dawn the wind accelerates to gale force, and we are jerked awake by the
powerful sound of trees smashing together. Moments later our plastic roof
alters its casual undulation and begins snapping violently with hideous shotgun
reports. It tears loose finally with a wrench that snaps its nylon anchors and
sails off through the trees like a giant bat. Unobstructed, smoking tendrils of
snow pour into our sleeping pit, burying our gear and us. In less time than it
takes to struggle out of our bags the crude shelter is nothing more than a low
place in an ever-expanding drift. We load our packs, fumbling in the dark for
stray equipment. On the verge of physical collapse and without water, we head
into the storm.
The air is so
laden with wind-whipped snow that the dawn, when it arrives, is hardly more
than a glow and does nothing to improve visibility. All sense of the horizontal
has vanished; my vision is so restricted I cannot see my feet.
The wind screams
beyond the pass, pushing the snow into grotesque drifts that rise head high
around us; as the hillside gets steeper our route becomes an obstacle course.
Drifts meet us head on like moving walls—we breast them like surf. This is
exhausting, especially in our weakened, dehydrated state; pain occupies every
fragment of our consciousness. My brain is filled with music, forgotten songs,
the top 10 of 1963, a little Wagner, drum rolls, insane lyrics; all pain,
pulsing pain, rhythmic pain, like some masochistic dream—torment to your
We break from the
timber onto the barren hillside and the wind slams us with such vehemence that
balance becomes precarious. We fall frequently, tumbling head over heels. There
are no handholds; no up, no down. Our packs wrestle us like living opponents.
The wind fills my mouth and throat with snow and blisters my lips. My lungs
ache from sucking the air. An icy crust is forming on my cheeks and nose
despite the protection of a face mask, and my feet have begun to burn with the
sharp intensity of an open wound—frostbite, no doubt about that, but there is
nothing I can do about it until we camp.
soothes me like a balm. It erases in equal proportion pain and will. The urge
to stop is overpowering. The roar of the wind becomes a soporific melody.
Arctic explorers may well have lain down in the snow to die. After fighting
this blizzard I actually look forward to falling because it allows me a single
moment of rest while buried in a drift. Once down I fight the urge to roll back
and sleep, but Stearns is wise to me. If I don't get up immediately he begins
thrashing me with the tip of his snowshoe.
When pain and
fatigue have all but blotted out the storm, an avalanche supplies a shot of
adrenaline. We have just crossed a steep couloir near the end of the pass when
a cornice the size of a house tears loose from the mountaintop and roars
through the narrow channel into the valley below. Above the wind we can hear
trees snapping like match-sticks, then the rumble dies and there is only the
Stearns and I are
suddenly fueled by a mechanical energy that supports us far beyond the rational
limits of endurance. Good thing, too. Not only am I bone weary, but the pain in
my feet is rapidly easing to a dead, hollow feeling. Not a good sign; I won't
be able to walk much farther.
We breach the
pass in the middle of the night, having traveled slightly less than four miles
in the last 15 hours. In the lee of a hillside on the least slide-prone slope
we can find in the dark, we dig a shallow snow cave and crawl in. But before we
can sleep, unpleasant rituals must be performed. Mark removes his boots and
socks and plants his feet in my armpits. In turn I place my feet in his. My
toes are chalk white and slick as glass, and my blackened toenails are held in
place not by skin but by pools of frozen blood. After five minutes the first
flashes of pain slice through the numbness, and moments later my toes feel as
though they are filled with acid. Massages follow, until the circulation
improves and the threat of gangrene is no longer imminent. My toenails are
gone. They lift off as easily as pennies off a sidewalk.
We sleep as if
drugged for the next 30 hours and still feel the need for rest, but the sagging
roof of the snow cave encourages a hasty departure, and there is no point in
procrastinating with 20 tons of snow suspended eight inches above our noses.
Before we leave I cook up some macaroni and cheese—our first hot meal in four
days—and we gorge ourselves with water. No meal ever tasted better. Life seems
plausible once more.
Outside, the snow
has stopped and the wind is down, but the sky still looks ominous. Will it
start again? I don't know. I don't want to know. In the South that blow would
be called a hurricane, easily. What is the wind-chill factor with a 90-mph wind
and an actual temperature of 10� below? Seventy below, maybe? Eighty? I'm not
entirely certain that I could survive another blizzard; I almost didn't make it
through the last one. The circulation in my feet is very poor, and I am
painfully reminded with every jarring step that my toenails are gone. I can
feel the blood congealing in my socks. I can still walk, but not far or fast.
Mark, to my utter amazement, has escaped serious frost injury, but he has
somehow damaged both his hip joints, rather severely I think. His movements are
accompanied by a sickening, slushy noise, like someone crushing handfuls of