This story of mine was selected for inclusion in the
2018 Anthology by Redwood Writers.
On the way to Rubicon
McKinney Creek ran fast and frigid. It looked dangerous to cross with our skis on. The rocks in the creek were slick with ice and even maneuvering down the snow bank to the water level looked hard. A short distance upstream from this questionable ford was Miller Lake and some open water.
Spring was beginning in the Sierra Nevada. We were seven miles from our car and one mile from the stove and dry wood at the Richardson Lake hut. If we didn’t cross the creek, we’d have to spend a night out on the snow, or have to put our headlamps on and make our way to the car in the dark. Neither prospect appealed to us.
Jed side stepped down to the creek wearing his skis.
“Hey Jed, you can trash your bases if you want and maybe get your feet wet, but I’m going to see if I can cross this creek right at the lake outlet.”
“Be careful,” hollered Jed.
He picked his way across the moving water on slick rocks, tough on skis. I didn’t like the looks of those rocks and skied up to where the creek flowed from the thawing lake. I searched for a solid place to cross. In the twilight at 7,000 feet, the source of warmth had dropped behind the mountain. A couple of early stars hung in the sky.
Nordic skiers know their skis will support them in places impossible on foot. Even with the extra weight of a pack, I thought my skis would let me glide across the short section of fragile ice at the outlet to Miller Lake.
Slide and glide, I thought, but gravity and snow physics took over. Halfway across, about fifteen feet from the shore, the ice supporting me collapsed. I was on my back in icy water with only minutes to get out before I’d be too cold to move. One of my skis was under the ice and the other on the surface. My heart was racing and I wondered if this was the end. Even the beat of a frightened heart produces heat, and at a time like this, each degree was precious.
As I reached in the water to release the binding, I realized I’d need both skis. Getting anywhere would almost be impossible with just one.
My camera’s strap prevented me from taking off my pack. I fought to move and bounce and wiggle enough to get the underwater ski tip up near the surface, where I might grab it.
I battled fear as I felt the cold overtaking me. After some desperate twisted contortions, I got a hold of the ski tip and got it to the surface. I managed to get the camera strap off over my head and threw my camera as far as I could. Thoughts of saving the camera or taking pictures were the furthest thing from my mind. I got my pack off and flung it away from the open water.
Jed approached me from the opposite bank, after his successful crossing, and pulled the pack away. It was too risky for him to get closer and help me.
Jed yelled, “Don’t worry about your gear, I can get it. Get yourself out, it isn’t far to the hut and you can warm up. Don’t give up.”
I clawed with my ski poles to move away from the hole in the ice. I crawled on my belly, with both skis still attached, moving one leg at a time until I got to a place where I hoped the ice could support my weight. I was stiff from the cold, but managed to get on my feet and stand up, dripping.
A deep twitch shook my body. My jaw tightened, goose bumps rippled across my skin and the quaking began. I felt like I would crack my teeth from shivering. There was no time to waste. We needed to ski to the hut and build a fire.
We skied at the fastest pace I could maintain. I was starting to shut down. I kept crossing my ski tips and kept falling down. It was the start of hypothermia. Things began to dull. I knew not to stop. There was no feeling in my fingers or toes and all I could do was to ski hard into the dark.
Jed stayed with me and gave me encouragement. We missed the fork for the hut thanks to the low light and went on for a quarter mile. When we reached the edge of Richardson Lake, we realized we had gone too far. We backtracked, and in a couple of minutes were opening the door to the unheated refuge.
Living in houses with only wood stoves taught us how to build a fire in a hurry and make it burn hot. Jed built the fire and I pulled off wet clothes. I shivered naked in the cold hut wringing out my ski suit and socks. I hung them close to the stove, careful not to set them on fire. Someone else’s half burnt glove in the wood box was testimony to the possibility.
“Thanks for the help back at the lake. I cashed all my chips in on this one. I wouldn’t be here without you,” I said to Jed.
“Yeah, you redeemed all your karma today. That was scary. I know you’d do the same for me.”
We filled the stove with another load of dry kindling. I stood on my ski hat to keep my toes from the frozen floor. My heart filled with gratitude for friendship and dry wood.