They gather each morning at a makeshift command post on Mt. Baldy, swapping stories, repeating prayers and gamely holding on to hope just five miles below the ski slopes where their loved ones disappeared.
Ten frosty days have passed since Tim Pines and Charlie Prior vanished in a blizzard. There is little chance, the authorities warn, of finding them alive.
But friends and relatives of the two Orange County men do not surrender easily. It will take proof, many say, to sell them the official story--that an avalanche hurtled down a canyon and swept the expert skiers to their deaths.
"We've heard many miraculous survival stories," Prior's wife, Ellen, said Thursday. "We feel there's a reason to believe Charlie and Tim might make it."
This month's string of wicked storms gave Southern California a historic pounding, turning a mild winter into one that will be remembered for deadly mudslides, floods and the frightened face of a youth bobbing helplessly in a raging river.
For most, recovery is well under way. But for the missing skiers' families, the storms' punishment persists, and the toll remains a terrifying unknown.
Pines and Prior disappeared Feb. 11, a day when three avalanches turned the Mt. Baldy slopes treacherous. Officials presume that the two were overtaken by the tumbling drifts, but there are no clues to support this theory--no glove, no woolen hat, no ski tip poking through the powder.
There is only the men's white Subaru, parked at the foot of the slopes, and an account from a witness who spotted the pair heading off through the swirling snowstorm, beyond the resort's boundary.
"At this point, we've got two people who have completely disappeared without a trace," said Ruben Gonzalez of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. "We're speculating that they were buried by an avalanche--but that's all it is, speculation, and that's not much."
Relatives of the missing men could not agree more. They are fearful but know that Pines and Prior were unusually fit and possessed mountaineering and medical skills that could help them survive an outdoor ordeal.
But time is slipping by, and the search effort--initially involving dozens of rescuers--has been scaled back because of the continuing avalanche danger. Keeping the faith, relatives acknowledge, becomes more difficult every day.
"The logical conclusion is he's buried deep beneath a monstrous avalanche," said Cam Grade of Newhall, a high school friend of Prior's who joined the search last week and plans to do the same this weekend.
"You're holding out this hope, but the thing is, if he is alive, where could he be?"
Pines and Prior were the kind of skiers everyone envies. No slope or mogul field was too formidable for their expert skills; no trees too close together for them to dodge. Pines, who would turn 32 today, buckled his first pair of bindings at 7, and later worked as a ski patrolman at an Idaho resort. Prior, 33, took up the sport in his early teens, and always had his skis along when his work as a charter pilot for celebrities such as Bob Hope took him to Aspen, Colo., and other resorts.
The two men met several years ago, shortly after Prior moved from Newhall, where he grew up, to San Clemente. They became friends through the Thursday night Bible study class at San Clemente Presbyterian Church.
Pines, a quiet sort who grew up in Laguna Beach, was manager of research and development at Irvine-based Mazda Research and Development of North America, a job he earned after working his way up the ranks from test driver. The energetic Prior was about to give up his career as a charter pilot and enroll in college to earn the degree he needed to fly for a commercial airline.
The storm struck Southern California on Feb. 10, and Pines--sensing a chance to slice through the season's best powder yet--telephoned Mt. Baldy to check the snow report. Conditions were promising; he and Prior decided to tackle the mountain the next day.
Early that morning, Pines tugged a gray ski cap over his head, kissed his wife, Becky, goodby and waited for Prior to pull up outside his Dana Point condominium. Before he left, he peeked in on his only child, Joshua, just 3 months old.
After eating breakfast, the pair arrived on the slopes, joining the handful of other die-hards willing to brave frigid temperatures and poor visibility for fluffy snow. One side of Mt. Baldy was closed because of high winds, leaving only the expert runs open.
At 11:15, another skier spotted the two heading over the back side of Thunder Mountain into Coldwater Canyon, an area outside the resort that is not served by ski lifts, said Sgt. Jim Mauldin, who is directing the search effort for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. Another witness saw two sets of tracks leading the same way.
It was the last anyone saw of the men.
In many parts of the West, avalanches are a skiers' most fearsome foe. They occur when heavy drifts shear off a slope, pulled downward by gravity, and are common in areas with exceptionally cold temperatures that create dry snow susceptible to slippage.
In California, avalanches are relatively rare, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which keeps data on such events for the U.S. Forest Service. Only 33 people have died in California avalanches since 1950, a period in which 121 people were fatally buried by snow in Colorado.
Feb. 11, however, was different. There were three avalanches on Mt. Baldy that day, due largely to the extraordinary volume of snow dumped by the storm. All the slides were in areas marked closed to skiers by the resort operators.
Mauldin believes that Pines and Prior were overtaken and buried by an avalanche that hurtled down Coldwater Canyon. Two other skiers were injured the same day when an avalanche 60 feet wide crashed upon them, sweeping them 1,000 feet down the slope. Perhaps Pines and Prior had lost their way, Mauldin said, or perhaps they were indulging in an expert skiers' risky passion--sampling closed territory made enticing by its virgin powder.
In the days immediately after the men's disappearance, dozens of searchers fanned out across one section of the mountain with 10-foot poles, poking into drifts, feeling for bodies. Dogs were deployed above the holes in the snow.
The search was fruitless, and efforts to hunt in Coldwater Canyon--where an avalanche left a pile of snow 30 feet deep, 50 yards wide and 200 yards long--have so far been blocked by the danger of more slides.
For now, frustrated searchers can merely scour a section of the 10,064-foot-high peak twice a day from a helicopter, training their infrared scanners on the slopes while hovering just above the treetops.
Mauldin, for one, is not hopeful: "The chances of survival," he said Thursday, "are slim to none."
Friends and relatives of the missing men can hear the doubts in the authorities' voices. But so far, they have refused to give up. Indeed, on Feb. 14, 70 friends of the missing men met on Mt. Baldy, strapped on skis and searched on their own.
Each day, Dave and Roma Prior drive 90 minutes from their Newhall home to Mt. Baldy, going to the command post to encourage searchers and be on hand for any word of their eldest child. They are devoutly religious people, and they cling to the faith that their son will be granted a miracle and survive.
In some ways, they have good reason for optimism.
Pines is an experienced outdoorsman who was well-acquainted with Baldy's terrain. Becky Pines believes that her husband built an ice cave to protect the pair from the elements. Perhaps, she speculated in an interview Thursday as she clutched her infant son, the men are injured, unable to hike out for help.
"They're in God's hands," Becky Pines said. "They're safe and protected if God still has something for them on Earth."
Pines' parents also were relying on their faith to help them through the ordeal. For them, the thought of losing their son to a ski accident was almost intolerable. Avid skiers themselves, they had met on the slopes and introduced their son to the sport at an early age.
"My parents have finally resigned to the fact that if he's not alive he's with God and he's OK," said Pines' brother, Paul, of Laguna Beach. "I don't think dad will ski again. He's having a hard time dealing with it."
As for Prior, whose 6-foot-4 height prompts his nieces to call him "Uncle Big Guy," he has competed twice in the Iron Man Triathlon in Hawaii--one of the most grueling events in sports. In addition to his top physical condition, the bespectacled Prior is a former paramedic.
Prior's sister, Annie Mooney, offers support for her belief that her brother is alive: The adventurous Charlie, she said, has escaped numerous brushes with death.
Two years ago, he nearly bled to death after walking through a plate-glass door in Mexico. Two years before that, he crash-landed his plane after the engine died over Big Bear Lake.
"Charlie is a never-say-die kind of guy," said Mooney, who lives in Phoenix but has flown here to join the search. "Nothing is too big a hurdle. . . . We believe he'll overcome this."
Contributing to this report was Times staff writer Vivien Lou Chen in Orange County.
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