The Man The Mountain Couldn't Kill

The Man The Mountain Couldn't Kill »Play Video
SEATTLE - Dan Witkowski knew this day would come.

He knew he'd hear that sound of his boots snapping into his ski bindings again. He knew he'd see his skis pointed down a run and feel the downhill thrill.

He knew this day would come, but he came so close to losing it forever.

It was New Year's Eve 2003 when Dan, an experienced skier, made a decision that nearly cost him his life. It was what skiers call a "bluebird" day -- clear, cold and a lot of fresh powder.

Dan rode to the top of Alpental and went out into the backcountry alone.

He never thought he'd get lost, but on his second run he did. Dan spent hours wandering through the snow, looking for a way out.

"It was super cold the first night and I remember just shivering so hard," he said.

Searchers began looking for him, and the hours of searching slowly turned into days. Then a snowstorm hit, followed by brutally cold weather.

By the third night, Dan had lost his gloves and the socks and liners in his ski boots had frozen.

"It didn't bother me because my foot got so numb that it froze into place," he explained.

On the fifth day searchers were planning to call it quits. Then, just one hour before the search was to be called off, rescuers found Dan.

It was a miracle.

Dan was dehydrated and hallucinating, but he was alive. "I didn't want to die, I just didn't want to end up there," he said from the hospital just a few days after his rescue.

His fingers and toes were severely frostbitten, and doctors amputated both of his legs just below his knees.

Just four months after his rescue I met Dan at his home in Ellensburg. He was learning to walk on his new feet and dreaming of being back on the slopes again.

"I'd like to get up on the hill, take some first aid classes, start helping with Search and Rescue and be part of the ski patrol," he said. "I know the area and have a desire to get back."

Nearly one year to the day after he got lost, Dan slipped on his prosthetic legs, buckled up his ski boots, and rode a ski lift with me to the top of a run.

I asked him, "so what's your favorite part of being back out here?"

"Just being back out here, I think that's it," he said. "I didn't expect to be on my skis like this, this soon."

By watching him, you'd think he'd never missed a beat.

But in reality, Dan had to learn how to feel his way down the slopes in a whole new way.

"It's a totally different way of skiing, it looks like I'm normal but I'm skiing differently to get that hard edge to carve around," he explained.

"When we're up here and you're looking out over there (at the backcountry), does it bring back any memories?" I asked him.

"Yeah, seeing all those trees covered in snow, that's basically what I was dealing with...mountains, trees and snow. So, when I see that, yeah it kind of brings me back," he said.

"Do you want to get back out there?" I asked.

"In the backcountry? Yeah I'd like to see how far I can take my skiing," he said, "I'm not really setting limits to it. It's going to take me where it's going to take me, and I'm going to charge with it. I don't know where I'm going to end up, but so far so good."

I told him he has a good attitude. "Yeah, so far, I think it's been working out so I don't see why I should have a bad attitude," he said.

It was Dan's decision to amputate his feet. That decision allowed him to lead the life he wants to...again.

"I'm not really left with any other choices, it's either I don't do this stuff or I do. This is an easy choice, like it was to lose my feet, you know? It sounds like it'd be a hard choice to make but it really isn't, you're only given one path and you go for it."

Dan told me he wants to compete one day in paraplegic ski races and that he will be back out in the backcountry.

He also wanted me to give credit to the person who made his prosthetics, Ryan Blanck with Northwest Prosthetic. But the real reason for Dan's recovery is right inside his own heart.