96 overtaken by the blind chaos of a tumbling fall, I thought I must be dreaming. But no, my right foot was still on the ripped edge of the trail even as the snow under my left foot slid outward from under me. Like the moment a person with one foot on the dock and the other on the moving boat realizes she can no longer jump to one or the other. My arms flung out, still clutching poles. Helpless to make any other response I sank, all but my right leg, in exquisite slow motion, remaining surreally upright. Rising into my view was the old trail surface, my right foot still attached to it, while below a crevasse-like cleft appeared, all newness creating itself in perfect pace and tandem with my descent. The break in my world mercifully stopped widening, the creaking stilled. The rent I had watched break open in front of me ended in undisturbed snow some eight feet ahead. I saw that the crook of my left arm rested on the left edge of a fissure in counterpoint to my right foot on the right side. What a perch: I was inside the fissure, which was just wider than my shoulders, held by one arm and one foot. The other leg dangled straight down. Chin at the spot where my feet had stood, I marveled at the two scenes layered one atop the other: the featureless dove-gray wind-blur above and the crisp, still clarity of the steep-walled fissure below. Pure, elemental aquamarine glowed from the walls, the blue leaching away where it reached the limits of light, to whiteness, then gray. I registered the privilege of seeing this sight mixed with the adrenalin of high alert. I studied my right snowshoe. Its crampon teeth, right under the ball of my boot, looked barely lodged. Which increased my alarm at having my left leg hanging free. I looked down as best I could. There was no floor under me, only a shaft narrowing more or less regularly from my shoulders down past my dangling left leg. And on down. I wanted to see a bottom, white and firm. Instead, it tapered into blackness—by the rate of narrowing, another four feet lower than my foot. I tried to digest this. Why couldn’t my five and a half foot frame rest in a tame little hole instead of hanging inside this nine foot drop? I was acutely aware of my isolation, no one to call out to. I still had my poles. With my free right arm I placed them together so that they rested across the open jaw of the fissure. This felt like a positive first action, giving me maybe a firmer hold—four more touch points—and increasing my visibility to rescuers. But the snow falling on my goggles told me it wouldn’t be long before whiteness camouflaged me. Even so, surely the fissure itself would
CIRQUE stay visible. I had to think so, if only through a shadow on its edge. Then again maybe not—a gusting snow flurry rushed sideways above my head, reminding me that, socked in as the sky was, defining shadows would be hard to come by. The minutes were too long and too short. I wanted to take a deep breath and break myself out. Jubilant success awaited—I only had to hurl myself left and swim, beating my way out and upwards as the teetering snow gave way. But this was no script I was in control of. A different image leapt to mind, of snowshoes grabbed by heavy snow, knees twisted. Wait, Jean, don’t be rash. You are over sixty with arthritic shoulders and bad discs, not a stuntwoman on a movie set. How much snow was unmoored and hanging? I wished I could see behind me—how far back did the fissure go? Chagrined that my wandering mind hadn’t paid attention to my immediate surroundings before the collapse, I wished mightily for a detailed memory. The only thing I remembered seeing faintly, a few steps back, was a chimney-like structure below on my left. How steep was the slope toward the chimney? Because now I was pretty sure that only the left side had moved—both sides couldn’t have moved. Could they? I needed another toehold. Trying not to otherwise move, I caught my left toe on the stronger right side wall. Sickeningly, in reaction the left side slid further outward under my arm with a whump and I dropped several inches more. I knew it! I knew I couldn’t squeeze down on that left arm. Now only my elbow rested on the fissure edge, the arm jutting upwards as well as to the side, holding my weight in a way not even a healthy shoulder is built for. My right hip threatened to cramp, my hamstrings hurt—I was really doing the splits now and could stretch no more. I wouldn’t be springing into action whatever I might wish to do. I held my body in place and tried to think clearly. I noticed I couldn’t breathe deeply, my abdominals crunching to hold my head and torso up against the backwards pressure of the high caught leg. A mere knee sprain now seemed like a naïve worry. To think of losing my holds and sliding further down into icy darkness was fearsome enough, but with cold terror I knew that a different kind of fall was more likely. When the soft snow under my elbow gave way, my fall would pivot around the foot that was caught high, and I would plunge head down, either into the narrow bottom of the fissure, or churn with the snow slab if it calved off completely. My snowshoes, which couldn’t come off, could only become anchors.