Thursday, December 2, 2010

10 years ago tonight

Hey. It's been ten years since I got lost up in the White Mountains and should have died. But didn't. That night- and what happened only a week later- has effected everything about my life since. Here's an account of what happened. I wrote this two years ago, so please forgive the writing style. It's a bit....different than it is now.

What first occurred was the feeling of hysteria swelling inside the chest, between the lungs, a growing panic escalating as the last glimpse of sunlight vaporized into the cold. Then the feeling was gone, frozen out of us, and all I was left with was an extreme thirst. The plastic thermometer that hung from my jacket split down the middle, the mercury gave a shrug. Later on, someone will bring a newspaper to me at the hospital and I will read that with wind chill, the temperature on the ridge that evening was forty degrees below zero. I'll throw it aside and say carelessly, for the benefit of my parents, well it didn't feel that cold. My dad walks out of the room, the doctor who is bandaging my feet shakes his head.

Yeah, it was a cold bloody night but in all honesty, I don't think that it did feel like negative forty. How can you even feel something so cold- how can you feel anything- when you are, essentially, frozen? Because that is what we were, five little Popsicles sucking down the black smoke from a small fire we kept lit with pine boughs, dwarfed within an immense wilderness of hard ice and black stars. The feeling of cold air burning the throat and snapping at the skin was long gone, replaced by the lethargy of a body slowly shutting down, the organs gasping for blood, the brain alienating itself from the sensation of touch. You don't feel much when this happens, not pain exactly, just a sort of irritation with the whole thing. I remember feeling that it was such a bother, this business about being horrifically lost, such a nuisance. And then Andy put his feet into the flame and they caught on fire and I started laughing. And when the same thing happened to me I was delighted. I'm probably going to freeze my feet off, I said outloud, but right now they're on fire! How ironic is that!
Was this humor well received amongst my counterparts, three teachers (Nick Robbins, Mike Beernstein and Megan Clemans) and one skinny thirteen year old boy ( Andy- a boy I had immense fondness for and always will)? Nope. Did the strange attempts at jokes continue to fall out of my mouth the whole time? Why, yes. Did I understand how desperate the situation was? Not by any stretch of the imagination. But remember that I was fifteen, and I had a lot on my mind. I was one of those kids who would rip up a page of math homework and do it all again if my handwriting was not just perfect (this might give you a glimpse into my social life at the time,) and missing two days of schoolwork was going to set me back, damn it. On the second night, after we found our way out, I sat at the headquarters of the Franconia Search and Rescue, a swollen, blackened mess as somebody cut my clothes off of me, and was entirely sincere when I said to my math teacher, 'Suzy, I didn't get to my homework!' And I remember so well her glare, her furious response: do you think we fucking care?
Rob Stainton teaching me orientation stuff. I was always terrible at it.
So school was on my mind that night, sure, but mostly boyz-who-kayaked and my hair (wow, 8 years don't change much about a person, ey?) Yes, my hair was down to my fifteen year old ass at the time and I was vain as hell about it. By the time we were parked around the fire, it was frozen in a massive dreadlock, impossibly tangled from hours of pushing through tree limbs. There were entire pinecones stuck in it and I had a terrible suspicion I was going to have to chop it off. It was this that troubled me the most- not my hands which would perhaps be made to suffer the indignity of being truncated at the first knuckle, not my ears which were going to fall off, not the slow process of learning to walk again or the pain-in-the-ass prosthetics that would certainly replace my feet. With the exception of the ears (they'd heal on their own) all of this remained a very real possibility for a good while. But all that could be dealt with later, because there were other things to worry about: another object of despair for me was that, back in September, I had met the rodeo boys-just briefly, but long enough- and in one glance I'd fallen in love with the whole lot of them. And they would be coming back from Nepal tomorrow night!!!! And what, I'd still be stuck up here on this mountain?! (The indignity.)

And then during one terrible hour, after the sun went down and the prospects looked dismal, the trail (the wrong trail which eventually petered out into nothing) wound around a tree and up a blindingly steep hill. I turned to Mike and asked permission for Andy and I to crawl up the hill- demoralizing, maybe, but easier than walking. He took a moment and then said it would be okay. We got down on the ground, the three teachers kept walking. And it was there on my hands and knees crawling up the hill and pulling myself along with the roots of trees, that there dawned on me a ghastly realization: the most humiliating and cruel realization that could ever enter the mind of a fifteen year old girl: I just might die tonight and I HAVE NOT BEEN KISSED YET. Oh, hell.

Nick Robbins earlier in the semester
As we sat there in the snow and froze (given up for the night, lost in a valley many mountains away from where we should have been), I spent a considerable amount of time turning this over in my mind. You would think that the moment I was let loose from the hospital I'd have wheeled myself back to the lodge with one mission and one mission alone. It couldn't have been too hard to find a willing set of lips from one of those kids- but I severely underestimated my power as one of the very few girls in that school. I didn't have the balls and it took me a full year before I finally put to rest that primal fear of dying without getting any, down in the basement of the lodge.

As we hunched over the fire, the fluid inside my cells turned into sharp little snowflakes, expanding and bursting through their membranous walls like winter pipes in an old house. The damage was worst in my ears, fingers, face and feet, but all throughout my body the vast and complicated inner workings had slowed to a crawl. My pulse limped along. It was all of us: Megan, to my right, was talking out loud to a pair of birds that wasn't there: oh, look at you! are you sisters?! At one point I dozed off and had a dream, that Jen and Trevor were at my side and telling me to get up, because they had found us and we could go home. It was warmer down in the valley than it had been on the ridge, only about twenty below zero, and the literally blinding snowstorm that had got us lost in the first place had -mercifully- stopped. The sky was clear and black and wearing a dazzling armory of stars.
Mike Beernsten

And what was going on back on the ground? When we didn't materialize at five, six, seven....the teacher who had turned back at the top and was waiting at the parking lot started to get agitated. She makes some phone calls- the Game Warden in Franconia was pulled away from a quiet dinner with his wife, volunteers started to congregate and maps were unrolled: what was there intended route? Are they well-prepared? (The answer to this question is no, we weren't. No sleeping bag, no tent, no headlamps, no nothin'...except a mini box of frosted mini wheats, which I brought along, way to go me and my big thinking.) My poor parents, woken up at 2am by the good man who had the misfortune (for many reasons) to be the head of school at this time- we've notified search and rescue.....They drove an hour and a half in that witching hour down to the White Mountains. I know some of the details- how my mother kept running to the bathroom to throw up, how the Game Warden gingery asked them for a body description- any, you know, birthmarks? scars? How mother kept thinking about a pair of pajamas she had ordered from Delia's (rEmEMbeR TheM?!) as a christmas present...well, I suppose I'll just return them.... But this is the part of the story I don't think about, because it makes me very depressed.

We were lost for two days. There was a search party of about one hundred people spread out on the mountain, as well as anyone who just happened to be hiking on Franconia ridge during that time. There were one helicopter with heat-identifying tracking devices and two more on the way, a terrifically expensive addition to the effort from the Coast Guard that cost my poor school, already staggering under the weight of its own secrets, thousands upon thousands of dollars. Did we see anybody the whole time we were out? Besides two apparitions of human figures, (one a beckoning black figure that disappeared as we approached it -talk about a close call!) no, we saw nobody. We found our way out ourselves as the second day blinked out and the second dreadful night enclosed on the searchers and the despondent parents.

When we did stumble out out we were greeted by a great big show of newscasters, ambulances, fire trucks, the remaining staff from AQ's CS department who were on the verge of pulling out their eyeballs. We were taken to the Search and Rescue headquarters (chaos) and then by wailing ambulance to Littletown hospital. The surgeon was woken up at his home, took one look at my feet and tells my father that the amputation dance would surely be danced and the aftermath would be grueling. Oh, my poor father! My cousin informs me that my now rather strained relationship with my dad all stems from this moment. That I had asked him to buy me plastic mountaineering boots after my semester in France and he had said no. [What good does a fifteen year Vermonter old get out of 800$ boots, he thought, and he had a point.] That the doctor told my father directly that my severe frostbite [the others got away with light cases] was because my boots had been drastically unfit for the climate, light leather summer hiking boots. I don't remember any of that, but it sure put a tear in the ol' familial ties!)

Poor Dad goes and blames himself. And I, sensing a weak moment, immediately ask him to buy me a new CD I wanted and voila, the CD materializes! At that moment I could have asked for any material possession and it would have appeared- really what I should have asked for was a good hard slap across the cheek so I would wake up from the shock and stop acting like such a fucking lunatic. Yeah, I put my parents through 40 hours of hell but still saw it as an opportunity to get something that I want out of it. I'm not going to be all dramatic and say I'll never forgive myself for that move, but I'll never forget that I was capable of doing it.

What else, what else....the hypothermia was mean but its thunder was totally stolen by the frostbite. Megan passed out in her wheelchair next to me, someone clamped something around my nose and mouth, it produced a warmed mist that I breathed in and the magical de-icing of the insides began. Dehydration hit hard, my muscles seized all at once I got stuck, paralyzed, in the bathroom (did I leave that place with one shred of dignity? Debatable!) I was informed that I would have to stay in the hospital for gawdknowshowlong and couldn't return to the lodge, (I sobbed so loudly the nurses politely asked me if I couldn't keep it down and my mother said oh for christ SAKES lina). A parade of nurses came running in and chastising me after I pulled out my IV (it was beeping too loudly to sleep). The hopeless condition of hair (what was formerly my hair, anyway)? Shave it off, was their first idea. But I sat in that hospital bed the first night, wide awake, watching myself on the late night news, tearing apart the dreadlock with a plastic fork from the cafeteria. Take my feet, I told the nurse, but stay away from my hair. (She found this an awkward thing to respond to, seeing as they were already planning on taking my feet at that point, they had beaten me to the punch, but I didn't know that yet.) My fingers and ears could get away with an application of burn cream but my feet (if you haven't yet gotten the picture) were a nightmare. They looked like hamburger meat, only worse. Grotesquely swollen, dark red and purple with patches of black that were nothing if not crispy (charred from the fire) and fluids leaking out from everywhere and colonies of thick yellow blisters taking up residency. That's what flesh looks like when you freeze it and then put it in the roaster: third degree frostbite- skin frozen solid to the bone- topped with straight up third degree burns. I was taken to a nice room with a little whirlpool and was gruffly (the surgeon pulled no punches) let into the big secret: there was a 95% chance of amputation on all 10 of my toes.

But I didn't believe it. Sometimes, you just know better than what a doctor is telling you. And I'm nothing if not determined: I did get out of the hospital and I did go back to the lodge, where I did not kiss anybody but I did do a fairly decent job of healing. There was a whole lot of of pain, and a lot boys taking their biology lesson over my feet during the twice-daily cleaning and redressing. I woke up screaming from nightmares of- whadayaknow- being lost alone in the woods- and my roomate, Ashley, had to deal with me. Every time I went back to the hospital they'd say hmmm...and they would delay setting a date for the Big De-Digiting and then amputation was brought up less and less and instead they wanted to peel skin off of my stomach and use that to doctor up the toes, which sounded like some fun. And then, a few months after the ordeal, when I was starting to walk without a cane through the dismal halls of Woodstock Union and the rest of my school was in sunny Mexico sending reports of blue skies and smoothie stands, I was informed I was in the clear. No skin grafts needed. Somehow you healed on your own, said the doctor, bearded, bespectacled and slightly bemused. You must be one very healthy young girl.
The AQ climbing program teachers that semester


Andrew said...

When you sell the movie rights for this story, just putting it out there that I'll be available to play any sort of geeky search and rescue guy who invents some ridiculous hand held person finding technology.

Seriously though, I know I've said it before, but you're such a great writer.

Wendy said...

First, as a parent of 2 girls, I feel for your parents...what a terrible ordeal for them. Second, did you go to a boarding school for high school? Third, I have to admit to laughing in parts to a story that is far from funny, your mom's oh lena comment and your hair troubles. So, did your hair survive and how are your feet 10 years later? Lastly, you definitely know how to squeeze a "whole lotta life" out of life and I admire you for that.

Tracy said...

Can't believe it's been ten years! I'm so so so so so glad you didn't die out there. We would have been really pissed at you. Love you!

elissa said...

your hair... your one vanity. I remember that as a 15 year old myself, and the stories of pulling the IVs out of your arms... nurses don't like that at all, i know from experience. ;)

Ali said...

Man, 10 years ago really sucked. I mean, aside from you keeping your toes.

rachel.dudasik said...

how did i never hear mention of this all of the times that i saw your toes? good lord girl, they are troopers!

dig this chick said...

amazing. Wonderful story and wonderfully told. I couldn't write like that at, what were you? 24? I was all sensational and wordy and prosey. Fun to 'go back' in your blog and catch up a bit.

Holy shit I feel for your parents through this. Totally terrifying.

Yonton said...

Well it was a good chance to get to know you when you were always stuck in the big room at the lodge. Plus it was fun to borrow your wheelchair and do wheelies in it...

Sarah said...

Holy crap! What a story! My parents live in North Conway, and I remember this story! So glad you all made it out okay....and that you got to keep all of your toes!!

A Leap into Love said...

New follower. Addicted to your writing! You really need to write a book, if you havent already. & if you have, I apologize for not knowing about it sooner!