by Kristine Williams
Jim had been sitting in front of the fire, enjoying the quiet. He hadn't wanted to admit to Blair, but watching the skinny guy had been his plan. At least, until he saw him leave with ski gear. Funny, he never would have figured that one for skiing. In fact, he looked out of place at the lodge. Jim had thought he was probably just there to get away for a while, enjoy the peace and solitude of the mountains. Not everyone who came up there skied. Most, but not everyone.
The older man, with the young girlfriend that Blair had been watching came in, with just one of the other two men Jim had seen with him at lunch. He watched idly as they took a seat at the window. The older man had a pair of binoculars and was looking up the mountain. Jim couldn't help but wonder what he was trying to see in the dark, then realized he had a night scope.
Now that's interesting. He was contemplating walking over and introducing himself when he felt it. At first he wasn't sure if it was a feeling, or he was hearing the rumble that was now making the chandelier above him sway. Then someone shouted, and he heard clearly the thundering of the avalanche. Blair! Jim ran to the window where everyone was now crowding to see. He didn't need night vision to see the massive block of snow and ice rolling down the slope towards them. One by one the marker flares went out, swallowed by the approaching mass.
"Oh my God! It's coming this way!" The lady beside him screamed. Suddenly there was panic in the lounge as people rushed away from the windows they had just run towards, trying to put distance between them and the approaching snow. Jim could tell the angle of the avalanche was off to the right, well out of the way of the lodge, but right in the path of three skiers coming down the slope. He strained his focus in the darkness, finding one skier just as the snow overtook him. Was that Blair? He couldn't tell. Quickly he looked for the two remaining skiers, still pushing for speed. They were both wearing dark colored parkas, but at night, with the unnatural light of the orange flares, Jim knew his color definition wouldn't be true. And it didn't matter. Both skiers were swallowed up by the white wall. Dammit Sandburg!
Jim ran out of the lodge, pushing past the crowd that didn't seem to know where to run. He rushed outside just as the ski patrol approached, and grabbed the nearest one.
"There's three people up there, they didn't make it down!" he had to shout to be heard over the remainder of the avalanche that was now barreling down a quarter mile past the lodge, over the road.
"Did you see where?" the patrolman asked, waving to one of his colleagues.
Jim nodded, "Yes!"
"Can you show us?" The thundering had faded quickly as the snow settled now, over the road and down the other side.
Jim nodded and accepted the red parka a ski patrolman handed him, hurriedly putting it on while climbing onto the back of the patrol snowmobile. They took off immediately. Time was of the essence, Jim knew. He had seen an avalanche once before, years ago, and remembered that patrol finding five, all dead.
"There, two of them disappeared right over there!" Jim shouted above the engine noise, pointing to where he had seen the last two skiers. "The first one, was up higher, and to the left."
The patrolman stopped his vehicle at the spot Jim had pointed to first. "You three, start here!" he said to the other members of the rescue team , then turned to Jim. "You and I will go for the first one."
Jim nodded, glancing back at the group now forming a search line with poles. Was Blair there, or up here? Either way, three people were in trouble. But Blair was one of them.
"Here, right here, I'm sure!" Jim tugged at the driver's arm, glancing around. "I'm sure it was here."
"Okay." the patrolman stopped. "Take this, start here and work your way up." he handed Jim a 10 foot long pole and moved over several yards parallel. "Stick the pole in, carefully, all the way down. They could be deep. If there's a cave, or a body, you'll feel it. Got that?"
Jim nodded, but was more intent on listening than probing. Would he hear through such a thick blanket of snow? He had trouble hearing before, through the metal of a ship. But that was different, there was echoing, reverb from the metal and water. Here, now that the avalanche had stopped, it was quiet. Deathly quiet. He probed carefully, moving upward in a pattern as the patrolman was doing. How long had it been? He was beginning to feel the cold. How cold was it under several feet of snow?
"How long can they breathe under here?" he asked the ski patrolman.
"Depends. If they are able to make a cave, how big it is, how much snow fell over them, how deep did they get pushed in. On average, maybe twenty minutes." He looked down at the watch clipped to the front of his parka. "It's been twenty three minutes now. If we don't find someone soon, we're going to be too late. "
Jim didn't like any of those answers. He kept probing, moving farther up. Was this the right spot? Had they gone too far up...too far over...not far enough? He was beginning to think he had the wrong spot, maybe it was farther up, when he heard it. Faintly at first, then once more, louder.
"Here, he's here!" Jim tossed the pole away and began to claw at the snow with his gloved hands. The patrolman ran back to the snowmobile and returned quickly with two small hand shovels.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." Jim replied, taking a shovel. He'd heard clearly Blair calling his name. Twice. He dug as fast as he could, trying to make a wide opening so the snow they pushed away wouldn't fall back down inside. It was taking forever, and his hands were getting numb along with his face. He heard shouting below them and realized the other patrolmen had found the two they were probing for. Alive or dead, he didn't know. And didn't care right then. Blair was here. He heard him call out, but he wasn't calling anymore. He wanted to pause, so he could listen for breathing, a heartbeat, anything...but if he stopped, Blair would lose precious seconds.
"I'm through!" the patrolman shouted. "He's here."
Jim moved over to where he was, helping him widen the hole. He could see a jacket, then two arms. Quickly now they moved the snow that was crumbling around Blair. Jim pushed aside an armful of wet snow and dropped down into the cave that had formed around his friend. Shrugging off gloves he felt for a pulse. "He's not breathing!" he shouted back at the patrolman. He heard the other man shout for a medic and run back to the snowmobile. Jim opened Blair's jacket, tilted his head back, and listened. Nothing. His heart was still beating, he must have just stopped breathing as they were digging. He pinched his friend's nose, put a hand under his chin, and filled his lungs, watching his chest rise and fall. Nothing. Absently he heard more men digging above him, trying to open up the rest of the cave. He inhaled again, breathing into Blair's mouth, then watched, waiting. Still nothing.
"Come on Sandburg, help me out here." He was just filling his own lungs for another try when Blair began to cough. "Blair! Come on breathe, that's it." He lifted Blair's head, propping the younger man against his legs to support him until the coughing subsided. "Easy there Chief, it's okay, take it easy." The cave had been completely opened and two men were now digging to clear his legs from the snow covering them.
Blair coughed again, trying to stop and breathe normally. "Jim...there were some others, in front of me."
"I know, Blair, they found them." Jim held him, pulling his jacket closed again. His face was ice cold. "Someone get me a blanket." The words were barely out of his mouth when a heavy insulated blanket was dropped down to him. Jim grabbed it and wrapped Blair as best as he could.
One of the patrolmen, the one Jim had ridden up with, looked back from his digging. "Don't let him fall asleep." he said. "He's hypothermic, and probably going into shock."
Jim looked down, Blair had closed his eyes. "Come on Chief, stay with me here." Blair opened his eyes. "You're making a habit out of scaring me, aren't you?"
Blair just smiled weakly, gritting his teeth against the cold.
Jim pulled the blanket up farther. "Hurry up there, he's freezing." They were taking forever digging Blair's legs free.
"Okay, we've got a problem here." One patrolman said. Jim looked, and saw the blood stained snow they were now carefully pushing away from Blair's right leg.
A compound fracture was Jim's first thought, then they pushed away the rest of the snow and revealed a metal pole, protruding from the flesh just above Blair's knee. "Looks like a ski pole." he said.
"That's where they went." Blair said lightly. Jim looked down, his voice was getting weaker,
"Take it easy, you'll be fine." He was beginning to loose touch again. "Blair, stay with me, we're almost out of here." He felt his friend's face, it was still ice. "Blair, come on." His eyes were staying shut.
"I'm here." Blair replied in a whisper, keeping his eyes closed.
"He's clear." someone announced. Jim looked again at Blair's leg. The pole was only a two foot long section, with who knew how much still inside his leg, but the other end was free from the snow. A medic was wrapping bandages around the leg and pole, trying to keep it stable. When he finished, they lifted Blair out of the hole and Jim helped strap him onto the litter attached to one of the snowmobiles. He briefly took note of the vehicle in front, with its passenger.
"Did any of them make it?" he asked, seeing only the one completely wrapped body.
"Yes, one. She's been taken to the first aid station. That one was crushed, just a few yards away from the girl."
He looked back down at Blair as they piled another blanket over him. "You still with me Sandburg?" he asked, leaning down to tuck the blanket in around his shoulders.
"I'm...so...cold." was all he said, his teeth chattering.
"I know Chief, I know."
Jim climbed back on the passenger seat of the vehicle he had ridden up on and followed Blair back down to the lodge. There was a fully-staffed aid station there, with a resident Dr., the patrolman had assured him when he asked, maybe a little too loudly. Any time Blair was hurt, or in danger, it seemed to bring out a protective instinct Jim never before realized he had. They had unloaded his friend and were carrying him into the station when the snowmobile he was on pulled up. Another member of the ski patrol stepped forward as they came to a stop.
"We're packed in." he said, speaking to both Jim and the man he rode down with. "That avalanche covered the pass north and south bound."
"How?" Jim asked. He had seen just the one wall of snow falling over the road behind them.
"There were two breaks." The patrolman explained, pointing up the darkened mountain. "They split at the top, where the peak is, one came down here, the other, about two miles down. Both ends of the pass are blocked. It'll take a couple of days to plow through."
"A couple of days?" Jim asked, looking from one man to the other.
"At least. The plows were all at the south end of the pass, working their way down. They'll have to continue down, then come around and work the block from behind." They had walked into the aid station and Jim removed the borrowed parka.
"What about phones? Can we get a helicopter in here? How about a shortwave?"
His driver and fellow snow digger shook his head, "No, the winds are too strong. Maybe if this storm front passes, but I doubt it will for a while. We don't have a shortwave here, trouble getting out of these mountains some times. There's just the two-way's we use during rescues." He glanced around, "Phones out?"
The second man nodded. "Took the poles off at both ends. We've got power," he said to Jim, "from a generator. We'll have lights and heat for a week easily. Don't worry, aside from a little inconvenience, we'll all be fine."
"What about that?" Jim nodded towards the slope they had just returned from.
"Not to worry. An avalanche of that size, it's like an earthquake. Once that much pressure is relieved, you don't have to worry about another one for some time."
Jim glanced around, trying to see where they had taken Blair. "I thought you guys set those off before they got that bad?"
The second patrolman looked to the first, then back to Jim. "Well, sir, believe it or not, we had planned to set that one off tomorrow."
Jim nodded. Just my luck. But this time the trip had been his idea. "I'm Jim Ellison, Cascade PD." Jim offered his hand.
"Ah, a cop huh?"
"Detective." Jim corrected automatically.
"I'm Tom Hanks, this is Eddie Stuart." Jim shook each man's hand.
"Tom, thanks for your help up there."
"Just doing my job. The credit is all yours this time, none of us saw where those three were when the snow hit. We'd still be up there, probing for them, not even knowing if they were there or not. So, that guy we brought down, is he a cop too? "
Jim shook his head, "No, he works with me at the station, but he's not a cop. He's my friend." Jim didn't offer any further explanation, he had seen a woman coming towards him from the room he thought Blair had been taken in to.
"You came down with the young man?" she asked.
"Yes, how is he?"
"Why don't you come with me, Mr...."
"Ellison, Jim Ellison. Doc, how is he?"
"He's alive" she replied, "And most likely he'll be fine."
"Most likely? Doc, please, just spit it out." Jim hated games at a time like this.
She led him into a small room and placed a film on a viewer. "Mr Sandburg had three inches of a ski pole stuck in his right leg, just above the knee, I'm sure you saw it?" Jim just nodded, not looking at the film and she continued. "He's suffering extreme exposure, hypothermia. Thanks to your quick action he didn't suffocate, but his lungs took in quite a bit of moisture in that snow cave."
"Black and white, Doc, please."
"Okay, we pulled the pole out. The puncture wound was deep and needed to be cleaned. The tissue surrounding the puncture was frostbitten. Until we can warm him up, I won't know just how badly damaged the leg is. He's in shock, and we're having to warm him from the inside, with heated saline solution." She paused, pulling the film down from the viewer. "If he develops pneumonia, there could be a problem."
Jim let her words sink in, slowly digesting them. "Could be a problem? Doc, how much worse could this get?"
She looked at Jim for a moment, "He's alive, Mr. Ellison. That's more than Mrs Kelly can say about her husband."
"I'm sorry. He was one of the other two brought down?"
She nodded. "Him, and another young lady. She's going to be fine, just needs to be warmed up. Your friend is very lucky, considering. Most people aren't found alive." She paused, shoving both hands into her lab coat. "Look, I don't want to worry you needlessly, but Mr Sandburg is in serious condition right now. So far it looks like the worst of the frostbite is to the damaged tissue that was exposed. His fingers, toes, they'll most likely warm up with no permanent damage."
Jim was nodding, trying to absorb what was being said.
"You can see him if you like, it might help." she offered. "He's going to have a rough night." She was leading Jim down the short hallway to the room where they had taken his friend. "Have you ever had frostbite Mr. Ellison?"
Jim had to shake himself for a moment, he hadn't realized there was a question. "No, not really. I've been cold, but not like this." They had reached the door to Blair's room and now stood, looking in.
"It's very painful, getting the feeling back. Like when your foot goes to sleep, then starts to tingle, only on a much higher scale."
"I'd like to stay with him tonight." Jim was looking in at Blair, noting the many tubes running into his left arm, the EKG monitor, and a mound of blankets covering him.
"We have a fully-trained staff here. It won't be easy for you. He'll be in and out, and in some pain as he warms up. We can't give him anything until he's out of shock and we can determine his condition more thoroughly. The closer he gets to normal temperature, the more likely it will be that he could become delirious, even feverish."
"I'll stay." Jim replied more forcefully.
The doctored sighed, "Okay. I'll have a more comfortable chair brought in. I'm sure he'll feel better knowing you're here." She turned to go, then paused, looking back, "I'm Doctor Stuart, by the way. Elaine Stuart."
Jim turned, shaking her hand for the first time. "Stuart?" The name sounded familiar.
She nodded, "I think you met my husband, he's a ski rescue patrolman."
"Ah, yes." Jim remembered then. "Thank you, doctor."
She smiled and left Jim alone, closing the door.
"Sandburg, nothing is ever simple with you, is it?" Jim walked over to stand beside Blair, feeling his forehead. It was still ice cold. The bag hanging on the other side of the bed was wrapped in a heating unit, feeding warm saline solution into his veins in an attempt to warm him from the inside out. Jim had seen that done to a young boy once who had nearly drowned after falling through the ice. The heat in the room was turned up, Jim had to remove his heavy sweater and draped it over the chair that was brought in.
"If you need anything, or want anything, we're just right outside." the medic who brought in the chair checked Blair's vitals as she spoke. "Just call out."
"Thank you." Jim replied. He waited until she left before sitting down, pulling the chair close to the bed. Blair was unconscious, breathing steadily, but Jim could see the tremors as his muscles fought to create their own warmth. He rubbed his face, trying to push the fatigue that was creeping up on him away. It was going to be a long night, but he had the easy part.
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