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Lost skier survives two nights of frigid temperatures

Joelle Babula and John Bayless

After spending two nights outdoors in sub-zero temperatures, a lost skier at Squaw Valley was found on Monday afternoon.

Nicholas Joseph Williams, 51, of San Francisco was discovered following an all-mountain search of Squaw Valley. He was taken to Tahoe Forest Hospital and was reported in good condition on Tuesday. A resident of the Pacific Heights area of San Francisco, Williams is the CEO of a Silicon Valley firm.

“He’s doing really well. He’s rocking and rolling,” said Joseph Ferrerra with TFH on Tuesday afternoon. “He was eating a hamburger and fries last night.”

Williams, a 1970 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a former pilot of Navy A-6 Intruders, credited his survival to his physical fitness and the survival training he received in the Navy.

According to Ferrerra, Williams was out on the mountain since Saturday morning and managed to survive two nights in temperatures dropping to 20 below.

Williams, who never showed up to meet his friends in San Francisco on Saturday, was reported missing by his wife Monday morning to Squaw Valley Ski Corp., according to a report. Following an all-mountain search order from ski patrol director Bob Cushman, over 50 Squaw Valley personnel began an immediate search for Williams.

“We were very excited with the way it (the search) turned out,” said Cushman, who referred all other questions to Squaw Valley’s public relations department.

According to a press release, two lift maintenance employees, Dan Friesen and Scott Swietanski, found Williams while searching for him on snowmobiles on the back side of Granite Chief Peak. He was then flown to the Squaw Valley parking lot via helicopter and transported by ambulance to TFH.

Williams isn’t exactly sure where he got lost on the mountain, but he knows it was on the third run he took on Saturday.

“It started snowing and I got off to the side. I wound up on the back side of the mountain and I was working my way down when I ran into a rock face I could not get around,” Williams said.

Williams said the snow left him unable to get his bearings, but he eventually wound up in a mountain valley, and was unable to find a way out.

“I took my skis off after four hours,” he said. “I had left them on because I thought I could ski out, but there were dead ends on both sides of the valley.”

During the two nights he spent on the mountain, Williams said he would find trees to protect him from the wind. He said he would start to pitch forward and wake up each time he dozed off. During the days, he made sure to keep moving.

As an avid fitness enthusiast and runner, Williams said his training definitely helped him during the days.

“The running helped,” Williams said. “I never stopped moving during the day. I paced myself, and I never stopped trying to find my way out.”

His last morning on the mountain, Williams fell through the snow into a shallow stream, which filled his boots with water.

“I could feel my feet were starting to freeze,” he said.

That prompted him to try to spark a fire to dry out his socks and boots.

“I found a granite rock face and tried to strike sparks from it with my ski pole,” he said. He said he tried to use bills from his wallet and managed to burn a hole in one, but was unable to get a fire started.”

Despite the situation, Williams never gave up on finding his own way home.

“I figured there had to be a way out and I would find it,” he said. “When the sun came out on Monday I began to make my way out of the valley.”

On Monday, Williams said he climbed on top of a knoll and was able to dry out in the sun. He saw planes overhead and yelled and waved. Later in the day, he heard a snowmobile which sounded like it was on the other side of the valley and began calling out for help.

“I screamed again and thought I heard a reply,” he said. “The sounds of the snowmobile faded and then came back. I thought I heard them reply again and kept yelling. Then I heard them say, ‘We hear you.'”

Then the helicopter arrived and Williams ran to greet it.

“I’m extremely glad to be alive,” he said. “I thank God. I prayed a lot and it changed my whole perspective on life. Other things don’t seem as important now.”

The discovery of Williams was greatly aided by Cassie Cornwall, the office manager for the CHP in Truckee. When the call of the missing skier came into the CHP office, Cornwall took the extra time to run a “144” to see where and if William’s car had been towed Saturday night because of snow removal. She discovered that the car had been towed from the Squaw Valley Ski Corp. parking lot.

“Cassie’s decision to take the extra time was a critical point in the search,” said Mimi Shoop, CHP timekeeper. “In government agencies, a missing person report can be just business as usual, but it wasn’t for Cassie. I learned a lesson myself.”

According to Shoop, Cornwall, who has been with the department for 10 years, will receive a commendation from Capt. Don Bossingham.

Sherry Mays and John Bayless contributed to this story.

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