We bathed them and fed them, and they cried a little together over how their friends might have to die."
The next day, Sunday, Feb. 21, the search for the other five skiers began. By then all of them had spent a second night without shelter. As Torp told the Associated Press, "Elliot and I made a bivouac above the Dorchester [Bureau of Land Management] cabin at around 10,500 feet. Elliot at that point had a very wet sleeping bag that was providing no insulation. So we talked all night and flexed muscles. We'd start with calf muscles, then go to thigh muscles, and then abdominal muscles to keep the circulation going in our bodies." When asked what they talked about, Torp replied, "That if we ever get out of here, we're going to be good people."
The promise of good behavior seemed to work: On Sunday the two men found the BLM cabin. They stayed there through the night, and the next morning Torp wrote a note addressed to "USFS/Whomever." It had an oddly funereal tone: "Elliot Brown and Ken Torp arrived here at 11 am on 2/21/93; we are in something of an emergency situation." He explained that they had left five others behind and that Brown had several frostbitten fingers and Torp had one. "Our plan is to ski all the way to Taylor Park Res. on 2/22. The snow is deep. The trail unpacked.... We have food for one day. We apologize for using the cabin, and for any residual mess. We have damaged nothing." They left at 8 a.m. on Monday.
The Dubins and Schluger were now lost along roughly the same route that Torp and Brown had taken. Both women were frostbitten, wet and weakened. Schluger had dropped her pack, along with her sopping-wet sleeping bag, on Saturday. For the next two nights Dee Dubin gave her sleeping bag to Schluger and crawled in with her husband. She was suffering. "Dee had got cold on day two," says Rob Dubin. "I had gaiters that attach to my boots, but Dee's were not as good and were not well attached. Snow got in her boots and the gaiters froze. On the second and third mornings I had to help Dee and Brigitte put on their gaiters. That night I pulled Dee's foot out of her boot, and her sock was frozen to the inside of the boot. Her foot felt like a chunk of wood. I woke her up 30 times during the night and told her to flex her fingers and toes so they wouldn't freeze."
Miraculously, they came upon the same cabin only two hours after Torp and Brown had left it. Unable to find firewood, Rob Dubin broke up furniture for the stove. "Dee and Brigitte warmed their feet in the cook stove," he says. "We left the door open, and they put their feet in it. When I started working on Dee's feet, I could see three colors: pink toward the heel, purple at the arch and gray or ghastly-white toes. I used a pen to mark her foot between the pink and purple areas. Each time the purple moved back toward her toes, I would mark the progress."
While the Dubins and Schluger spent Monday night in the cabin, Torp and Brown curled up on the protected porch of a house near the north end of Taylor Park Reservoir. The men were dry and knew exactly where they were, and on Tuesday morning snowmobilers found them while they were skiing to a trading post at the other end of the reservoir. Torp called 911 on a pay phone. He then phoned his girlfriend, Candyce Jeffrey, in Denver and was shocked to hear of the vast search that had been under way since Sunday. And he was crushed to learn that the Dubins and Schluger were still missing and that a helicopter had spotted the blue backpack and sleeping bag discarded on Saturday by Schluger. To Torp that added up to catastrophe: "That was almost a sure set of facts. The three of them were in an avalanche." Searchers had begun to assume that too. Eighty of them were out on skis, snowshoes, snowmobiles, snowcats, planes and helicopters. Six feet of snow had fallen in the mountains in the five days the skiers had been out, and another winter storm was roaring in that afternoon. There was only a small window of time in which aircraft would be able to fly over the search area. An Army Chinook helicopter from Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, had made it over the 12,000-foot Continental Divide on Tuesday morning after having been turned back twice because of weather. Rescue supervisor Tim Cochrane, who was in the area near the Goodwin-Greene hut, gave directions to the pilot. "I had seen some tracks going into the trees," says Cochrane, "and I had a particular area I wanted the copter to look." The Chinook swung over a ridge, and crew members quickly picked up ski tracks. They led to the cabin where the Dubins and Schluger were waiting.
Now everyone was safe, and the euphoria kicked in. The helicopter flew the trio to Aspen. Rob Dubin walked unassisted into the bear hugs of his two sobbing brothers, but the frostbitten women arrived on stretchers and were soon flown to Denver's Presbyterian/St. Luke's Hospital for the long, painful process of determining whether they would lose any of their frostbitten appendages to amputation. A few fingers and both of Dee Dubin's feet were in danger. The women immediately began treatments in the hospital's hyperbaric chamber, which sends 20 times more oxygen than normal into the bloodstream in order to revive cells damaged by freezing. It would be two weeks before they knew the outcome.