Twenty-four inches

Published 8:11 am Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Spit. His training had taught him such.

Ten minutes earlier, he had been snowskiing down Heartbreak Ridge, one of the steepest yet most exhilarating slopes in the northern Rockies. The day was gorgeous, the view breathtaking and the air cold and crisp when he was ripped from his skis by an enormous wall of snow roaring down the mountainside at breakneck speed.

Tumbling uncontrollably, the one word raced through his synapses that terrorized winter outdoorsmen. “Avalanche.”

Head spinning, he slowly became aware of himself, entombed in cold. All was quiet. And dark. Not somewhat dark, but a thick blackness surrounded him, rendering his eyes useless. Then the pain, his left leg sending signals that something was amiss.

His warm breath had melted a pocket of snow around his mouth such that he could move his lips. He turned his head, first one way, then the other. A larger pocket. Though covering him, the snow was loose. He moved his arms and realized a larger space was possible.

“Must not panic,” he mumbled.

Forcing himself to think rationally, he pooled saliva into his mouth and slowly forced it out. He felt it run over his top lip into his nostril. He was upside down.

Knowing he must act quickly, he swung his body and arms to right himself. Grimacing, he felt his left leg and sensed its awkward position. “Broken,” he surmised.

With a Herculean effort, he created a cavern and pulled himself upward, the one good leg providing propulsion.

Dig, pull. Dig, pull. His body ached as he zig-zagged his journey against gravity, suppressing the possibility he was far, far beneath the surface.

His fingers became numb. Exhaustion crept in, the cold taking its toll. His left leg was now useless. Tunneling up yards was reduced to feet and which dropped to inches.

“I’ll never make it.”

The image of the surface so very far away absorbed into his depleted body and suctioned off the last remaining pockets of energy. With one final effort he pushed his arm up into the snow and stopped to rest. Weariness enveloped him.

“Must sleep,” he thought. “Try again later.”

He closed his eyes.

Twenty-four inches above his outstretched fingers, a Siberian Husky trotted across the surface, stopping at the scent of death just beneath the surface.