17 May, 2012
17 May 2012
The day might have turned out very differently for all involved had those skiers made their run, perhaps done another and then gone on their way down to the valley below, but as Einar watched, he became filled with a growing sense of dread at what was about to come. Halfway down the steep cirque of untouched snow they stopped, first one and then the other two, skis sideways on the steepness, clinging, talking, and they appeared focused on the area just above the spring and dropoff. Einar at first thought they were pointing at him with those big, sweeping gestures, had somehow spotted him and now were coming but when he carefully eased the binoculars out from behind him and took a look, he saw that their interest was instead on the slopes above him. Why? Nothing up there but stunted little firs and exposed rock, far from ideal skiing conditions, especially in comparison to the beautiful slope they were now enjoying but their interest seemed intense, air so still that morning that their voices carried to him across the basin, words unintelligible but a certain tone of excitement impossible to miss. They appeared to have a plan, and he did not like it.
After concluding their brief and animated conference, the three started across the sweep of the basin wall, traversing, losing as little altitude as possible while heading right for the area some distance above Einar’s hiding place, and he knew he’d got to find some way to stop them, divert their course, prevent their ending up directly on top of him, stumbling across his tracks as they made whatever descent they had planned through the trees. Not much he could do. No way to get in above them, not in the time that he had, but once they saw those tracks--which they must inevitably do if they ended up descending the spur which held the spring--they were dead men, or he was, or, most likely, they all were. His own demise would come later, but would be little less sure than the fate of the intruders, even if he did manage to get Liz and the little one out of the basin and to safety before search and rescue teams and later, federal law enforcement, began swarming the area. All of which left him rather highly motivated to prevent the discovery of his tracks, and he was on his feet, silently groaning at the stiffness in legs and back after his long, chilly wait in the snow but too intent on the goings-on below to give it much notice.
Retracing steps, no sense in leaving two trails for potential discovery, he hurried back to the timber-side of the dropoff, away from the ledge and out of the open where he risked the possibility of being seen should they glance his way at precisely the right time when a break in the timber might allow them a clearer view, and just as soon as he’d got himself tucked securely into those trees he began climbing, swiftly gaining elevation in his quest to get in above the skiers; he wasn’t as fast as he ought to have been, and knew it, but hoped that between his best efforts at climbing and the fact that they were or soon would be descending at a fairly rapid pace, he might be able to do what needed doing. Which involved altering the group’s course, steering them safely away from the spring, dropoff and anywhere else where they might run across his tracks, and he had a few ideas, knew none of them had better than a tiny, passing chance at success but had no choice other than to try. It was either that, or lie in wait with the atlatl, but he would, given the nature of the terrain and his intimate familiarity with its contours, have several additional opportunities to carry out such measures, if all attempts at diversion happened to fail.
There in the protection of the black timber he stopped, craning his neck for a look at the intruders and finding them. Stopped again. Why had they stopped? Had they seen him? Fearing it might be so he again trained the binoculars on the little group, but instead of looking his direction they were pointing to the ridge high above, to the place where a great cornice curled out in places some fifteen or twenty feet from the ridge itself, overhanging, and then the whole surface of the snow was moving, splitting, coming down, cornice crumbling as it lost its support from below, and the skiers were scrambling, trying to get ahead of the thing, to the side of it, but it was massive, barreling down on them and he could see they stood little chance. Crouched behind his shielding network of dense little firs and then standing, Einar watched the roaring mass of snow bear down on the tiny figures, overtake them, obliterate them but when the airborne powder began to clear some he saw that two had made it out, were standing at the edge of the destruction, one ski-less and a bit battered but neither appearing seriously injured, searching frantically for the third.
Einar searched also, scanning with binoculars until he saw a ski pole sticking up out of the snow nearly halfway across the width of the slide, and it was all he could do to refrain from shouting out to the other two, telling them where to look. Chances were, far from him as they were starting their search and without his height advantage, they would never find him in time. If he had even survived the tumbling and beating of the slide. Probably had. Most people did. It was the subsequent lack of oxygen that usually killed. They weren’t looking in the right direction. Hurry. This way. You’re losing time. He wanted to help, rush down there and show them where to dig before the trapped man’s time ran out and he suffocated to death, running out of the bit of oxygen that had hopefully been trapped in front of his face by doubled fists before the icy, cement-like snow came to its final resting place and solidified like drying cement around him; and while the process could take as much as half an hour, depending on the density of the snow and other factors, Einar knew that it was more often a matter of minutes. Nothing he could do. If he took any action then it would almost certainly be all of their lives lost instead of just the one, possibly his and his family’s as well, and the was no way he could put them in that position, no matter how badly he might want to go and help. There was never any question in his mind.
Though possessed of unshakable certainty as to the correctness of his decision, Einar could hardly stand the thought of leaving that man trapped and suffocating beneath the snow, and he took a risk, staring intently at one of the people down there in the basin, the man, silently calling to him, hoping he might be able to get his attention, head him in the right direction. He’d seen such things work before, had done them, though seldom so deliberately as he was then attempting. Got nowhere, nowhere at all, turned his attention to the woman, and she “heard” him almost immediately, responded by looking straight up the ridge at him and almost appearing to make eye contact. No, wrong way. Don’t look up here. He dropped to his stomach in the snow, not wanting to be seen, out across the slide, halfway across, hurry… and when he again dared raise his head for a look the pair were picking their way across the avalanche debris, the woman in the lead, moving almost at a run. She’d seen it, that protruding ski pole, and before long the two of them were on hands and knees beside it, down to one shovel as one had been lost in the slide but they took turns, going at it furiously until they exposed first a boot and then part of a leg, the man appearing to have been buried face down.
It seemed a very long time that the pair were digging, Einar urging them on from his hiding place in the firs, and then they must have reached him, were lifting, turning him over, and the man wasn’t moving; for all Einar could tell, he was dead. Only he wasn’t, for suddenly he began moving, sitting up and then the other two were lifting him, helping him to stand, and though he did not appear to be moving too well--fell again after a step or two, which seemed to greatly upset the woman--he was moving, and apparently was going to make it. Einar was glad, but knew that though the worst might well be over for the skiers, the danger was just beginning for he and Liz and their little family, especially if rescuers were somehow summoned to the basin, arriving by air with his trail in plain sight for everyone…