WARNING: Injury photos used below may be too graphic for some.
KUSA - Survival skills helped two ski instructors make it out of the backcountry alive after being lost for 52 hours near Monarch Mountain.
Kelsey Malin and her friend, who does not want to be identified, spent two nights in handmade snow caves to protect themselves from snow, wind and cold.
"I never really built one for survival," Malin told Next. "I know that an igloo maintains a constant temperature of 60 to 65 degrees, just based on your body heat."
At her job at a sandwich shop in Summit County, the Summit Daily News hung in multiple places, with the headline "Snow Caves Likely Saved Lost Skiers."
"The first night, we had enough to put our feet straight out and kind of lay down," said Malin. "That second night, the snow cave we stayed in was just enough for both of us to pretty much lie in the fetal position."
She built the caves near the base of trees, to take advantage of any warmth coming from the only other living thing around them.
"Never got a fire started, which turns out to actually be good. If you get frostbite, one of the biggest detriments is rewarming it and having it refreeze," she said.
It's not that they didn't try to start a fire, it's just that her hands were too cold and her friend accidentally dropped the lighter in the snow.
"Neither of us really knew the mountain like we should have. (We) saw a giant powder stash and just went for it," she said. "I think it was about 3:30 when we realized how screwed we were."
They didn't have a cell phone signal, and it wasn't long before they didn't have a cell phone.
"The last time I checked it was 4:30, and then after that it was dead, and then missing," said Malin.
That was on January 23. The first night in the snow cave.
"I actually did start panicking at one point. I got up and started moving around. I was like, 'We got to go, we got to move, we're going to freeze if we stay here.' My friend's like, 'We're going to get more lost if we go,'" she said. "It was absolutely terrifying. There were quite a few instances where I didn't think we were going to make it out alive."
That night, she said that snow and wind covered their tracks.
"When we took our skis off at one point, to try and hike up because it was too steep for us to side step, we were sinking into our knees," said Malin. "A lot of very strenuous hiking for having no food and no water."
She said they drank water from a creek out of her goggles because she knew better than to eat snow as water.
"You're not supposed to eat snow. In a survival situation like that, you're not supposed to eat snow. it takes more energy for your body to melt the snow than the snow's actually hydrating," said Malin.
Malin got her second wind and kept searching for a way out.
"I saw one of those yellow signs that says like, 'Curves Ahead,' and I just saw it and, kind of, lost all hope. It's like, 'I have no idea where we are now.' Clearly this is not the part of the mountain I thought we were on," said Malin. "I started trying to hike up to find my friend and that's when I realized how exhausted I was. My legs kept giving out from under me. I kept collapsing into the snow, and after about four or five times of that, honestly, I really wanted to give up."
Then, she had a moment that probably only hits people at what might be their worst moment.
"I started to think about all of the things in my life that I haven't gotten to accomplish, the things I might not ever get to do. Then, I started to think about my family and my friends; the fact that I might never get to tell them that 'I love them' again. That really motivated me, actually, to keep trying to get up the road," she said.
They reunited and built a second snow cave.
That night, she woke up and saw her friend not moving.
"I kept like waking him up, 'Are you OK?' and then he'd start shivering violently, and I'm like OK, alright," said Malin.
The next day, he had his second wind, and she couldn't go any farther.
"I just looked at him and said, 'I'm going to slow you down,'" said Malin. "Don't turn around, don't look back, don't come back until you've found help. So, he left, and he started climbing and I kept going in and out of consciousness the whole time," said Malin.
When he came back, she said she was sitting awkwardly with her head slumped very close to the snow.
"He kind of panics and says, 'Kelsey, are you OK?' and my head kind of popped up and I was like, 'Yeah,' and my heart sank seeing him again because, you know, to me it meant that he hadn't found anything and he couldn't make it. Then he goes, 'I have hot tea and I have snacks.' And I was like, 'What do you mean, did you find somebody?' He was like, 'Yeah, he's going to get help now.' And I was like, "Ahhhhh!" That was probably the best feeling I've probably ever had in my life. If I had any tears to cry, I definitely would have been crying," said Malin.
A backcountry skier just happened to pop out in front of her friend, who just happened to be where the skier popped out.
"When the ski patrol finally got there, they took pictures of the snow cave. The one guy looked at it and was like, 'This was incredible that you guys thought about doing this. This saved your life," she said.
Up to this point, we haven't even told you about the frostbite.
"Ski Patrol had actually told him that it was the second worst frostbite they'd ever seen on his feet," said Malin about her friend. "They had to cut his ski boot liners off because they were frozen to his socks which are frozen to his feet."
GRAPHIC: Skier lost near Monarch Mountain suffers severe frostbite
Her frostbite wasn't much better.
"I had already slipped into a creek. This foot was completely soaked," said Malin.
At the hospital they were taken to in Salida, she wasn't given great news.
"They told us right then and there that I would most likely lose all of my toes and possibly part of my finger," said Malin.
They were airlifted to University Hospital in Aurora and given specialized treatment from the burn center.
"At this point, they still look really bad. I'm starting to regain some feeling, but mostly just towards my feet. The tips of my toes I still can't even feel," said Malin. "I should be able to keep all of my toes. I might end up losing one of my pinky toes and I might end up losing part of my big toes. If this is what it costs for me to survive, that's the price I got to pay."
Believe it or not, she can't wait to ski again.
"Oh absolutely, I'm counting down the days," said Malin. "After this experience, it's made me realize that I don't think there's anything in my life that would ever make me want to stop skiing."
She is adamant that they did not go out of bounds or skirt any ropes.
"I don't ski out of bounds, ever, because that's how you get in situations like this," said Malin.
Monarch Mountain is investigating what happened. In a statement, the resort said that the two "exited the Monarch Mountain ski area." It went on to say, "We are very happy to hear they have been released from the hospital and are recovering."
"Me and my friend are both very experienced skiers. We're ski instructors. I've been skiing since I was 3-years-old, so the fact that we could get this turned around, I mean, it could happen to anybody really," said Malin. "Just me being here, it amazes me that my body was able to survive that."
She plans to meet with the executives of Monarch Mountain and the ski patrol about what happened. She said ski patrol knows who stumbled upon them and she hopes to connect with him.
"I want to send him a little 'thank you' basket that has a new thermos, some peppermint tea because it was definitely peppermint tea that was in there and a big thing of a box of different types of granola bars or something," said Malin. "I'm just happy to be alive, you know."
Full Monarch Mountain Statement:
On the afternoon of Monday, January 23, 2017, a male and a female skier exited the Monarch Mountain ski area. They became lost and spent Monday night and Tuesday night in the backcountry.
On Wednesday, January 25 they were discovered by another backcountry skier who contacted Monarch Ski Patrol. Monarch Ski Patrol launched a Search and Rescue operation and found the couple that afternoon. They were transported to University Hospital in Denver to be treated for non-life threatening injuries.
We are very happy to hear they have been released from the hospital and are recovering.