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'Magical moment'

The moment it was confirmed that search-and-rescue crews had found 52-year-old Carol Koon alive and safe after an 18-hour search on Mount Ashland, sister-in-law Sharon Chappell's sigh of relief echoed in the Mt. Ashland Lodge.

"She's in the (Sno)-Cat! Yes!" Chappell said Monday, hugging several family members.

Minutes later, the whole family reunited with Koon after she stepped out of the Sno-Cat into a sea of hugs.

"Thank you all," Koon said to gathered search-and-rescue crews before she went to get checked out medically.

It was a happy ending after nearly a day of searching.

Koon, of Chiloquin, had gone missing Sunday afternoon, shortly after telling family members that she was going to ski through Mt. Ashland's bowl, near the top of the mountain.

She left at about 2 p.m. to make the run. By 4:47 p.m., family members had grown worried. They called 911 to report her as a missing person, even as a storm and sub-20 degree temperatures moved in.

"It's the worst condition it could (have been) last night," said Lt. Pat Rowland of the Jackson County Sheriff's Department.

Crews from numerous agencies swarmed to the mountain to help with the search, including search and rescue teams from Jackson, Siskiyou and Josephine counties, the Ashland Ski Patrol, Rogue Valley Snowmobile Club, Civil Air Patrol, Brim Aviation and even some of Koon's family members. Officials utilized six snowmobiles, five Sno-Cats, and four tracked quads, along with a helicopter.

Crews combed the mountainsides Sunday night. National Weather Service officials said temperatures fell to the low 20s, with northbound winds reaching about 20 mph.

Some family members stayed in the Mt. Ashland Lodge during the search, waiting. Niece Marla Chappell said she didn't give up hope, despite the blowing snow and cold.

"Not with Carol," Marla said, although adding that the worry was no less real. "We're all hunters, and we all know woods, but it's a very different situation when you're out without a pack."

Sheriff's Department officials said Koon made a wrong turn as she approached the top of the Bowl ski run. Instead of heading down the north-facing slope of the Bowl, she went south into what is called "the back side," an area that is open to skiers but is ungroomed and not heavily used.

Koon lost her way in the woods and "kept going down, down, down," Rowland said.

"She thought she was going the right way," he said, "but she was going downhill when she should have been going uphill."

Koon eventually found her way onto a U.S. Forest Service road, which has a corral for pack horses at the end. With a cell phone that wasn't working, Koon dug in for the night at the shelter, nestling in beneath a log.

Sharon Chappell said she had no doubt her sister-in-law kept the faith.

"I'm sure she was singing hallelujahs," she said.

Son-in-law Don Libby said a lot of prayers were sent up overnight for the wife and mother of six, who loved hiking and being outdoors.

"She's a strong woman," Libby said. "We know if anyone could do this, she's the one who could do it."

And she did. At first light Monday, she started walking. She eventually heard a helicopter and tried her cell phone again. This time it worked. She got in touch with her husband and let him know she heard the ongoing searchers. Eventually, a Sno-Cat picked her up. She was found about eight miles from the Mt. Ashland Lodge, apparently unscathed.

"It was a pretty magical moment, I guess you could say," Libby said of the moment Koon stepped out of the vehicle to be greeted by so many relieved family members. "God was there. God was with her."

Koon was not available for comment.

Kim Clark, general manager of the Mt. Ashland Ski Area, said Koon "did everything wrong at first and then turned around and did everything right to survive the night."

He said one of the things she did right was to stay put after she found a place to spend the night. She also left a trail marker that helped searchers find her, breaking off a branch and sticking it upright into the middle of a forest road sometime after a Sno-Cat had passed by.

Clark said the same Sno-Cat operator traveled the same road later in the search.

"The Cat operator came around the corner and saw that stick and said it just gave him chills," Clark said.

Clark said Mt. Ashland typically has between one and four lost skiers a year, with most of them becoming lost in the forest north of the ski area.

One of the missing skier incidents turned tragic in January 2007 when searchers found the body of a 44-year-old Central Point woman, who apparently had become disoriented and skied north of the ski area boundary and into the Ashland watershed leading away from the resort.

Sgt. Shawn Richards of the Jackson County Sheriff's Department said there are two or three missing persons incidents a year on the mountain. He added the outcome to this search, despite the odds, was a welcome one.

"You can never rule a person out. Was I concerned? Absolutely. But we didn't give up hope," Richards said.

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com.