Avalanche


“Don’t you think that ice ax is really more than you need for a little snow hike?” Steve chided. “Where do you think we are—on Mount Everest?”

Billy looked at his ax and shrugged. “How do we know what’s ahead?”

Steve and Billy were up early on the Saturday morning of their outing. Every year they went on a winter camp-out in the mountains.

The boys gradually snowshoed upward. It had snowed heavily overnight, and they watched the sun come up, glistening now on the fresh powder. Every few minutes they stopped to catch their breath because of the steep ascent.

“Boy!” panted Steve. “It’s easy to get winded at this altitude.”

The ski slope lay within yards of the route the boys had chosen through the trees, but no skiers were up yet. Stopping to rest, they heard the ski patrol fire several shots. If the snowpack were unstable, the rifle shots would cause an avalanche, then the snow could settle before the skiers started their runs. Usually it was only a precautionary measure, as the snowfall was most often wet enough to pack down. So the shots ordinarily just signalled the start of the skiing day.

But today was unusual.

The boys sensed the avalanche before they heard it. Then its low rumble reached their ears, and they looked up before they’d even had time to think what it was. When they saw it above them—rolling, tumbling, and spraying like a tide—their minds went blank. Soon they were running—Billy to the left toward a dense group of trees and Steve back down their upward trail.

The avalanche reached the trees just a second before Billy did. He sucked the white, snow-filled air into his lungs and dived against a tree trunk, barely able to see it. The weight and pressure of the tumult pulled his legs out from under him, and desperately he swung his ax toward the tree—it caught!

Another wave hit him. Swallowing snow with each breath, he slowly pulled himself up and grasped the trunk with one arm. Then he grabbed at the branches above him and pulled with all his strength. Waves of snow engulfed him and he had to bury his nose against his sleeve to breathe.

Climbing higher into the tree, he was soon out of the worst of the cascading snow. But Steve! Where’s Steve? he wondered frantically. Looking down from the tree was like looking through dense, white snow rapids.

Thirty feet downhill, Steve had plunged into an air pocket and fallen just as the avalanche overtook him. Like a giant fist, it had punched the air out of his lungs, tumbling him feetfirst, headfirst, and then sideways. Finally he tried swimming motions and managed to stay near the top of the engulfing snow.

His face burned and ached, and in panic he stopped swimming and put his gloves over his face for protection. Now he was tumbling faster, like a feather in a tidal wave. Then the speed of the advancing snow slowly decreased … And finally there was nothing but a deathly silence.

Steve tried to push the snow away from his face, but it was too heavy to move. All he could see was darkness, and all he could feel was a tremendous weight pressing in from all sides.

When the last of the flying snow had sifted down, the air cleared and Billy could distinguish between the snow mass and the air. He stared below him at the clean, brilliant snow that measured five or six feet higher on the tree trunks now than it had before. There was no sign of Steve. “Oh, Heavenly Father … ,” he started to pray, but then decided there was not time for that.

Billy dropped his ax and saw the heavy end disappear into the powder. Then he climbed down the tree and sank up to his shins in the freshly churned snow.

He’d stumbled twenty yards when a ski patrolman came gliding slowly through the trees, stopping in amazement when he saw Billy. “You mean you were on this hill all through that avalanche?” he asked incredulously.

“I was up in a tree back there. But my friend, Steve … he’s lost in it somewhere.”

Instantly the patrolman was unclasping his skis. “Where did you see him last?” he asked.

“By those trees. He tried to outrun it.”

The patrolman shook his head and spoke angrily, as though Steve should have known better. “No one can outrun an avalanche. That snow moves 200 miles an hour!” He leaned one ski against a tree and took up the other to use as a probe. “You use the handle of that ax. Push it into the snow and call out if you hit anything. It just might be your buddy.”

“How long could he live buried in this?”

The patrolman was driving his ski into the snow every two feet. “Maybe an hour … maybe not … there’s not time to discuss it.” His voice was gruff, and he didn’t raise his eyes from the snow.

“Oh, please, Heavenly Father, let Steve be alive and help us find him.” Suddenly Billy realized that he was praying aloud and had been praying aloud all along. In a flash he understood that there is always time to pray.

A short time later the patrolman stopped to rest for a moment to catch his breath. Then in a rough voice he ordered: “Let’s keep going. There’s still a chance.”

With the next thrust, Billy drove his ax handle into the snow and stumbled sideways. Struggling to his feet, he pulled on the axhead. But it held fast. He pulled harder and still the ax stayed in the snow. “Hey!” he shouted to the patrolman.

Together they pulled the axhead, and when it surfaced, Steve’s bare hands were holding tightly to the spike.

Falling to their knees, they dug furiously, forcing the mountain to release its victim! The snow was bloodied. Steve’s face and hands were cut, scraped, and bleeding. But he was alive! He gasped the cool, fresh air, and his bluish face flushed red.

Billy trembled now as the realization of the near-disaster washed over him. He slipped down to sit in the snow next to Steve, and as he did, he saw the tight-lipped patrolman start to grin.

“What’s the matter, kid? Didn’t you know about the power of prayer? In my job, we use it all the time.”

[illustration] Illustrated by Richard Hull