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He flew right into trouble at ski resort

A snowboarder from Westminster is saved a day after hitting a rock as he surfed otherwise familiar terrain.

January 27, 2008|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

It all happened so fast, and so easily. Oscar R. Gonzales, 24, had snowboarded on this mountain for years. He knew just how to maneuver 20 feet off the trail at Mountain High ski resort in northeast Los Angeles County and go speeding through a familiar grove of trees.

This time, in thick powder at about 3 p.m. Friday, his board hit a rock. He plummeted 30 feet off the back side of the ridge, landing on another rock so hard that it carved a dark red welt on the skin of his back.

He barely felt the pain.

"The adrenaline kicked in. I just wanted to get out of there," he said in a Saturday evening interview.

Gonzales, of Westminster, would not be rescued until after daybreak Saturday, when a helicopter rescue crew spotted him in a field, waving. He was the only one of four people missing in the area to survive; the others were killed by avalanches.

He spent much of the night trudging through a mountain stream in 22-degree cold, the insides of his snowboarding boots soaked with water.

He first found shelter in snow under a log, then in the wreck of an abandoned airplane. He chewed on bark pulled from a tree and sucked melted snow through his frozen gloves.

All the time, he thought of his 5- 1/2 -month-old daughter, Jaden Ann Gonzales.

"I thought how I wasn't going to see my daughter graduate from school. . . . "

That, he said, kept him moving.

His sister, Melissa Gonzales, calls him stubborn.

"He thinks he's a daredevil," she said Saturday as the two siblings talked at their grandparents' home in Santa Ana.

Oscar Gonzales, who works as a stone technician, started snowboarding three years ago. He has frequented Mountain High and has also snowboarded in deep snow at Mammoth Mountain.

He and three friends headed for Mountain High about 11 a.m. Friday, eager to sample the fresh powder. Gonzales was on his third run at the top of the resort's western area when he got off the chairlift, headed right, skied off-trail alone, hit the rock and went flying.

He decided that he had to keep moving to stay warm, so he started hiking, using his snowboard as if it were a pole to feel out soft places in the deep snow. He reached a small waterfall about 10 feet high, flanked by snow-covered rocks.

He slid down the rocks and began following the stream bed, since it was easier to hike in water than in snow.

He was wearing a tan-and-white parka and tan-and-white pants -- the wrong colors to be spotted from the air. So for a time, he pulled off his parka and hiked in his black sweatshirt, a knit ski beanie pulled over his head.

Night fell. He heard helicopters in the distance, but then they stopped.

His legs began to cramp badly and he couldn't feel his toes.

"My boots were pretty much frozen," he said. "I was sitting on a tree trunk, waiting for the feeling to come back."

"I basically almost lost faith," Gonzales said.

He found out later that the helicopter search was called off about 11:30 p.m.

His sister had driven to Mountain High from Orange County as soon as she heard from her brother's friends that he was missing. Gonzales' mother, who lives in Hesperia, also rushed to the resort.

His father, who also lives in Westminster, drove to the resort about 4:30 a.m. Saturday to be there when the helicopter search started again at 6 a.m.

Gonzales, meanwhile, was losing steam.

He dug a hole in a bank of snow under a tree limb, curling up for about three hours with his eyes closed but sleeping barely half an hour.

"Half the time I had the beanie over my face because I didn't want to see where I was," he said. He began hiking again around 1 a.m., tossing his gloves because they were frozen.

He wrapped his arms across his chest inside his sweatshirt, his hands in his armpits to keep warm, while the empty sleeves of his parka grew so stiff that they stood out straight from his sides, scarecrow style.

In the moonlight, he saw coyote tracks in the snow. He even saw a small bear.

"I just kept quiet, respected its space," he said.

He spotted the abandoned airplane, covered with a foot of snow, and sought shelter inside.

When he heard the helicopters again, he got up and headed toward an open area where, he thought, they might spot him.

A crew member "ran up to me and asked if I were Oscar," Gonzales said.

He did not learn about the skiers killed in the avalanches until he was back at the resort.

"They gave me word when I walked in the door, and I started crying," Gonzales said. "I wish I had run into them out there."

deborah.schoch@latimes.com

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