ASHLAND — Snowboarder Eli Kepsel was about to strap on his snowboard near the Mt. Ashland Ski Area lodge to prepare for another run Sunday afternoon, but the board slid away and Kepsel chased it down the hill.
It was a choice captured on ski area surveillance video, an image that could have been his last.
“We chase boards down there all the time,” ski area Manager Hiram Towle said. “It’s a place we call ‘The Abyss.’ Once you get down there, it’s real unforgiving.”
After spending two frigid nights in the woods bedded under tree canopies, Kepsel was found alive Tuesday morning, cold but in good spirits after his long walk in the woods toward Ashland.
He said he could hear sirens and see the search helicopter but was too disoriented to signal it, authorities said. But at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Kepsel walked out of the woods and met a search-and-rescue team on Forest Service Road No. 2060 about four air miles from the lodge.
Kepsel was taken by ambulance to Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center to be evaluated for hypothermia, according to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.
He was listed Tuesday evening in fair condition, said Lauren Van Sickle, Asante senior public relations specialist.
“He’s a tough cookie, a lucky dude,” Towle said. “Not many people can make it as long as he did.”
Though Kepsel was unprepared to spend one night let alone two in the backcountry, part of the reason he survived his two-day ordeal was his ability to stay relatively dry in his snowboarding gear, authorities said.
“The key is to stay dry,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Shawn Richards, who heads the county’s SAR teams. “If you’re out in the woods 48 hours as opposed to 24 hours, you have twice the chance to get wet. Getting wet is a bad thing.”
One exceptionally good thing was the role the mountain’s video cameras played in the rescue, Richards said.
After Kepsel’s mother reported him missing Monday morning, ski area employees found Kepsel’s car still in the parking lot and began searching the ski area, Towle said.
By afternoon, ski area crews were scanning the surveillance video in search of someone matching the description of Kepsel, who was wearing a distinctive yellow-green jacket.
Sure enough, the camera caught the image of Kepsel just outside the lodge.
“It’s hard to miss,” Towle said. “He’s the guy in the yellow jacket. You see the board go. A skier almost grabbed it but missed it. He goes after it. The rest is history.”
Watch this Mail Tribune exclusive surveillance video, below.
Richards said that video provided the lead for SAR teams to follow Kepsel’s tracks beginning about 3 p.m. Sunday, but the tracks became more difficult to follow as the snow level waned farther down the hill.
That search party ended unsuccessfully after about 12 hours of tracking, but SAR teams knew what general area Kepsel was headed, Richards said.
Kepsel told SAR officials that he heard sirens and spotted the Brim Aviation helicopter, “so he knew we were looking for him,” Richards said.
A SAR team from Klamath Falls was patrolling FS Road No. 2060 when Kepsel walked up to them, Richards said.
Towle said snowboards or skis quite regularly slide out of the ski area and into the abyss. Most are retrieved by trained ski-area staff, Towle said. Very few dive into The Abyss themselves, he said.
“No snowboard’s worth your life,” Towle said.