Sisters survive backcountry ordeal
Jenni Councell and her sister, Martha, spent the night of February 11, 2001, lost in the backcountry. They were rescued by Flight for Life the following morning after enduring a 15-below night in a snow cave.
The family is originally from Asheville, N.C. Jenni now lives in Dillon.
The sisters dropped off the southwest side of Loveland Pass – west of The Professor – looking for fresh tracks on their snowboards but ended up lost in a gulch about a mile west of Arapahoe Basin ski area, according to Summit County Search and Rescue team leader Dan Burnett.
The Councells’ brother, Andrew, who was also boarding up on Loveland Pass that day but on the north side of the Pass near Dave’s Wave, reported his sisters missing when they failed to return to their car in the late afternoon.
Burnett said Alpine Search and Rescue, which covers Clear Creek County, immediately launched a search and rescue mission that went on through the night.
Wet and exhausted from having trudged through waist-deep and sometimes chest-deep snow, the sisters decided to stomp an SOS in the snow before it was dark and build a snow cave. Jenni Councell said, “Like, a week before this happened, I watched a television show on how to build snow caves. It was just kind of weird timing that I even saw that show.”
According to Councell, they spent the night in the cave taking turns rubbing each other’s feet and hands. “It was a long night, but it was amazing to experience one’s own will to survive.”
The following morning, Flight for Life helicopter pilot Pat Mahany was headed back to Frisco to refuel when he spotted some tracks in the snow.
“They were clearly tracks from someone post-holing and using their snowboard for leverage,” said Mahany, who has flown hundreds of missions in St. Anthony Hospital’s helicopter. “We knew it was probably the girls. I followed the tracks down the valley, which led to the message the girls stomped in the snow.” According to Burnett, the entire search-and-rescue mission had been focused on the Clear Creek side of Loveland Pass during the night, but with no sign of the Councell sisters, searchers were beginning to focus on the Summit County side by morning.
“I heard the helicopter from inside the cave,” Councell said. “But by the time I got out, it was flying away and I thought maybe they hadn’t spotted us. It was so agonizing to think how close it was, then be isolated again.” Her fears were put to rest when Mahany returned and circled a couple times to let them know they had been spotted.
“When he returned, I was looking straight into his eyes,” Councell said. “I wanted to make sure he saw us.” Burnett said had they not been spotted, they would most likely have perished because of frigid temperatures and no easy way out of their predicament.
“If I had to retire right then, my career would have been complete,” Mahany said. “I had finally found someone alive.” The Councell sisters were airlifted to Arapahoe Basin, where they received medical treatment and were reunited with family.
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