Part Two: The Accidental Bivouac
It started to snow. Imperceptible ice needles at first, but then in bigger clumps falling through the gray-white air.
We took turns breaking trail, but Davey O’Brien pushed the route most of the time. It was his “easy” overnight tour, his idea to ski from Woods Lake over the divide and down to the hot-springs ghost town of Dunton.
It wasn’t his fault that the rookie in the group, the new doctor, hadn’t told anyone that he couldn’t really ski downhill, couldn’t effectively turn his telemark skis, and that time had slipped away from us on the steep descent from the ridge, time spent picking him up and dusting him off, talking him down, time we needed to get down the river course before dark.
Pretty soon it was dark. We got out the headlamps and kept slogging. I worried, when it was my turn to break trail, about falling through into the creek. The river meandered, mostly hidden, through its high, flat valley. There were impenetrable willow thickets and occasional glimpses over soft edges into black water – water windows in a concealing snow blanket.
Hearing the water, listening for it beyond the weak beams of our headlamps, became ultra important. I couldn’t help thinking of Jack London and the short story “To Build a Fire,” which I’d read aloud in a high school speech class. That poor schmuck had fallen through into a creek in Alaska when the temperature was 60 below. He knew that if he didn’t build a fire in a matter of minutes, his legs would freeze solid, and he would die right there.
It wasn’t that cold for us that night with the snow curtain all around. It was cold, but not that cold. More than once we stopped to discuss our options. Davey was sure Dunton was just around the next bend. Then again, it wasn’t, even though we’d been plowing ahead for hours. The night was sapping our batteries; the already tiny pools of light dimmed. We could keep going, or we could stop and bivouac until daylight. We hadn’t prepared for this. We were supposed to be drinking beer at the Dunton saloon. We had little food and no water. Only Davey had a bivy sack to protect his sleeping bag from the falling snow. Was it riskier to plunge blindly ahead, running on empty, but relatively warm with the effort? Or was it smarter to stop moving and hunker down until morning?
We felt ourselves getting stupid with fatigue. We decided to stop. We found a stand of young firs and dug in under their lower branches. The snow was too soft to build any kind of shelter, so we just burrowed down like inept bears and laid out our bags shoulder-to-shoulder, and crawled in fully dressed, boots and all.
Left to right, there was Davey snug in his yellow sack, snoring if I recall, as soon as the nylon rustling stopped. Then there was the doctor in his purple mummy, suffering – if he suffered – in silence. On the other side of me Jerry Greene started to shiver, an early sign of hypothermia.
Soon all of our bags had grown thick coats of white.
I could hear Jerry’s teeth chattering. The doctor’s diuretics lecture from the day before clanged around in my memory, but I had no water to give him. I did have some chocolate. And three or four times in the night I unzipped just enough to reach a square over toward Jerry’s breathing hole. He took it gratefully, and the shaking stopped almost immediately, smoothed by sugar and fat on the tongue. The calm would last an hour or so, and then the quaking would commence again. He told me he thought he was dying.
Between bouts, I felt a strange contentment, warmth even. I didn’t trust it; snow avalanched off my bag every time I moved. But I felt somehow insulated from worry, even though I had a wife and baby daughter, and I thought about them often, back home in Telluride.
My nose was the only thing sticking out of the bag’s hood, and it was numb with snow. I didn’t think I slept, but at one point I opened my eyes and saw that the darkness had acquired a new lighter shade.
I remember almost nothing of Dunton later that day. The car we had left, or the ride we had arranged, was there, obviously. We may even have shed our clothes and slipped into one of the hot pools. I have a vague recollection of disappointment that the water wasn’t hotter. I do remember quite clearly the day I heard that Davey O’Brien had died. As he had predicted, his jinxed heart gave out a few years later. The news sent a chill down my bones.