i have a geocache in richford that's near a monument to a survey crew that froze to death up on sutton mountain. i'm only thinking of it because last month i almost froze to death in avery's gore.
on new year's eve i wrote about it to my friends, and i'm posting it here with a little editing:
some of you know this story or part of it already. i want you all to have the full account because you were all in my thoughts up on the mountain.
God is great and merciful.
it was the longest night of the year, and possibly the longest night of my life.
last saturday my friends crashco and dj and i decided to go geocaching in the Northeast Kingdom. there's a challenge out that involves visiting caches in all 251 towns of vermont, along with the four gores. dj and crashco and i only had a handful of towns left, all up in the NEK. if you know anything about the geography of vermont, this will not surprise you. the NEK is remote and wild.
we planned kind of a marathon day, starting with a hike for crashco in hardwick and finishing with four hikes after sundown: warren gore, avery's gore, warner's grant, and holland. only the hike at avery's gore was anticipated to be steep or long. in order for you to find a cache in avery's gore, you have to first be in avery's gore.
there aren't any roads in avery's gore. its official population is zero. to BE in avery's gore, you have to hike uphill a couple of miles from the nearest road. even long lake seems well-connected and cosmopolitan by comparison.
we know about this kind of hiking; we often hike at night, and we often hike in the cold. we know how to dress for it, how to move safely. we know how to check for signs of frostbite and hypothermia and we know that if anyone in the party is in trouble, we turn around and go home.
we were dressed for it properly, and we'd eaten enough. i wasn't maybe fully hydrated, but when i'm out in cold weather i am habitually a little under-hydrated simply because at ten below zero it's a project to drop flaps to pee.
sometimes even when you're properly equipped and properly prepared you still crap out.
i rolled craps.
we got our caches in norton, ferdinand, bloomfield, lewis and we came to the trailhead for the hike into warren gore. it was a short moderate hike on a wide-open logging road and what struck me was the staggering beauty of the "great big stars" flung out wide over us. my hands were cold and they hurt quite a lot for the first few minutes going up but it was a simple thing, walking, and soon enough my circulation got going enough for me to be comfortable, going with an easy gait.
at the cache we all looked at our GPS receivers and noticed that the next cache, the one in avery's gore, was closer to where we were at the moment than it is to the trailhead from which we were to begin that hike. we explored for a few minutes the possibility that our logging road might take us there, and even the possibility of a bushwhack. it was open woods and wouldn't have been too hard walking we thought, but even though we didn't want to give up our elevation gains we decided not to chance the unknown and the possibility of unseen obstacles.
we went back down to the truck, drove down the road a couple of miles, and found the recommended trailhead for the avery's gore cache. we started on up the trail.
many of you know that i have been feeling my losses very sharply this year; i've been traveling as much to run from the pain of all that as i have been running toward the pleasure of living on the road. it was exactly this kind of travel that brought me into awareness of the presence of a living God, and so it is this kind of travel that reminds me of that presence, that discovery. it is my comfort when all else fails. you may know that this past october when i lost my footing at the richmond church and began to think of leaving it, it was the long journey that gave me safe harbor.
i don't really want to go deep into that story; let's just say that it was my anger with other people that was making it difficult for me to come properly into the presence of God.
the key concept here is salvation as it depends upon forgiveness. every day i pray to be a bigger person than i am, the kind of person who could and would forgive, but i can't quite reach yet. evan and amy, you must know by now why exactly i came into your company, and i want you to know that my time with you was transformative for me. i can feel it moving in my soul but it has yet to bear fruit.
i'm a work in progress.
i remember the first day i walked with the knowledge of the living and present God; everywhere i went, i went with the prayer that i could make every breath a prayer and every step a prayer, and never forget how or why.
so it's not all that unusual for me to pray as i walk, but i remember going up that mountain praying that whatever happened, i would still feel myself in God's hand. and i continued that prayer to be bigger than i am, to be able to forgive.
that's the funny thing, you know? God has been so insistent, so specific about all sorts of things about which i'm just supposed to get over myself and forgive. somehow i'm also given the heart to do it, to want to do it, and God has been strangely silent on the topic of forgiving these two things.
so the three of us are heading up the trail into avery's gore. the time is 2115. the public version of this story can be found here, and if you're looking for an annotated map of where we were, it can be found here. the public version of the story includes some details that aren't included here in the introspective version, and you can read there (with a little following of some links) what crashco and dj have to say about it as well.
we know how long it took previous visitors to get to the cache before the snow fell, and we know approximately our comparable speed. we expect to spend a little over two hours getting to the cache, and an hour or so to come down. we consider the snow depth and quality and decide against snowshoes.
it's slow going on that trail, partly because i don't move all that fast, partly because we're being careful, and partly because we know better than to work up a sweat in this kind of weather. we stop for safety checks along the way. at the safety checks you assess yourself for signs of hypothermia or frostbite, and you share your conclusions with your companions. if there are any problems, or if you don't all agree on the assessments, the hike is over and you head back.
at the third safety check we were just below the crest of the hill. i was warm and dry. i even scrunched my shoulders up, checking to see if my bra was damp from sweat. we were all set to go.
even though there was nothing apparently wrong, i remember asking God to guide and protect me.
things changed fast.
as we crested the hill we were no longer sheltered by the slope and although there wasn't much wind, it was more wind than we'd had so far. i zipped up my hood to cover the bottom part of my face, just to cut down on the amount of exposed skin i had, and reduce my risk of frostbite. we lost the trail, which wasn't that big a deal since we knew where we were and the terrain from here to the cache was level. since the weather was clear we knew we could follow our tracks back if we needed to, and we all had turned on breadcrumbs on our GPSrs.
they call it "breadcrumbs" when you're recording your tracks; it enables you to return to your start point by the same way you came. you can follow your tracks, or you can make a beeline for your start point, which of course you have waypointed.
losing the trail here wasn't the bad thing; the bad thing was that we had come out on a logging landing and all around us there were piles of cut branches. that's hard enough to walk through when you can see it, but there was just enough drifted snow to cover, and so every step had the possibility of letting you posthole in as deep as your hip.
our pace had slowed to a crawl, and now extracting ourselves from holes every few steps meant we had much more contact with the snow and therefore more exposure to cold.
i don't know if we fought through that for ten minutes or twenty minutes, because however long it was it felt like forever even though it wasn't more than a couple hundred feet, and we were just about across it when our path was crossed by a guy on a snowmobile. he didn't slow down or even seem to notice us, but i remember wondering how much money he would want to ferry us back down.
we come out onto groomed snowmobile trail, and the terrain is flat, so even though i now feel a little cold, we think that maybe getting moving again will warm me. i know better than to make this assessment on my own, so i'm talking with dj about it as i'm thinking. at this point i am only just a little bit cold, and it is well within reasonable expectation that i will warm up, but for some reason i tell dj that if i die up here he should call barbara.
"instead of your family?" he asks.
no, just that she will know how to go about some things that my family will not. i don't explain it to him very much.
and there's a thing that i want. it could just as easily be done for me while i'm still alive, but i don't want to go to my grave without it. it's the kind of thing that needs to be done for me, if that makes any sense at all to you. and i know that if i don't live to see it done, barbara will realize it and make sure it gets taken care of.
so as we walk i'm thinking about that, but i'm not telling dj. for a few moments i have this crazy thought that dj will be able to do this one thing for me, that he will somehow understand.
i always feel as if my time for dying is soon, even though things that should kill me never do. it's paradoxical; i have both a sense of my own frailty AND of my indestructibility. i don't know if my time really is short, or whether i'm just supposed to live as if it's short. i know that when my number is up, it's up. i've fallen off a forty-foot ladder. i've been struck by lightning. i've been run over by a truck, and all without harm. one of these days my number will come up. the omniscient narrator from the future know that it doesn't come up this day, but so far in the story it's anybody's guess.
we walk about a quarter of a mile. it doesn't take us very long, but i begin to realize that i'm too cold. my toes and fingers are still warm, but my butt is numb, which is worrying. i tell dj this, and we walk a little farther.
at this point, you should know, we are maybe only two hundred and fifty feet from the cache. crashco has gone out ahead to look for it., because now we know that we're not going to have much time to waste looking. we have come so far only to have to turn around, and i'm thinking that in view of the length of the return trip, an extra five minutes isn't going to make much of a difference.
almost immediately the numbness spreads. i slap my butt, my outer thighs. i can't feel it on the surface. we pass a little house next to the trail, which makes me feel hopeful. and very quickly i can't feel my inner thighs. then i go numb at my squishy bits. i'm having some trouble putting one foot in front of the other. i'm having trouble aiming my feet.
you're not supposed to have to think about aiming your feet.
and your squishy bits are supposed to be the warmest part of you, so i took this to be a very bad sign. i caught up to my boys at the cache location, but then went back a little to have a look at the little house and i realized that i had just down a thing you should never do: wander away from the group with out telling anyone. it isn't very far, but it's not a good idea and i think that maybe i'm losing judgment.
i go back and i say "boys, we either have to break into that little house or we have to build a fire."
the time is now around midnight.
immediately they give up the search and now we're scouring the outside of the house, looking for a way in. crashco finds a second-story window and a ladder which becomes important later but for now it's no good.
there's no way in without breaking a window, so we figure that we'll build a fire. there's a woodpile outside, and we're in the woods, so we'll be able to find kindling,and dj has a spare notebook, so there's tinder, and HE HAS A LIGHTER. i find a piece of stovepipe, which i figure will make a good platform and chimney for our fledgling fire. it's the last useful thing i'm able to do.
dj and craschco get busy building the fire and gathering wood, and i stand useless, afraid to move too much, afraid to handle cold objects for fear i'll lose feeling in my hands. the fire leaps up, bright and warm and dj keeps going off into the woods, gathering wood, coming back and tending the fire.
crashco goes up on the ladder to call their wives, not so much to tell them not to worry, because worrying at this point is definitely in order, but to tell them where we are at least, and what to expect.
crashco asks if there's anyone he should call for me.
no. nobody is expecting me at home. nobody will notice i'm missing until tomorrow or the next day, and there's no point worrying my family now, when they cannot help.
our plan for the moment is to warm me up at the fire and then reassess whether or not i can make the trip down. we realize pretty quickly that if i leave this fire, i will die. so crashco goes back up on the ladder and calls 911.
the time is now 0100.
at this point i begin to pray in earnest, and i begin also to think of you each in your turn. i want to call you all and tell you to pray for us, but there's no use waking you up, and there's no use wasting the batteries on the only cell phone we have with us that gets reception in this place.
earlier in the day we had been passing through lyndonville, next to the cemetery and i was thinking of the many hours as a child i spent in that cemetery, making notes and taking pictures; there was a grouping of old graves in the back corner that interested me and i spent hours and hours of my free time at summer camp in the town clerk's office, researching those people.
the cemetery was also the place where doug thornton took us all out one night at midnight by the full moon and we stood on a little knoll around the tallest marker there and we listened to him recite the cremation of sam mcgee, which you can find here.
my friends and i had been laughing about it earlier because i quoted it when the boys were getting in and out of the car and i was not; they stood with the doors open, letting out the heat.
nothing about the poem seemed funny at this point.
crashco gives very specific information to the 911 dispatcher in williston. he gives her our coordinates, and he tells her that we are at this house on the south shore of unknown pond, right on the groomed snowmobile trail. he tells her not to let the team come up on the trail we came on; it would not be snowmobile-friendly even without all the brushpiles.
dj found some pieces of corrugated roofing, and crashco had a space blanket that he was working on unfolding. they used those and the tarp from the woodpile to construct a kind of makeshift shelter around me to reflect the fire's heat and to keep the wind out. it still wasn't all that warm, but it made a difference.
every small thing makes a huge difference out there. if you wear gaiters (i do), not only do you have protection from snow working its way into your boots, but you have an extra layer of protection from cold. they keep your feet warmer, especially if, like mine, they come down like spats over the top of your boot. and waterproofing; periodically i clean and re-treat my boots with an excellent wax-based waterproofing. between that and the gaiters, it means that snow doesn't stick to your boots, and you have less contact with the snow and you stay warmer.
by happy coincidence i had just put fresh waterproofing on my boots the day before. i took a mental inventory of my clothing: smartwool socks, boots, gaiters. mid-weight tights, goretex ski pants. lightweight techwick tshirt, midweight bergelene mid-layer, winter-weight bergelene overshirt, shell. bergelene glove liners, heavy-duty gloves. everything designed to keep me dry and warm.
it's good to go over it in my mind; it keeps fear at bay. it is a reasonable voice in an unreasonable situation.
joyce. you wouldn't know it from here, but i got your letter just before i let the house for three weeks in october. i didn't read it right away, but i saved it for a cold and lonely night. i still haven't answered it because somewhere along the way i tucked it somewhere for safekeeping and rereading later and i keep forgetting to bring it into the house. if i get down this hill i am definitely going to fish that out.
we always said that if something went bad on one of our adventures we were prepared to spend an uncomfortable but alive night outdoors. we never intended to test this premise.
0200 comes and goes. we don't expect to hear the rescue team yet; we know how long it takes to scramble the team when they're not home and asleep. it is perhaps worth noting that crashco is a wilderness first responder, so he knows what it takes to put everybody in the field. by this time we realize that i am not holding my own against the cold, even with the fire.
it's a waiting game. which will find me first: rescue or death?
i remember hearing what i still consider to be the best story i ever heard. i won't tell it to you here, but i will tell you that it involved a man who went down in a small aircraft over the north atlantic. he was an atheist and it was a point of pride for him that in his time of trial he never resorted to praying to the God in whom he did not believe.
i didn't try to puzzle ot any conclusions, and i didn't look for any insights from it. i just remembered him, that's all.
i thought of that terrible thanksgiving when i was part of a cold-weather search and rescue of a missing woman up near appalachian gap. i remembered the state police asking me to call her parents and have them catch the first plane up. i remember having to tell the parents that the state police didn't think we were looking for a living person. i remembered how we found her, cold but alive, how she had gone into the woods with a copy of jack london's to build a fire.
i tried not to think about it.
and i prayed.
you maybe have heard me cry in pain. you maybe have heard the yelp that escapes me when pain sneaks up on me. i can't begin to properly tell you what this pain was like, because it was so extreme and it so completely subsumed me.
you know that sharp pain when your hands get very cold and then start to warm up? it was like that, only it was my whole body. and it was also like blunt trauma. it was like the feeling in your veins when an IV goes bad, or when they pump in something painful. it was also like the kind of burn you get when you bump up against an iron or stove burner, a burn on the surface but also down into the flesh. each seam and zipper of my clothing was a special brand of hell, as if each of them was super-heated and pressing down hard.
it so surprised me when i first felt it that i jumped up involuntarily, tearing at my clothes, yelling "it burns! it burns!"
i thought for a moment that i had caught fire. it only took me a few second to realize that i wasn't really burning, and i was just going to have to get used to it.
i could not pray to God to allow me to live or even to allow me to die, but all i could do was to tell God over and over: "i love you. you are my sovereign, my savior, my one true love."
all this while dj keep going off to find wood that will burn hot. he finds wood, he tends the fire, he goes back out. crashco is watching me, talking to dispatch and scouting the trail, looking for the team.
chuk. tell barbara. tell her to pray.
if i get out of here, i am going to answer gretchen's emails, and if she calls me, i will talk to her. i was being stupid and i'm sorry.
just before 0300 i am sure i hear the sound of machines. i can't say that it's the sound of snowmobiles, and nobody really trusts me to know what i'm hearing. crashco learns from the dispatcher that the ambulance has arrived, which is not much comfort because we know we can't get to it. we are told for the first time that help should arrive in "ten to fifteen minutes".
we are in high spirits. bear in mind that we are only a hundred or so feet from the cache we came to find, so with the fire burning hot and help about to arrive, i tell my boys "go get that cache. i don't want to almost die for a cache we don't find."
so they leave me for a few minutes. they find it quickly, and bring it back for me to sign. we're happy.
they put the cache back. crashco goes out to scout for the team, and he comes back to tell us he hears them. he also brings the heartbreaking news that they're not close by, they appear to be on the wrong trail, and they seem to be headed away from us.
the dispatcher tell him that the team is lost. they have gone back down to try another approach. the dispatcher in williston tells him that the team has attempted to reach us by way of the trail we took to get in, the trail that crashco specifically told them not to take. we learn that the dispatcher in derby line didn't think that was important enough information to pass on.
we are aware that sometimes dispatch won't pass on information that they don't understand or can't confirm, but we are of a mind that they could have passed it on as unsubstantiated information FROM US and let the team draw their own conclusions.
by 0400 i am passing in and out of consciousness. i remain upright for the most part, but i keep blacking out and then coming to.
beause of the windbreak and my need to be where the heat was, i also had to be where i was breathing in smoke. i sat in the windbreak until i had to come up choking for air. warm poison, or fresh freezing air. both painful. both deadly. it's like coming up from drowing, over and over, gasping for a breath and then diving down again.
cough, choke, splutter, retch.
and darkness. blessed, quiet, painless darkness. the mercy of God.
and i'm awake again. i come to, and i realize that even unconscious, i have been praying. i know it because i wake up in the middle of prayer.
and darkness again.
i wake up, and i'm singing weakly, word by slow painful word. i am halfway through "come thou fount of every blessing".
i go in and out. carol, i think, would call this a "powerful witness".
dj tends to the fire, reaching right in and grabbing hold of burning bits if he needs to move them. he is purposeful and ceaselessly moving. as the night wears on he has to go farther and farther from the fire in order to find wood.
i realize that it is the longest night of the year. really, not metaphorically, although it's certainly that as well. i think of andrea, whom i had wished a bright and blessed yule, to whom i had said that i hoped as the days grew longer that the light would grow within her also.
i thought of amy and little gregory and the whole band of them, knowing that they'e be waking soon and wanting more than anything to ask them to pray.
i thought of karen, who had been there to turn the med lock and let the painful meds flow into my veins, and how her kindness made it just that much easier to bear.
and linda, in her new studies. i call out to her in the night.
the darkness enfolded me and each of you was with me, like in the old chinese story where a man survives his night on the mountain because he can see in the distance a fire lit for him by a friend.
around 0600 i became lucid again. crashco and dj and i were sharing our outrage over the dispatcher's failure to relay the important information, and the stupidity of the question: "what color is the house?"
what color is the house? you wouldn't notice the color any more than you would notice three people and a large fire on the front lawn, especially in the darkness. the omniscient narrator from the future knows that it is the ONLY house up there. you can see it on the satellite photos. it's house colored.
we learn from the williston dispatcher that the machine sounds i'd heard around 0300 had been the team trying to cut through the brushpiles with a chainsaw. they had turned back only about a quarter mile from us.
crashco goes off on a rant about the delorme atlas, and how if you have one, you can see exactly where we are and how to get to us. being mad about this is a nice enough diversion for a little while and it probably saves me as much as any other thing; it puts a little life back in me even though i can tell my core temperature is still dropping.
i joke about running a pool to guess how low my core temperature is, but three people won't really support a pool and i look up and notice that the sky is turning that steel grey of cold mornings and at 0700 we hear the sled.
the team is happy to see us and surprised to find me still alive. i'm surprised by it myself.
they don't waste a second, but they half walk, half carry me over to the sled and lay me down in it. they open my clothes and lay in hot packs before bundling me up and strapping me down.
it's a rough ride, bumpy and very painful but i am so glad to be on my way out i don't care. the EMT riding with me keeps apologizing, saying "i'm sorry for the bumpy ride darlin', but we can't spare any ponies." he tells the driver to go as fast as he can. he's a very large, gentle man, and in that time i love him as much as i love anybody.
they put me in the truck, and nobody's ever started an IV on me in an ambulance, but they have to try. it is interesting hearing them call for a second truck for my boys; they don't think they'll need transport, but they call for every hot pack available to be brought.
they strip off my clothes all the while noting what very good gear i have, and how properly i'm dressed for the weather. they feel every layer, and declare each one in turn to be too cold. it's all hot packs and warm blankets but nothing feels warm to me and they still can't get an IV started, so they just roll the truck.
jean-pierre is very nice and i like him just fine, but one thing i notice is that he is not praying while he works on me. i miss that feeling powerful much.
in the ER they still can't get an IV started, but they put me under a forced-air blanket, which beside being interesting to look at is toasty warm. after an hour of warming my core temperature is still south of 96 by a wide margin and they still can't get an IV in.
it's hard to get an IV in me if i'm fully warmed, fully hydrated, a nd i've prepped the site with an emla patch.
they try more than a dozen times, in all sorts of places. they even go for the knuckle over my index finger. that's very painful. i ask if they couldn't try the inside of that finger, where i have no feeling anyway, but there's no vein there.
i want to know what the big deal is, and why they can't just give me a cup of tea and be done with it. the nurse is careful to explain that even though i'm here in the ER, i'm still at risk of dying; being that cold for that long makes your system kind of brittle. your elecrtolytes go out of balance, shivering takes its toll on the muscles. you're at risk of systemic failure.
so what will they do, i want to know, if they can't get an IV started?
well, they'll lavage me. they'll put tubes where they can and pump warm water into anyplace that'll hold it.
that don't sound so good to me.
at 0930 i ask for my friends to call the church, since it's sunday morning, to ask the congregation to pray.
there's no answer.
somewhere between the one thing and the other my urine tests (they still can't even draw a little bit of blood) come back clean and they decide to let me have the hot tea. they bring me tea and two kinds of broth and hot chocolate and they let me know i'm expected to drink all of it.
fine. it's lovely.
every hospital has that one IV nurse who can get blood out of anybody; that's who they send. she looks at the failed spots, the blown vein, the pricks and the bruises adn she says "anybody ever try your feet?" well, no, they haven't. she hunts a little, ties me off, and preps a spot.
'this is going to hurt", she says.
"more than when they go over the knuckle?"
she thinks for a moment. "no. about as much."
she sticks me once and i barely feel it. she gets ten ccs right off. later crashco will say that she should have done both feet, so i'd have a full set of stigmata.
my bloodwork comes back clean, too, which is an apparent surprise to everybody. the doctor comes by to make sure i understand that i should stay inside at least until the next weekend. he wants to be ABSOLUTELY SURE that i understand that if i get chilled in the next few days that it will very probably be fatal.
it's been all hot food and lots of naps for me. for a few days i cried very easily. in quiet moments i'm still haunted by those hours of darkness and pain and i go over and over in my head how i might let that work in me, how i might use it to get over myself and forgive. one of you sends me an email asking how i will thank the God who loves me so much, which hits me like a two-by-four in the face.
everything i have in me, every story, every song i come across instructs and informs me that it really does come down to forgiveness, but even through all of that i still can't quite reach and the only conclusion i come to is that i'm not meant to reach just yet. it's not that i'm permitted to give it up; i will still pray to be a better person tomorrow than i was today. i will still pray to be the kind of person who would forgive those two things; the kind of person who can and does forgive them, but for now i'll try to accept that the time will come when it comes and that maybe the holding of it, as painful as it is will present me with some tool or opportunity that i can use later.
tonight many of my friends, including dj and crashco, are gathered around a bonfire in a forest somewhere to see in the new year. i couldn't join them; it feels too much like that other, much less festive fire. but tomorrow we'll meet and together we'll go off into the NEK and finish up the two short hikes we missed. we will be the first to complete the challenge.
before my illness and all my losses of the last year or so, i had been strong and resourceful, quick to meet the challenges and often the first one to the finish line. it was hard being just an also-ran, and harder not even taking a start a lot of the time.
to go with my friends and be the first across that line together means that there's recovery from every darkness, every coldness. i'm going to get to stand and claim my place in the sun.
so may it be with you.