It was on the second day of being lost on Red Mountain — cold, exhausted, disoriented and alone in the dark— that Mark Gayowski despaired.
“I was pretty much ready to give up at that point, and just sit down and let nature take its course,” he says. “I was so tired, cold and it was socked in with snow and wind.
“I said ‘I can’t do this.'”
The 34-year-old construction worker spoke to Rossland News from his hospital bed the day after being rescued off Esling Creek, a stream that runs through the mountain ski resort in Rossland.
The man had spent nearly 48 hours cold, wet and alone in sub-zero temperatures, in the middle of the worst storm to hit the area this season.
It hadn’t started that way.
‘I have to get myself out’
Gayowski’s an avid skier, and was out for the third time this season. Just wandering around the hill, he headed up the lift for one last run on Monday afternoon.
“I was going to meet my friends after that run, I was going up the chair lift,” he says. “I called my mom to say I was having a really fun time, and I was going to check out this run.”
Gayowski started down the slope, and took a turn down into a gully that seemed navigable.
“I thought I knew where I was going, and thought I could hook back to another run,” he says. “But it turned out I couldn’t. It started to get super-thick with trees.
“I had an idea of where it was and what I was going to do. But once you get to the bottom it’s like you’re in Vietnam or something, the trees are so thick.”
It soon became impossible to ski any further, and he ditched his skis. The Esling Creek watershed is a natural mess — huge fallen trees, rocks, broken landscape, dangerous potholes with flowing water underneath.
“It was crazy-hard to get through, I was falling through in places, my feet were filling up with ice-cold creek water,” he says.
Gayowski realized he was in trouble. He started heading downhill, hoping to link up to a forest road further down the hill.
But it was already dark, the middle of the night. The weather was getting worse. He realized he didn’t have anything to help him — he hadn’t brought a lighter or matches to start a fire. And he had lost his gloves.
“If I had at least had a lighter I would have stopped, lit a fire and dried off and warm up,” he says. “But I didn’t, and I was freezing cold. The only way I could stay warm was by keeping moving.”
He knew there wasn’t going to be any rescue the first night.
“I knew if it was too foggy there wouldn’t be any choppers flying, and that’s what the conditions were,” he says. “So I said to myself ‘I have to get myself out, there isn’t going to be anyone coming.'”
The next day, cold, wet, and exhausted, Gayowski changed his plans, and started heading back up the creek, scrambling up, over, and under huge logs all day to try to retrace his steps.
“I was able to find my tracks coming down. I thought, ‘Thank God, I can do this. I got my tracks’,” he says. “It took me all day to walk back up, but once I got closer to the top it had snowed so hard I lost my tracks. And I was trying to get through waist-deep snow with no gear.”
Gayowski was exhausted, hungry, and cold.
“I couldn’t make it,” he recalls. “It was the afternoon by then. I was pretty much ready to give up. I thought I was going to die. I sat there 10 minutes. I even took my jacket off and said I’ll let myself freeze at that point.
“Then I sat there and said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not doing this’. So I put my jacket back on and took a decision to go back down to the valley.”
A second cold, hungry, and exhausting night faced him. He pulled his arms from his sleeves and curled up in the black, quiet forest, and kept as warm as he could.
“I didn’t have anything to light a fire,” he says. “The only thing I could do is stick my head into my jacket and the warmth from my breath gave me a little warmth. And wrap my arms around myself. It gave me enough warmth to stop shivering a bit.”
The next morning he changed his plans again, and started back uphill. But he quickly became mired in the rough terrain. He was beginning to hallucinate, seeing and hearing things that weren’t there.
“I’m telling myself, ‘I can’t do another night up here, so what are you going to do?’,” he says. “I decided to go back up top, but I probably wouldn’t have made it this time. I had no energy left, I was dragging myself up. It was crazy, serious bushwacking. I was talking to myself a lot.”
Gayowski’s voice becomes thick as he talks about the first moments encountering his rescuers.
“I was shouting for help. I heard someone yelling back, but I said to myself, ‘Don’t get your hopes up. You’re just hearing things again’,” he said. “I said ‘keep walking’. Then I eventually realized there were people there. It was a moment of serious relief.”
An emotional meeting occurred. The rescuers had sandwiches, candy and hot chocolate for him. And warm clothes for him to put on.
It turned out Gayowski was only 300 metres from his intended destination — the forest road that would have taken him back to town. But he was even closer to a cleared out area where a helicopter could land. Ironically, that helicopter pad that saved his life was carved out by his father, who’s worked as a brush-cutter for Red for years.
“I just had to walk a little ways, and the search-and-rescue people just walked ahead of me to make a trail for me. I was tired,” he says.
Grateful for community
The chopper brought Gayowski back to the search headquarters, then he was taken to hospital. He’s being monitored for cold, dehydration, exhaustion, and the cuts and bruises suffered from bushwacking. He should be making a full recovery.
But it is going to take some time to recovery mentally as well.
He says the experience, and being rescued, have changed him.
“I’m just grateful, glad to be in a warm place, I can see my family and everything,” he says. “It was definitely a life-changing event.
“One of the paramedics said to me, ‘You know, a lot of people don’t get a second chance,” he says. “He said, ‘Make sure you use it wisely’.
That really resonated with me.”
Gayowski says he’s so grateful for the community support, and the hours and effort spent by rescue crews looking for him.
“It’s been a big moment of realization, how much people care and how lucky I am to live in a place like this,” he says.
“I just want to say thank you, and to anyone elsewhere who’s skiing, maybe think twice before you want to duck under a rope.”
And he’s taking the paramedic’s advice to heart.
He plans to offer his services to the group that rescued him — and become a Search and Rescue volunteer himself.