A marathon - but they made it

The call came at 1 a.m., New York time. His girlfriend said Jason Mielcarek and his friend Taylor Cameron hadn't come home from a ski trip to Crystal Mountain.

Patti Mielcarek said she thought about all her son’s strengths: He runs marathons, rock climbs and has skied since he was 3 years old.

And then she looked up Crystal Mountain on the Internet. She saw a panorama of mountains, a vast expanse of mountains.

“We had confidence in him, but we started to worry about the elements. How cold it was going to get, wolves, avalanches.”

“We didn’t sleep at all,” said his father, Daniel Mielcarek.

The story ends happily.

Mielcarek and Cameron walked into the Ohanapecosh Ranger Station in Mount Rainier National Park about 26 miles from where they’d started before noon Friday. The pair sounded sheepish about the search they’d touched off but also grateful to would-be rescuers.

“We just want to thank everyone who was looking out for us. They did a really fine job,” Mielcarek told KING-TV after the pair was flown by helicopter from the campground back to Crystal Mountain.

The two men, both 27, met at the University of Vermont, where they both graduated in 2005, Mielcarek’s parents said. Cameron was originally from Pennsylvania; Mielcarek grew up in New York.

Mielcarek moved to Seattle in November, his parents said, drawn here by a number of friends and by the prospect of a job in the out-of-doors. Patti Mielcarek said her son had just landed work with the Redmond Parks Department.

After they were found, the two men told rangers that they hadn’t realized they were straying out of bounds from the ski area into the Norse Peak Wilderness. When they discovered they were lost, they followed the Morse Creek drainage about 3 miles down to Highway 410, which is closed for the winter.

They skied and snowboarded 6 miles to Chinook Pass and another 3 to Cayuse Pass, where they hit Highway 123, said Uwe Nehring, acting chief ranger at Mount Rainier.

The two men said they asked a passing motorist for directions and were told it was about 5 miles back to Crystal. Although it was getting dark, they figured they could hike to the ski area and their car and get home.

“We definitely wouldn’t have gone if it wasn’t for the 5-mile estimation,” Cameron told KING-TV.

But instead of heading up Highway 123 to Crystal, they turned left, heading in exactly the wrong direction.

Nehring, the Mount Rainier ranger, said that in summer, signs would have shown the way to Crystal Mountain. But signs were removed at the start of winter so they wouldn’t be destroyed by snow or snow-removal equipment.

When the two skiers didn’t return to Seattle by 9 p.m., their girlfriends reported them missing. Pierce County Search and Rescue started looking for them early Friday. Ski Patrol members found their empty car in the Crystal Mountain parking lot.

Searchers found tracks leading out of the ski area and down Morse Creek into Yakima County. The Yakima County sheriff’s search-and-rescue unit joined the hunt on snowmobiles.

Nehring said the pair had hiked for an additional 13 miles through the night, Mielcarek wearing ski boots, Cameron in snowboard boots.

“It couldn’t have been too pleasant,” Nehring said. “Fortunately they were both in pretty good shape.”

By the time their overnight trek ended, they had re-entered Pierce County and then crossed into Lewis County, near the southeast edge of the national park.

As the dark hours crawled by in New York with no word of their son, Mielcarek’s parents booked airplane tickets to Seattle.

His mother said she calmed herself by thinking about all her son’s experience, how he’d worked for five years at a ski resort in Stowe, Vt., how he skied some 85 days each season, how he often worked nights driving snow-making and grooming machines.

When Mielcarek called his parents about 3 p.m. their time, he said his feet were blistered but that otherwise he was OK.

His parents saw their son from the Crystal Mountain parking lot in a TV interview via the Internet.

His father said, “You could see him, his shyness, his quietness.”

“He walked all night,” his mother said.