It was just ten degrees when I took my dog cross-country skiing around the farm this morning. (I actually had to scrape ice off the bottom of my Karhus!) But the sun was bright and the skiing was great. I usually spend the time thinking through whatever book I’m working on, but this morning I kept going back to Outtabounds, my ski-patrol novel. (The tag line is, Not afraid of ski lifts? You will be . . .)
Anyway, this is the prologue. I hope you like it!
Twenty-four years earlier . . .
TEN-YEAR-OLD Jeffrey Christopher crouched over his skis as he raced down the snowy hillside. A bump appeared on the side of the trail and he shot toward it, tucking his poles beneath his arms like an Olympic racer. He waited until the last instant, then pushed up with his knees and popped into the air, whooping with excitement. He landed in an explosion of snow, zigged and zagged to slow himself, then turned his skis and braked to a stop.
He turned and looked uphill.
“C’mon, Dad, hit it!” he shouted. “Hit it!”
James Christopher knew he’d be taking the jump the moment he saw Jeffrey heading for it. The boy loved watching his father fly through the air as much as he loved being airborne himself. James wasn’t really interested in bumps and jumps anymore—growing old sometimes did that to a man—but risking life and limb (and watching his father do the same) seemed hard-wired into his son’s DNA. It made the boy smile. And that was all the reason James Christopher needed to take the jump.
He was Jeffrey’s hero and he knew it. Jeffrey once told a friend his dad was “the best skier in the world!” After that, James would have taken an Olympic ski jump blindfolded rather than disappoint his son.
He bent his knees as he made his approach, then hopped and popped into the air. He splayed his arms and legs—a classic spread-eagle—and landed cleanly. He braked hard, spraying Jeffrey with an icy shower of fresh, frosty, sparkling powder.
“Yes!” Jeffrey exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear. “That was great!”
James smiled. He looked back up the hill for a moment, then turned back to his son. “So where do you want to go?”
“Loose Moose!” Jeffrey said without hesitation.
“Sounds good,” James agreed. “Let’s go.”
James took a moment to catch his breath as Jeffrey planted his poles and pushed off. He knew before asking that they’d be hitting choose Loose Moose. It was their signature run. Narrow monkey trails snaked through the pine forest on both sides of the creamy corduroy, and father and son both enjoyed darting between the trees, ducking beneath snow-laden branches, hopping fallen logs, and slicing through piles of loose powder before blazing back onto the groomed run again.
James breathed deeply—the air seemed unusually thin this morning—as he followed Jeffrey down the slope. Whenever they skied together, James insisted on Jeffrey taking the lead. He enjoyed watching the little firecracker, for one thing. But he also preferred being uphill in case the boy took a spill. It was much simpler to reach him that way than if—
James gasped, abruptly overcome by a wave of nausea and dizziness. He wedged his skis to slow himself, suddenly confused and out of breath. His chest began to burn, felt as if it were being crushed. He braked to a stop and bent over his skis as he tried to catch his breath. His head swam. His ears rang and his chest flamed. He could feel his heart pounding.
He had no way of knowing it, but an aneurysm—a weak spot in the aorta below his kidneys—had burst and begun spilling blood into his abdomen. The result of a genetic defect, the aneurysm had gone undetected for years. But now—weakened by a recent infection and aggravated by the stress of hard skiing—it had given way.
His heart began pumping faster to compensate for the diminishing volume of blood. The extra fluid in his abdomen created pressure against adjacent veins and arteries, further slowing the circulation of blood and depriving his body of oxygen.
Searing pain slashed through Christopher’s chest and he fell to the snow, gasping and clutching at his coat.
Jeffrey turned to look back uphill just as his father collapsed.
The boy slammed to a stop, popped off his skis, and struggled to run back up the slope. He sank to the top of his ski boots with every step in the soft snow but didn’t quit. He clawed his way up the hill with all the speed he could muster.
By the time Jeffrey reached him, his father was unconscious.
Confused and frightened, Jeffrey shook his father, then shook him again, desperately trying to wake him. There was a shushing sound and he looked up to see a skier slicing down the hill. The boy stood and frantically waved down the passing skier.
“There’s something wrong with my dad!” the boy cried as tears coursed down his cheeks. “Please, you’ve got to help him!”
The skier took one look at the man lying crumpled on the snow. He could see blood trickling from the corners of the man’s mouth and knew the situation was more serious than a broken leg or a sprained ankle. Certainly beyond any help he could offer. He knew he could stop … but he didn’t know first aid.
But he knew where to find someone who did.
“Stay here,” he said. “I’ll get the ski patrol.”
Before the boy could respond the skier planted his poles and shot down the hill, relieved to have a task he could handle.
Jeffrey knelt beside his father feeling lost and alone and more frightened than he’d ever been in his young life.
Hot tears seared his eyes.
“Dad,” he whispered between sobs. “Oh, Dad …”
CHASE ROGERS slalomed through the fresh, creamy snow carrying a mongo—a steel bar used for driving holes into hard snow and ice. The bamboo poles and plastic ropes that marked closed and out-of-bounds areas were constantly working themselves loose, and keeping them buffed out was a never-ending chore.
He skied easily, enjoying the feeling of long skis on groomed snow. He stopped frequently to pull up the slack in a sagging rope or use the mongo to drive a new hole for a leaning pole. The sun was high in the sky—bright and warm—and it felt good on his face as he hopped over a rise and onto the face of a steep pitch.
There was a skier down on the snow near the bottom of the hill, someone kneeling beside him. Chase was a rookie ski patroller, but he’d skied long enough to recognize the scene of an accident. Forgetting the ropes, he turned his skis and within seconds reached the stricken skiers.
A young boy looked up with swollen eyes, instantly recognizing the red coat and white crosses. A look of overwhelming relief flooded the boy’s face.
“It’s my dad!” the boy cried, choking on his words. “Please help him! Hurry, please!”
Chase punched out of his skis, a million thoughts whirling through his mind. The man on the snow appeared unconscious, and there was no mistaking the blood trickling from his mouth. Chase knew he was facing a dire situation. Knew he needed help and knew he needed it fast.
He reached down to his chest harness and keyed his radio.
“Wrangler Patrol, Seven Forty-seven.”
A scratchy voice rumbled back. “Wrangler Patrol.”
“I need an Oh-two pack, backboard, and toboggan at the bottom of Powderkeg.” And then, though he knew it was unnecessary: “Please expedite.”
“Copy your Oh-two, backboard, and toboggan. Ten-four, patroller en route. Wrangler Patrol clear.”
Chase dropped beside the man on the snow. He took in the blood trickling from the man’s mouth, the clenched eyes—
He looks like he’s in pain.
—and the lack of discernible breathing. He shook the man roughly.
“Sir? Sir! Can you hear me?”
“He just fell!” the boy cried frantically. “He was grabbing his chest!”
“How long ago?” Chase asked.
“I … I don’t know! Five minutes? Ten? I don’t know!”
“Okay,” Chase said. “Just relax.”
He placed his ear close to the man’s mouth and watched his chest. He heard no sound of breathing, felt no breath upon his cheek, saw no telltale movement of the chest.
Chase quickly tilted the man’s head, pinched the nose shut, and blew two breaths into the mouth, ignoring the stubble of whiskers against his lips. The breaths went in and Chase saw the man’s chest rise.
Chase placed his fingers alongside the man’s neck and felt for a pulse: nothing.
He moved his fingers, felt again.
He ripped open the man’s coat, placed his hands in the center of the chest, and straightened his elbows: he shoved, compressing the man’s heart.
One, two, three—
He winced as the man’s ribs cracked under the pressure, but forced himself to focus on his work.
He repositioned himself alongside the man’s head and blew again into the whiskery mouth. He felt the breaths go in and saw the chest rise.
He quickly returned to the man’s side, positioned his hands and shoulders, began compressing the chest.
One, two, three …
He knew help would be coming. Knew too that he couldn’t stop working. Couldn’t stop unless the man began breathing on his own or someone arrived to take over … or until he himself dropped from exhaustion.
He completed five compressions—the accepted protocol of the time—blew twice into the man’s mouth, began another cycle. He knew—he’d been warned—that cardiopulmonary resuscitation was a difficult, draining procedure. But he was surprised by how quickly he was tiring. His arms began to ache, his back already burning from the strain.
Five compressions, two breaths, five compressions, two breaths, the motions becoming automatic, his actions almost mindless. He couldn’t stop. He struggled to ignore his tiring muscles and focus upon his work.
Get oxygen into the lungs, into the blood.
Keep the blood circulating.
His shoulders burned, his aching elbows, knees, and back howling for relief. He began to worry that he’d become too tired to continue. The thin mountain air was insufficient to sustain him, the cold draining his strength as rapidly as the strain of performing CPR.
Focus! he ordered himself. I’m not stopping!
He’d seen the look in the kid’s eyes—the boy had looked at Chase with an expression of trust and confidence—and Chase was not going to fail him. Not for anything. No matter how tired he became.
Come on! he thought as he blew into the cold mouth. Breathe!
He continued compressing, breathing, compressing, breathing, compressing, breathing. He became dimly aware of movement around him.
He wanted to look, to see what was happening, but couldn’t tear his eyes away. Was too tired, too numb, too exhausted to do anything but continue the rhythmic cycle of chest compressions and breaths.
One, two, three …
A hand gripping his shoulder.
“No,” he whispered numbly. “Can’t … stop …”
“Chase,” the voice repeated, a little more urgently. “It’s okay … we’ve got it. Stand down …”
“Can’t … stop …”
Hands gripped his shoulders, began pulling.
“C’mon, Chase, it’s okay. C’mon, man, let go … let go, Chase … we’ve got it.”
Chase felt himself being pulled away. He resisted, struggled briefly, finally let go. He blinked, saw people in red coats kneeling over the stricken man as they continued administering CPR. More breaths, compressions, breaths. Someone feeling for a pulse. More breaths, more compressions. Other skiers had stopped to watch and a patroller had his hands out, shooing them away.
After several minutes a grizzled patroller—the patrol doctor—motioned the men performing CPR to stop. The doc placed a stethoscope against the unconscious man’s chest. He listened, repositioned his stethoscope, listened again. By now a rescue toboggan had arrived and a patroller was preparing it for transport … but without the urgency Chase expected. It was several moments before he realized why.
It was over.
He sat back on the snow as icy beads of sweat trickled down his back feeling … what?
None of the words seemed exactly right.
He was completely, utterly drained, both physically and emotionally. He looked to the side and saw the man’s son kneeling in the snow beside his father. Tears streaked the boy’s cheeks, the young face flushed and filled with anguish. The boy looked like he was on the verge of losing control.
After a moment the boy looked up and their eyes met. For a brief, horrifying moment Chase thought the boy might show some sign of anger that Chase had been unable to save his father. But despite his grief the boy managed to mouth the words, Thank you.
It was as if a dam suddenly burst within him. A flood of emotions overwhelmed him and Chase collapsed on the snow. He began to cry, sobbing like a baby.
He was twenty-two years old.
It was his second day on the job.
Wow . . . reading that always takes me back to the mountain. Anyway, I hope you like it! You can read more details here!