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The Truth: Dan Witkowski

In March 2000, aspiring pro freeskier Dan Witkowski tore an ACL just before the U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships in Crested Butte, Colorado. Disappointed, he returned home to Ellensburg, Washington, for surgery. A few soul-searching years later, Witkowski was ready to get serious again. Then things went disturbingly awry. On December 31, 2003, Witkowski, then 25 years old, ventured into the Alpental backcountry for a few hours of skiing—alone, with no food, water, or safety equipment. Five days later, rescuers found him, delirious and nearly dead. He lost both legs just below the knees to frostbite and gangrene. Less than a year later he was skiing again.

Just before the accident, I felt like skiing was a do-or-die situation. My knee was better, and I wanted to throw all my marbles on the floor and see what I could do. I felt healthy, and if I really pushed myself then maybe something good would happen. That got me in trouble.

I could have turned back. Instead, I jumped off a ridge. The landing couldn't have been wider than four feet, and on either side were huge drop-offs. But I stuck it, and I got caught up in the moment, so I just kept going. By the time I realized I'd gone too far, it was too late. The snow was so dry and deep and the terrain was so steep that I wasn't able to hike back up.

On the second night, I started hallucinating. I saw Indian burial grounds. I went into Indian villages and saw people. I saw the whites of their eyes. Some were in ceremonial gowns. I asked them for water and help, and I'd make eye contact. I tried to get them to help, but they wouldn't talk to me. Later I found out that other people had been lost in that area over the years, and had also seen Indians.

On the third day, I thought I was in my own bedroom, so I took off my ski boots. But then the liners froze up and I bloodied up my fists trying to pound them back in. So I chucked the liners and then used the shells of the boots with no socks. My feet froze to the shells. That allowed me to move and walk from the third day to the fifth day, but it's probably the reason I lost my feet.

I didn't think anyone was going to find me. I had an idea that if I hit a brick wall and knew I wasn't going to make it, that I might want to end it quickly by stripping and jumping into a creek. I had to accept my death.

Skiing the backcountry is definitely fun. Go for it, but try to do it safely. I didn't think that way until now. When I got lost, I didn't have an avalanche transceiver, food, or water. I didn't tell people where I was. Take it lightly, and you could easily end up like me, or worse.

New Year's Day 2005. It was scary, because skiing was such a big part of my life and I didn't know if it would work anymore, but it did. My first run wasn't good, but I progressed quickly.

My leg fell off during my first chairlift ride—ski, boot, prosthetic, everything. That kind of sketched me out. Lucky that no one was below me. I had to hop off the chairlift at full speed, 'cause the lift person didn't slow the chair down. That was kind of tricky. But I didn't fall.

If I could get to Crested Butte again and enter that competition, I'd be coming full circle. I don't need to place or do well. Just being there and doing it would be enough.

September 2005

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