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Saturday, March 21, 1998

Father, son say faith and prayer helped them survive blizzard

By Terri Urban / The Gazette

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Mike Couillard's 1995 ski trip with his 10-year-old son started out the way so many father-son adventures do: full of joy, excitement and the anticipation of a fun time together.

But their trip nearly ended in tragedy. For nine and a half days, the U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and his son Matthew struggled to survive in the freezing Turkish wilderness after they got lost in a blizzard. They battled frostbite and starvation and came face to face with death.

What kept them alive, they say, was their strong Christian faith and the prayers of people around the world.

So strong was their faith and the faith of their family and friends that they wanted to share its role in their survival. The result is a book, "Miracle on the Mountain, a True Tale of Faith and Survival," which talks about their ordeal and spirituality. It was published by Avon and went on sale Wednesday.

"Not only is the book an edge-of-your-seat survival story but a story of the inspiring power of religious faith," said Ann McKay Thoroman, the book's editor.

The Couillards, who live in Black Forest, Colo., say they wanted to tell others about the power of God, who saved them.

"I feel like Lazarus in a lot of ways," says Mike Couillard, an Air Force Academy graduate, referring to the man Jesus brought back to life. "The world had basically given us up for dead. Now, we are alive."

Their story began when Mike and Matthew were skiing the highest trail of a ski resort in Turkey, where the elder Couillard was stationed. The two were caught in a sudden blizzard. Blinded by snow and unable to find the trail, the father and son tried to keep moving and find their way back to the ski lodge.

Finally, the two had to stop because of exhaustion and darkness.

As Mike writes, "In my mind, that was the cutoff point that meant we were in a survival situation."

They huddled together in a stand of trees and reconciled themselves to staying outside until they were found.

More than 4 feet of snow fell in the next four days, hampering search efforts. On the second day, the two moved into a small cave - little more than a 3-foot crevice between two rocks - and lay inside, sharing body heat. Without food, matches or other supplies, they had few resources to wait out the storm.

What they had in abundance was religious faith.

"Even though we were lost and no human being knew where we were, God knew where we were," Mike said in an interview. "And there was comfort in that."

As days went by, more than 500 people searched the mountains for the father and son.

Meanwhile, Mike's wife, Mary, and the couple's other two children, Mark and Marissa - then 14 and 8, respectively - waited at their home in Turkey for news. Mary called family and friends in other parts of the world to ask for prayers for her lost husband and son.

And Mike and his son needed all the prayers they could get. Weakened by hunger and frostbite, they were slowly starving in a location outside the search parameters. Their hopes for rescue were dimming.

Matthew's feet were too frostbitten to allow him to move. By the seventh day, Mike faced a critical choice. Should he leave young Matthew alone in the cave and try to find help, or stay together and pray for the best?

Using the last of his strength, Mike skied away in search of rescue. He found only some abandoned shacks, devoid of any useful supplies. Too weak to try to go back up the mountain to his son, the two faced their bleakest hours - apart from each other and believing they would soon die.

Finally, Mike heard the distant sound of an engine. A van carrying Turkish lumberjacks came near. Mike screamed for help. The van stopped. The woodcutters soon followed Mike's directions to find Matthew in the cave.

The reunited father and son cried tears of joy. After 10 days, they were finally safe.

In the weeks that followed, both father and son lost parts of their feet to frostbite. But buoyed by their faith and happiness at being reunited with the rest of the family, the two have made remarkable recoveries - though Mike says he emerged with a new perspective on life.

"It has changed me in a really big sense, because it's become like an anchor. What can I possibly come across that is going to be worse than this? This was pretty rock-bottom, and God never left my side."

Today, Matthew is a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Challenger Middle School who loves soccer and video games, and is tired of talking about his ordeal. Mike is a squadron commander at the Air Force Academy and has used his experience to inspire cadets and other officers.

The Couillards still celebrate the day they were rescued - Jan. 24 - as a special family holiday.

A crew from NBC's "Dateline" recently taped the Couillards at their home and on the slopes of Colorado's Loveland ski resort.

"Matthew got to 'swoosh' the TV camera with his snowboard and thought that was totally cool," his mother said.

Still, the memories of their ordeal in the wilderness are vivid. "I have a hard time reading the book without tears," says Mike. "I'm just so thankful to God to still be here."

(c) 1998, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.).

Visit GT Online, the World Wide Web site of The Gazette, at http://www.gazette.com

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


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