The whistling sounds in her head were the first indicators of my Mum’s illness. She lingered for almost a year. As a 9 year old kid, I wasn’t aware of the finality of her brain cancer, and lived in hope that she’d get better. She didn’t. Towards the end, in my 4thyear of Primary School in Jindabyne, Mum sometimes called me to her bedside during periods of partial lucidity between hits of morphine.
“Pray for me Jimmy. Pray for me,” she’d whisper hoarsely while stroking my hair. And for years afterwards, I lived with childish guilt that somehow her death was attributable to me. I hadn’t prayed hard enough. Or often enough. And the angst gnawed at me until puberty when a rising interest in girls eventually overwhelmed my introspective guilt.
As a hormonal adolescent, I’d always dreamed about the workplace of a ski instructor. A plein-air office, a must-have ski tan; smouldering al-fresco interactions and liaisons; perhaps even a few skiing skills taught. Consequently. most of my youth and adulthood has been on skis, including twenty years of ski seasons all over the world as an instructor. I’ve seen it all: busted tibias and fibulas, spinal injuries requiring ski medics, even helicopter retrievals. But, events like that are just inevitable collateral damage of participating in adrenalin fuelled sports. No guts, no glory. No falls, no balls. No spills, no thrills. You’ve probably seen those bumper stickers on skiers’ cars crawling single-file up icy mountain roads heading for the base of ski runs.
Today’s just another work day at Arapahoe Basin, Colorado. My fourth season here. I crunch gears from 3rd to 2nd in the old Chevy Blazer. Three group lessons, then 2 private tuitions.…. another day, but for the first time in my life I’m struggling with an irrational and gnawing fear. I can’t describe it, but my gut is telling me to turn back. I’ve been listening to KBCO on the car radio since leaving home at Idaho Springs to commence the crawl up the I-70 towards Arapahoe Basin. It hasn’t soothed my anxiety despite the lyrics and rhythms of Dire Straits and the haunting lead guitar of Mark Knopfler. And I’m cursing the amount of ice and fresh snow still on the road despite the efforts of the county snow-ploughs overnight. Half a mile shy of the Eisenhower Tunnel near the top of this range, my foot’s searching for the clutch to downshift to the lowest gear. Out of the corner of my eye I sense a cloud of white bearing down the mountain from the right. Shit! Shit! Shit! Instinctively I know what it is….. avalanche!
My foot involuntarily stomps on the throttle. There’s a slither of metal studs as my snow tyres spin, struggling for traction against the compacted ice. The Chevy is old, but has enough torque to move a little quicker up the hill, fishtailing slightly in a ballet which pits the poetic grace of Swan Lake against the headlong rush of an unstoppable natural force. Suspended in a slow-motion dream, the Chevy attempts to outpace the onset of the wall of white: a six foot wave of ice crystals descending faster than my ascent.
Then there’s a realization. A resignation. I can’t beat this. And a white cloud precedes the whoompf. And my world is enveloped in pristine white, then darkness. Mark Knopfler is just launching into a beautiful guitar riff after the lyrics “… ride across the river to the other side” when the Chevy Blazer and I are gracefully swept off the side of the I-70 highway. There’s not really a sense of falling, it’s more a sense of riding a roller coaster in the dark. It’s a tumbling roll downhill into a valley of white rather than a freefall. I have no idea where I am or how far I’ve slid, but the whole out-of-body experience seems to take a minute or less. Sixty seconds of darkness, radio-static, tumbling and absolute fear. And gradually, the slow motion movie stalls. I think I’m upside down in the car, but I’m unsure. Like an astronaut, I have no sense of which way is up.
The Chevy’s windows have shattered, and much of the cabin is filled with snow. I feel the stinging cold against my neck and cheeks. There’s a small pocket of air in front of my face but I can’t move my arms or legs to try to unclip the seatbelt. My fears rise and subside as I lapse in and out of consciousness.
It was a small glow of light that gave me hope. A pinhole at first, then a glimmer. Were there rescuers? Then the beam became a brighter light. And through the light rasped a reassuring voice. I knew that voice well. “It’s OK, Jimmy, you’re OK. Take my hand. I’ve got you now and I won’t ever let you go again.”