I recently won first place in the category of memoir from Colorado Writing School’s 2017 Helca Award. Here are the judges comments.
“The writer takes us on a terrifying winter’s journey, one in which the main character’s survival remains in doubt until the very end. The narrator is a solid storyteller, and the writer’s dual writing strengths of both pacing and dialogue display themselves throughout this harrowing personal account.”
This story will also appear in my soon-to-be published book, which will include collections of my outdoor adventures, self-reflections, photography and illustrations.
Prologue: Cerulean gave way to orange and red as the sun made its daily trip across the sky before disappearing behind wintery mountains. An eerie night-glow enveloped three cold, exhausted, travelers as they navigated darkness.
The Long Ski
We arrived at the plowed-out parking area much later than planned, around 1 P.M. The sun was bouncing off the snow in its blinding way on a bluebird day at 9,000 feet. My friend Betsy, along with her dog, Jasmine and I were out on this idyllic day for some backcountry skiing. Betsy, normally a very strong, athletic 52-year old woman, was eager to try out some new gear despite lost strength from recent rapid weight loss. She tucked her long fiery-red hair into a ball cap for sun protection. I’m five months younger than Betsy, and equally fit with premature grey hair, which often makes people question my age. Jaz, a beautiful black and tan Australian Shepherd with pointed ears, immediately began running around the parking area, anxious to get on the trail. As we dawned our daypacks with minimal provisions we commented on the lack of snow on the peaks before us but grateful for the warmer temperatures.
I suggested a loop route that would take us around the base of the small mountain before us, through open terrain, then through the forest. We began following a snow mobile track that I had seen from the top of the mountain the week before. From that vantage point it appeared to continue into the forest where I assumed it connected at some point with a 4×4 road to complete the loop. The trail wove through open meadows with little incline but the warm temperature was making the snow mushy and more work than either of us had hoped for causing us to remove some clothing early. We skied this wide track for over an hour when it abruptly ended just inside the forest edge — an unpleasant discovery to be sure. We checked the map to see just how far we might be from the road or connecting trails.
“I think it’s going to take us as long to retrace our steps as it is to just keep going until we hit the road,” I said. There were still a few hours of daylight so I felt confident this was true. And neither of us seems particularly tired and certainly not cold. Jaz had been running ahead, then returning to Betsy’s side and was enjoying the outing. But my desire to complete the loop would be the worst mistake of the day.
Upon entering the forest the snow conditions were better because the sun had not melted the ice crystals nearly as much but it was still too soft to ski smoothly through nor could the snow banks hold us up. Almost immediately we were breaking trail in knee to thigh deep snow causing us to stop every few yards to catch our breath. The snow was taxing Jaz as well as she jumped out of each hole she created while following behind us.
Soon Betsy questioned not only our route but our exact location.
“I’m sure we just need to get down to the creek, cross it and then catch the road. It’s probably only going to take anther half an hour or so,” I insisted on our next rest, leaning heavily on my poles. Again I could not have been more wrong.
We struggled through that dense forest and deep powder for at least two hours. I could barely hear chickadees calling over my heavy breathing while breaking trail. With each step the skis felt heavier and my knees began to ache from the constant strain. We had to stop every few minutes to bend over, catch our breath and rest. I could feel sweat running down my back. Jasmine whimpered often indicating her own fear and rising anxiety as she worked her way through the snow that she could barely see over. Betsy and I both were using up precious energy calling and encouraging Jasmine to keep coming. Once we stopped and tried come up with some way of pulling the dog behind us but we had nothing in our packs that would work. And I was trying to ignore that the sun was dropping to the horizon at an alarming rate. Still, I remained hopeful if we reached the road before it set completely and we would be back to the parking area by seven or eight o’clock.
The snow was now hip high and the hillside much steeper. Suddenly we found ourselves on a small cliff with a narrow shoot that ended in the aspen grove that was part of the creek and valley bottom we needed to traverse. As we stopped to rest and decide on an approach the sun’s rays were glowing red-gold against the mountain peak across the valley. I could not help but notice the beauty despite our situation.
“Man I wish I had my camera. Just look at that amazing sunset!” I exclaimed.
“Wow,” Betsy agreed with a weak voice. She looked pale and she admitted to feeling sick. My heart pounded even harder hearing that. My anxiety of the situation turned to grave concern and I realized we were in for a very long evening at best and could become serious at any turn.
Looking down the shoot before us I said, “I don’t think I can ski down this Betsy but maybe you can.”
“No way,” she replied.
Off came the skis to scoot on our butts down the shoot. I went first with the hopes that I would take as much of the snow with me as possible to clear a safer way.
The three of us came off the precipice unharmed but then Betsy yelled out, “Shit, my ski just fell out of my hand. Do you see it?”
“Fuck. Are you kidding me? Where do you think it went?”
Shit, how am I going to get us out of here if she has only one ski, I asked myself. My heart was now pounding in my ears and a real fear shot through my whole body like electricity.
After a few minutes of searching she hollered, “Found it,” and we both breathed a deep sigh of relief.
As we exited the aspen grove and entered the creek bottom we were all beyond exhausted— Betsy and Jaz more so. I had to retrace my path a few times to help Jaz when she seemed unable to pull herself forward, crying and whimpering almost constantly. Betsy’s stride had become barely a shuffle. We were both getting very cold — hands and feet numb—but we also needed a longer rest. We drank some water and split a Powerbar.
Our progress had gone from slow to glacial. My constant encouragement was about all that was keeping us moving. While we shuffled along I was desperately trying to think clearly and recall my knowledge about hypothermia while choking back fear that either Betsy or Jaz would at some point not be able to continue.
Darkness was now upon us and we still had not reached the road. I knew where it was and felt the easiest way to it was back up a small hill just a short distance from the creek we crossed but Betsy refused saying she just could not go uphill for any distance.
From this location we could see a light about a quarter mile away where there was a vacation home. I doubted anyone would be there but it was close enough that I thought it was worth me skiing ahead to see if by chance there might be someone there with a snow mobile to give Betsy a ride back to the van. I left Betsy and Jasmine behind with instructions to just stay in my tracks and keep moving while I skied toward that light as fast as I could.
As I suspected the ranch house was deserted. I turned around to ski back towards Betsy, all the while frantically screaming to her, “ Bets don’t give up! Just keep coming.” I was not even sure if she could really hear me but I yelled anyway, desperately hoping my voice would reach her. I was so afraid she would simply lie down and I would not be able to get her up again.
When we met up again I was so relieved to find Betsy still on her feet and Jaz right behind her. She leaned into me as I put my arms around her.
“I thought you might leave me here,” she said.
“I would never leave you Bets, never,” I said as I continued to hold her shivering body for a moment. As I released her I told her the bad news that there was no one at the house.
“Oh God. Can we break in?” she asked, “because I can’t make it back.”
“No way, the windows are too thick and the barn is locked up too. We just have to keep going. You CAN make it,” I said and once again put my arms around her.
When we reached the ranch I asked Betsy if her shirt was wet. She mumbled something incoherent so I reached underneath to feel for myself. My numb hands could still discern moisture so I told Betsy to take off her coat and shirt so that I could give her my extra wool sweater. “No,” she yelled at me and pushed me away —an irrational response and sign of hypothermia getting worse that almost made me panic.
“Bets your shirt is wet and you need something dry on you!”
“No,” she hollered a second time.
“Then at least put my sweater over your shirt.” I felt at least this would keep her from freezing to death. This she complied with, to my relief, and after zipping up everything as tight as possible we set off again.
With the help of Jaz we finally found the road by the ranch house and slowly started to make our way back to the van. At first I was in front of Betsy hoping it would encourage her to keep going, but I was moving too fast for her, so we switched places. The three of us — Jaz out front, Betsy, then myself — gradually made our way along the road. The moon would not rise for another two hours. Yet the clear sky filled with stars pinpricking holes into the inky canvas above and the pale glow of the snow provide enough light for us to see the edges of the road and general land features ahead of us. There was no wind and the only sound was the swishing of our skis scraping on the snow that was freezing back over. Every once in a while Betsy would turn around wordlessly to check if I was still behind her and each time I simply said “I’m right here. You are going to make it.” And even though she had to stop several times to dry heave she never did lay down.
My own limbs had become rubber and I’d lost all feeling in my feet and hands. For the last hour I kept my sight on the light, that dimly shone ahead, from the old barn located next to the parking area. For the longest time it seemed to never get any nearer or brighter, as if we were simply on a treadmill going no where (something we would both later recall in the same eerie fashion).
When we finally reached the vehicle I could not hold the key in my hand to open the door. It took several tries for me to push the unlock button on the key faub. I had to lift the dog into the back while Betsy struggled to get out of her skis. Our hands were too dysfunctional to remove our boots. Betsy collapsed in the passenger seat while I got behind the wheel and used both my club hands to turn the ignition. The dashboard clock read 10:28. We had been out for over nine hours.
With the heat blowing full blast I drove down the dirt road towards the highway for the 40-minute ride home. I made Betsy eat a tiny bit of granola and sip some water that fortunately was left in the car but it would take much more to revive her. As soon as I hit the blacktop I raced down the highway, talking to Betsy the whole way to keep her conscious. She mumbled and at one point starting counting out loud. “Good Bets, you just keep counting and STAY WITH ME!” I exclaimed.
Pulling into her driveway was a relief after driving with bulking boots, worrying about my friend’s condition and keeping an eye out for wildlife crossing the road for close to an hour. Betsy’s hands had become functional again during the ride home so she managed to take her boots off without my help, and headed upstairs to bed. I was worried about Jasmine as she limped into the house, hoping she had not pulled a muscle during our ordeal. My hands too had become operational again but still had that awfully painful pins-and-needles sensation while I pried my stiff boots off. My socks were soaking wet, as were my pants from the knee down. I put the kettle on for tea, filled Jaz’s food and water dish, then hustled up the stairs to check on Betsy. She had crawled under her down comforter but had not taken off all her wet clothes. I helped her put on dry socks and some fleece. She was shaking but that was a good sign that her hypothermia was reversing. She initially resisted drinking or eating anything saying,
“Just let me die. I want to die,” she murmered.
“You are not going to die. No fucking way! You are not ready to check out. You proved that tonight.” I retorted.
Once she was able to drink some tea and eat a few bites of banana and graham cracker, I slid to the floor by her bed completely spent, breathing almost as hard as I had on the mountain. My whole body began shaking too but more from exhaustion than hypothermia. Betsy asked if I was ok and told me to go take a hot shower and eat something too. “I’ll be fine,” I replied and slowly rose to tend to my own needs.
I have since replayed the event in my mind many times, as has she. We had come very close to losing our lives out there and we knew it. Had just one component been different we might have perished; if it had started to snow or it gotten windy; if Betsy had not found her runaway ski; had one of us gotten injured coming down the chute; had Betsy simply given up. When we recount the story, always there is a shaking of our heads realizing just how lucky we were. There are comments on the amazing beautiful sunset and night sky — how those elements coupled with our perseverance made the experience one we will never forget. And it added to the bond between us that will never be broken.
You shuffled on burdensome skis for hours despite your body screaming to stop and lie down, but you did not give up. Your will to live was stronger than your desire to die. Your time is not up. There is still much living to do!