Vo l . 7 N o . 1 helped me up again, I fell back again. “Maybe if I could see,” I said through my vertigo. He gently pulled off my glasses, an almost tender gesture that acknowledged my helplessness. He took off his glove, wiped the snow from my glasses. Now I got my first look at him, though only part of his pleasant face showed between his warm neck gaiter and his hat. He was in wide snow boots but not snowshoes, yellow jacket, so not ski patrol, at least six feet tall, but not a big man. Young, yet to fill out. In my depleted state I struggled with how to ask for his name, which he hadn’t said, and blurted, “What is your name?” “James,” he answered simply, at complete ease. He regarded me steadily, seeming not to mind my flatvoiced bluntness. “Jean. Thank you, . . . James.” James helped me up again, and this time I stayed upright. Snow still swirled, but the landscape itself had stopped circling. I could smile again. James smiled back. In his eyes I read that I was now capable of walking out. Shovel in hand, he indicated he would lead. So I followed, wavering but on my own, happy for his friendly guidance down the fifty or sixty yards to his waiting vehicle. This one man had put a floor back under me, put my world back together. He turned and helped me down from our path. At the open two-seater vehicle, I stood dumbly comparing the passenger floor well to the size of my snowshoes. I looked at James. He nodded that they should come off and indicated the cargo box on the back. So I bent to loosen the cold stiff fasteners, got free of the snowshoes, which I handed to James, and climbed into the passenger seat. He drove up the slippery road the short distance to the Wy’east day lodge, let me off at a side entrance marked First Aid, and disappeared. My head swimming, I took in the bunkered layout, rough concrete walls. Several narrow beds formed a ward-like row, each with a red-striped grey wool blanket tightly tucked, none in use. The only person was a trim, reserved man in a red jacket with a white cross—ski patrol—who motioned me to one of the beds. I sat down on it. He stayed near the door, doing something I couldn’t see, his head inclined down. No searching look from him, not like James. The next thing I knew, Bill was there. “I’m so glad to see you!” he said, his wind-reddened face wearing a big smile, relief also swelling his chest. I walked into his embrace. How he could be there, I didn’t know, but I was home.
99 He said, “I heard by chance. I was standing at the top of the Pucci lift. Above me some ski patrol guys were talking—something about a woman snowshoer being down. I asked the name of the woman. When they answered, ’Jean’. . .” He exhaled heavily. “Hey, you are covered in snow, Sweets, your hood is full of it.” He cleaned me up, both of us chuckling, giddy. All that remained to do, it seemed, was call the sheriff, debrief to fix the hazard, and celebrate. It wasn’t to be that simple. A quick account spilled out for my audience of two, Bill and the ski patrol medic. He came over to us and I stopped gesticulating to accept the warm cocoa he put into my hand. I thanked him, but I wasn’t in need of warming, or refreshment, or calming. Well, yes, calming, but only after we called off the sheriff and dealt with the danger on the trail. Up through my adrenaline came a recognition that he didn’t share my alarm. The cocoa seemed there to comfort a mountain customer who had merely got herself stuck and disheveled. But I explained that the sheriff might be sending responders after losing phone contact. He nodded slowly, thinking, and then punched the sheriff’s number onto his cordless phone. He looked up and said nothing—another automated phone system. Odd that the first aid station wouldn’t have a back line to the sheriff. James came in, stopping just past the entry as if to avoid dripping meltwater in the warm room. His alert eyes fastened on mine where I sat, or maybe where I stood, because how could I sit quietly? With the eagerness of a first experience he said, “It was a classic avalanche situation. You were walking on an ice wall, and heavy new snow had packed against it. Your one step set it free and in motion.” I beamed my thanks—he knew what I’d been in. I wanted him to take off some gear and talk with us some more. Bill was taking it in. But I wasn’t sure the ski patrol medic heard. Still waiting on the line for a live person, the medic covered the mouthpiece and directed James to go back and look for my phone. What a time for stellar customer service—he must not have understood that the snow had split nine feet down. I protested that it was just a phone, but James saw that the man in charge was looking at him to go. He turned and left, leaving me to regret that I didn’t insist he stay inside where we could talk, where it was safe, and where I could get a better look at him and begin to thank him in front of Bill and the ski patrol. Explain to them what James had done, how it had been for me. Too, I wanted to know what danger
A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim