Against All Odds

updated 03/08/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/08/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the late afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 20, the phone in the bedroom of Candyce Jeffery's Denver apartment rang. On the other end, a woman's voice, irrational and frenzied, stammered out words Jeffery could barely understand: "skiers...mountains...lost." Jeffery, her stomach tight with fear, didn't wait to hear more. "Is Ken alive?" she demanded. "I don't know," came the chilling response. The day before, seven cross-country skiers—led by Jeffery's boyfriend, Ken Torp—had headed off into the Rockies for a wilderness adventure. By nighttime, though, 60 m.p.h. winds and treacherous avalanches had swept the area. By the time she hung up, Jeffery understood what was happening. The woman who had called had made her way back through the storm, along with one man; the other five skiers had not.

Alerted that the group was missing, search crews in Aspen immediately kicked into gear. But within hours their snowmobiles were buried in the deep drifts, and the rescue workers, alarmed by the avalanches, had turned back. For four days distraught friends and relatives waited, optimism waning as headlines speculated gloomily about the skiers" chances and rescue teams, daunted by bad weather, talked of calling off the search altogether. "When they said there were tracks going into a snowslide and no tracks coming out..." says Dr. Frank Dubin, 75, whose son Robert was one of those lost. "At the end we lost hope." By the last day almost no one expected the missing five to survive—except, it turns out, the skiers themselves. Trapped by howling blizzards 12,000 feet above sea level, isolated from the world and, at times, from each other, they faced fear, confusion and potentially life-threatening differences of opinion in their struggle to survive. Yet in the end, determined not to be victims, the five skiers made their way, in two groups, to safety. This is their story.

The saga began on Feb. 18, a partly cloudy Thursday. It had not yet started snowing when Brigitte Schluger, a 50-year-old art gallery owner from Denver, stuffed the last of her gear into the big blue backpack she was taking on the three-day cross-country ski trip, but she had heard reports of blizzard conditions, even avalanches, threatening the area. "Are you sure you really want to do this?" a friend asked. "I'm a little scared this time," Schluger admitted. To another, she offered trademark reassurance. "It's a challenge," she said. "We'll be fine."

After all, Schluger, an avid skier, would be trekking with a seasoned crew, including two men who had climbed Alaska's Mt. McKinley and peaks in the Himalayas and Rockies. Schluger herself grew up in mountainous Bavaria and last year had survived being lost in a storm on a similar expedition. "She had to spend the night out of doors in very bad weather building snow caves," said her friend Mildred Caplitz. With that experience behind her, Schluger had no intention of letting a little bad weather get in her way.

She joined Rob Dubin, 39, and his wife, Dee, 47, sports enthusiasts who own Sailing Quarterly video magazine, and drove off to Ashcroft, 15 miles south of Aspen, to meet four other traveling companions: Ken Torp. 50, a director at the University of Colorado in Denver; Elliot Brown, 43, a metallurgical engineer from Golden, Colo.; Richard Rost, 34, a facilities engineer from Boulder, and his girlfriend, Andrea Brett, 42, a transportation consultant from Denver. The seven started out late Friday morning, skiing from Ashcroft toward a hut six miles away. Winds were strong, and avalanches were already reported in the surrounding mountains. But the group had skied together before and wasn't especially concerned. "There's always an avalanche danger on this route," Brown said later. "We didn't feel like the danger was any higher than normal when we went in."

Soon, though, they began to suspect otherwise. "We were in snow that was knee deep, at times waist deep," says Rob Dubin. Winds began whipping up whirls of snow. "One minute you could see ahead," he says, "and the next you couldn't see the lips of your skis." By the time they knew they were in trouble, adds Brown, "we couldn't do anything about it anymore."

Blinded by the snow, the group took a wrong turn. By the time they realized their mistake, they were miles past the safety of their target hut. The temperature plummeted to subzero. The party of seven then tried to build a cave in the snow, but it was too powdery and the shelter collapsed. Most of the seven took refuge in a foxhole they dug in the snow. Only Torp and Rost had waterproof sleeping bags; the Others huddled together in the snow pit, wet, cold and mostly unable to sleep.

By day break the Dubins and Schluger were buried in snow and had to be dug out by Torp and Brown. Snow flurries and howling winds made it difficult to see or hear. The group was divided about what to do next: Should they remain together or split up? Stay put or move on? Torp and Brown, believing it wiser to head away from Ashcroft, suggested continuing south toward Taylor Park. The two took off on their own, with the understanding that if the route were impassable they would return within 25 minutes. If they did not return, the others were to follow.

The pair did not return, but the five remaining skiers chose not to follow. Instead they decided to trace their tracks back to Ashcroft. For a while, Rost and Rob Dubin lead the group. But Schluger was falling far behind. Though tough and skilled, her slight build was no match for the elements. "She was falling," says Rob, "getting blown over by the wind." He wanted to wait. Rost, fearful that his girlfriend, Brett, who was exhibiting symptoms of hypothermia (see accompanying box), would freeze if they didn't keep moving, decided to take her with him and go ahead on his own. "You never want to break up," he said later. "But when it comes down to a dispute, what do you do? Fight?" Said Brett: "We were strictly in a survival mode."

For seven hours, Rost and Brett forged through dangerous avalanche country. They arrived back in Ashcrofl at 4:30 p.m. Saturday and sounded an alarm, letting the world know that their five companions were still lost in the wilderness.

Back in the mountains, the five skiers—broken into two groups, disoriented and tense—were just Irving lo make it through the night. Torp and Brown were headed for Gunnison, at least 35 miles from where they'd started. Hunger was not a problem; they had granola bars, cheese and bread. But they were concerned about what lay ahead and frightened for the friends they had left behind. "Ken and I knew who we were and what we could get through," says Brown. "Working as a team, I knew we could get out. But we agonized over what was happening to the others."

There was reason to worry. Schluger and the Dubins had come to a frightening standstill and had decided to backtrack to the place where they had separated from Torp and Brown. Schluger could no longer carry the weight of her pack and finally had to leave it and all it contained—her food, clothing and sleeping bag—behind. "It's not always the best decision,' says Rob Dubin. "Sometimes you pay for it later." Indeed, when the three stopped on Saturday night—unable, once again, to construct a cave out of powdery snow—they were one sleeping bag short. Dee offered Schluger her own and spent the long, cold night with her husband.

When they awoke, the threesome slowly made their way through heavy snowfall in the direction they believed Torp and Brown had gone. By dusk of the following night, their third without water or warmth, they finally managed to build a snow cave. Torp and Brown, meanwhile, had even better luck: They found an empty government forest station with an unlocked door. "That was a lifesaver," says Brown. Inside, they melted snow on a cook-stove for water to drink, spread their sleeping bags to dry, and debated the next step. The arguments for waiting were persuasive: They were exhausted, cold and concerned about frostbite. "I didn't like the looks of my gray fingertips," says Brown. Nor did the weather promise relief. "It was unrelenting," he says, "snow, an overcast sky, high winds." Hour after hour they listened to the roar of avalanches. "We heard these big booms," says Brown, "and then watched the hillside run down." Still, they felt they had to rely on themselves. "Our conclusion was we wouldn't be rescued because of the weather," says Brown. On Monday morning, the two men stamped the word HELP in the snow, hung an upside-down American flag—a distress-signal—outside the hut, left a note for the others and headed back into the blizzard.

That afternoon, the Dubins and Schluger made it to the forest cabin themselves—and were heartened by their companions' scribbled message. "We knew Ken and Elliot were OK," says Dubin. "And we knew after that we were basically safe." Still, they were not yet saved. The women were badly dehydrated and frostbitten, and the three agreed they could not continue their trek. Dubin broke all the furniture in the cabin to make a fire and checked to make sure the word HELP remained visible in the snow. Then he, his wife and Schluger hunkered down to wait. "I knew it was only a matter of time before they would start searching," he says.

It was, happily, a matter of less time than he expected. The following day, Tuesday, Brown and Torp skied onto Taylor Park Reservoir, 30 miles from Ashcroft, and into a group of snowmobilers. "Are you the two lost guys?" one shouted. "They were the first humans we'd seen in days," says Brown. "We were so happy to see them. 'Yes!' we said." From a trading post telephone, they called the Mountain Rescue Association. Then Torp called Candyce Jeffery, who would have been along for the trip except for a leg injury. "It's me," he said. "It took a moment to register who it was," says Jeffery. "Then came ecstasy—and relief."

Moments later, Torp ended the conversation, anxious to get to Aspen to guide rescuers to the skiers he hoped were safe in the cabin. There was no need. A Chinook Army helicopter, scouting the area, had spotted the hut and landed on the snowfield outside. From the Mountain Rescue Association came the official word: "We have all three."

Glued to their radios and television sets, friends and family members let out joyous whoops. "We'd been crying for days," says Dr. Frank Dubin. "Finally there were tears of happiness." "These people really rescued themselves," says Mountain Rescue director Charley Shimanski. "They did the right thing at the right time." Though everyone but Rob Dubin had frostbitten fingers and toes, Dee Dubin and Brigitte Schluger were the most seriously affected. In Denver each spent two hours in a hyperbaric-therapy chamber, designed to aid healing by sending extra oxygen to damaged tissue. Both are in danger of losing fingers or toes, though it will be weeks before doctors will know for sure.

"I'm just so delighted she's OK," says Schluger's friend Nan Brinks. "It's truly a miracle." "I don't know about higher beings or all that," says Brown. "But if there's anything to energy flow or mysticism, I've got to believe that I had a tremendous amount of support from the folks who care about me. That, combined with my own life force, brought me through."

But it is Rob Dubin who had the most remarkable reaction. Despite his ordeal, he has no plans to stop ski touring, even for the season. Says Dubin: "I have another hut trip planned for next month."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
VICKIE BANE and JONI H. BLACKMAN in Denier

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