Fluke ski fall turns tragic but locals literally save the day… and Orion

A perfect storm of circumstances

By Mark Reaman

It seemed like such an easy tumble into the soft snow below Paradise Bowl on a quiet Tuesday afternoon, December 5. Orion Koleis thought so too at first, but as he settled in the snow after a tree tip clipped his downhill ski on Upper Canaan throwing him into the air, he quickly realized that seemingly innocuous fall might be more dangerous than it looked. And it was.

Koleis found himself head-down in a pile of soft snow with another tree pinning him below the surface. He said it happened in a second and there was no way to recover or prevent the position he came to rest in. “Almost immediately I knew how precarious and very dangerous my situation was. I tried for about a minute to extricate myself, but with one arm stuck under a branch and the other arm unavailable above and behind me, I was helpless to do anything effective,” he recalled. “I was hanging upside down somewhat suspended in the soft snow, and the trees around me only fixed me in place and did not allow any kind of fulcrum or leverage to maneuver off of. After a minute or so of fighting I realized the futility of my efforts and shifted my energy to kicking my legs in the air, knowing they were above the surface and visible.”

The longtime skier, who is a volunteer with the Western Mountain Rescue Team and a bar manager at the Blackstock Bistro in Gunnison, has also worked as a helicopter ski guide in Alaska, so he knew he was in a bad situation. In fact, it ended up being a situation that literally took him to the edge of his life as his heart stopped beating and he technically was suffocating. But thanks to some quick acting locals who happened to have the right skills, he was able to relay the story two days later and share some love for the people that literally saved his life…people he rightfully describes as heroes.

Just an easy afternoon of Paradise laps…

“It was a fluke, a freak accident, but it could happen to anyone,” he said two days after the accident and one day after being released from the Gunnison Valley Hospital. “I was coming out of Paradise Bowl to Canaan where patrol had moved the ropes back and was skiers-left where a pocket of powder was near those punji trees are that we’ve all skied. I was looking for soft snow to slash. I was going slow. It really was the most innocuous fall.”

“But I ended up upside down and while it wasn’t a tree well, it was acting like a tree well. My legs were in the air and I couldn’t dig out. The entire time I had snow falling up my nose, melting and pooling into my sinuses, and my mouth kept getting loose snow that would act like an avalanche burial clogging my throat like a snowball plug. Every time I tried to spit or cough it out the next breath would be a gasp and only draw more loose snow in. Kind of drowning and suffocating me at the same time. Truly my nightmare scenario.”

As an experienced skier who has worked as a ski guide, a patroller, a ski instructor and who also re-upped his Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification just three weeks ago, Koleis realized he was in trouble and he couldn’t call out to anyone. “My ski partner was ahead of me and waiting at the Paradise Lift. When I didn’t show up, he figured something was wrong and got back on the lift and he saw patrol working on me. 

“I struggled hard for two, maybe two-and-a-half minutes,” Koleis continued. “It was a nightmare. I knew where it was heading and thought this was probably going to be it for me,” he recalled. “I kept flailing my legs to show anyone looking that I was in distress. Then I passed out because my airways were blocked, and I couldn’t breathe.”

Locals in the right place at the right time

Some people did recognize what was going on and they happened to be the best people for that situation. A group of friends were skiing that afternoon and it happened that of the six people riding in two chairs over Canaan at that exact moment, five had CPR or WFR certifications or training. 

“We were riding the lift and Riley (Sanchez) pointed to some ski boots in the air kicking,” explained Dom Digregorio, who was in the second chair back. “At first, we thought it was a joke – a ‘Jerry of the Day’ thing but then we realized it was serious. We tried to yell at some people on the slopes nearby to go help but no one understood what was happening. I was able to call ski patrol but knew we’d get to the top of the lift and down to the boots before them. We got off the chair and didn’t know what we were getting into. I timed it Saturday and it took about two minutes to go from the spot we saw him on the lift to the spot where he was in the trees.”

All six rushed to Canaan as fast as possible. In those two minutes, Koleis had stopped moving. Ben Barocas and Annika Engholm were on the first chair, and they got to the scene and started digging to get the buried skier out of the snow.  

“We busted ass down to him and Annika and I were first on the scene,” said Barocas. “He was upside down and not moving so we dug him out, but it wasn’t easy, and his face was purple and he looked dead by the time we got him unburied.”

“It was wild. We ended up probably chest deep, four feet down in these soft facets of snow and tangled in the punjis,” said Digregorio. “It was the exact scenario of a tree well but with punjis. We were able to dig him out and his face was really blue, his tongue was super swollen, and his eyes were in the back of his head. There was no pulse. He was essentially dead when we got to him. We were able to move him to a relatively flat spot on top of some compressed snow. That’s when we cleared his airways and started CPR.”

Digregorio worked for years as a guide with Eleven and has his own backcountry fly fishing business, Westfeather. He has all sorts of first aid certifications including being an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) instructor. He basically took charge of the rescue attempt and what he called the “dirty job” of giving breaths to the victim. “Everyone was operating fluidly, and we were calling out the steps. It was great teamwork,” he said. “We probably had done 10 rounds of CPR when the first patroller arrived. Then Orion vomited and started taking little breaths.”

Riah Risk, who is a Grand Canyon river guide, was one of the first to start the chest compressions. “In WFR and CPR courses you hear time and time again that the first time you give CPR to a real human it likely won’t be on a level surface, and it won’t feel real,” she said. “I think we can all attest to the harsh reality of this notion. Ski patrol began to trickle in, told us we were doing great and to keep going. A nurse showed up who had spotted us from the lift, and she jumped into our CPR rotation. After what felt like a lifetime this man we now know as Orion, took a long-awaited breath… and just like that his heart was beating again.” 

It wasn’t just a stranger…

Digregorio asked the patroller for a pocket mask and other ski patrollers arrived on scene. They administered a nasal airway tube through his nose. “By the end of it, he was getting his peach color back, and his tongue wasn’t as swollen. He opened his eyes and asked politely if he could spit. Then we recognized that it was Orion. We knew him from around town, but it didn’t look like him when we first got there.

“They put him on the board and hauled him down to the clinic and he was by then basically fine,” continued Digregorio. “I was amazed at the teamwork we all displayed. We had put in the training time, and we were able to perform. There was a lot of emotion and adrenaline.”

Orion wakes up from the other side

“I remember everything until I passed out and then I woke up when the ski patrol was putting me on the backboard,” Koleis said. “It was the perfect storm of circumstances. To get stuck in that snow hole was a fluke. Then it was the perfect circumstance to have the right people who knew how to do the right thing. They saved my life. Truly. They are heroes.”

After decades in the ski industry, Koleis said he’s had some close calls and he has performed CPR on people. He knows the success rate isn’t always good. “They did everything right with me. It was textbook CPR,” he said of his six rescuers. “I regained consciousness after literally being on the edge of death. Coming to, I could hear the urgency in the voices of the ski patrol, but everyone did what they needed to do. I’ve been in the rescue world 25 years, and it was a different feeling being the one that needed rescuing.”

At the medical clinic, Koleis was told that normal protocol for someone whose heart had stopped beating was to call in a flight for life to Grand Junction. But he said the doctor on duty was surprised at how quickly and how well Koleis was recovering. “He said he’d never put someone in a helicopter who looked like I was looking, and he wasn’t going to start now,” he relayed. “I was feeling good. The local EMTs did transport me to the hospital in Gunnison by ambulance where I stayed for 24 hours to the minute.” 

Crested Butte Fire Protection District EMT chief Rob Weisbaum said his crew transported the 45-year-old Koleis to GVH. “I have to commend the bystanders who recognized this incident and immediately jumped into action,” Weisbaum said. “This is a testament to the good will of people and truly saving a life. We applaud them and their successful efforts.”

CBMR vice president and general manager Tara Schoedinger also sent out a round of applause. “I could not be more proud of our patrol team and everyone who responded so quickly on Tuesday,” she said. “I’m incredibly grateful that he’s making such a good recovery.”

While Koleis was in the hospital, the six friends who saved his life paid him a visit. “Meeting his parents at the hospital was probably the most emotional time for us,” said Digregorio. “They were so humble and so thankful.”

“We learned Orion is a long time local, heli-ski guide, river guide, certified badass—who just so happened to experience the perfect storm that nearly cost him his life,” added Risk. “Shortly after the incident we were fortunate enough to meet his parents. The looks of gratitude on their faces and their warm embraces are things I will cling to forever.”          

Lessons

The six initial rescuers included Riley Sanchez, Riah Risk, Annika Engholm, Emily Popke, Dom Digregorio and Ben Barocas. Stephanie Hagdorn is a nurse from GVH who teaches CPR and when she saw the initial six pulling Koleis out of the snow from the lift, she skied down, offered help and jumped into their CPR rotation as well.

The group of six have had dinner together since the incident and Digregorio says they are still coping with the situation. “We’re all honestly still a little shaken from it,” he said. “It’s something to experience that sort of situation inbounds at a ski area. It doesn’t have to happen in the backcountry. Anything can get to any of us.”

Risk said she took that same lesson away from the incident. “My two cents are: invest in your rescue skills. At a minimum take a CPR class, take a Wilderness First Responder course, be vigilant, pay attention to your surroundings,” she said. 

“We were faced with a moment of fight or flight, and I sure as hell am glad we chose to fight. At this time, we are still processing but one thing is for sure… we simply cannot learn or grow if we don’t share our experiences.”

“Orion’s stars really aligned that day,” summarized Digregorio. “So many crazy variables with the timing all led to us being on the chair where and when we were. A lot of coincidences lined up the right way.”

“It’s a hell of a story,” Koleis concluded.

Everyone agrees it is a fluky and remarkable story. Koleis said anyone could find themselves in that story—either as a victim or potential rescuer. He recommended everyone learn CPR. Digregorio seconded that thought. “We’ve talked about it and realized we made some mistakes,” he said. “But at the end of the day, communication was key and the outcome was positive. The CBMR ski patrol was great. To have a success story is so positive because not a lot of them are. It’s given us all the drive to learn more.”

When asked if after he passed out and his heart stopped beating if he had “seen the light” that so many people apparently see in near death experiences, Koleis chuckled and said he did not. Obviously, it wasn’t his time…

“This story ended well,” Koleis said. “It was a combination of so many good things falling into place. I’m an incredibly lucky guy right now. I can’t begin to give enough credit to those who saved my life.”

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