The Back 9
Sometimes your dad says something that you know is true, but for some reason you’re not paying attention. This was exactly the case when Dad told me to stay away from the back nine. In one ear and out the other. It wasn’t until later that I remembered he’d said something at all. And by then it was too late.
"See you at lunch," I called to Dad, who was taking my sister, Teri, up the bunny slope. I got in line at chair 1, which would take me to the top. From there I'd shoot over to chairs 12 and 13, where there would be fewer people and untouched powder–the perfect place to try out my new snowboard. I think it was then that Dad mentioned the back nine, but I was already getting on the lift and thinking about surfing the white stuff.
At the top of chair 1 I sat in the snow and strapped my free foot into my snowboard, then started down the hill, weaving back and forth, steering with my back foot. The snow was nicely groomed, packed powder. I wondered what the ungroomed snow would be like. And I knew the only way I'd find out would be to go to the back nine.
The back nine is the back side of the mountain. There are no lifts there, no people, no tracks in the snow. Nothing but untouched powder. It's also out of bounds.
Just as I expected, chair 13 was nearly deserted. When I reached the top, I boarded over to the edge and looked down the back side. The snow was perfect. I could ski for miles. I looked over my shoulder to see if the lift operator was looking. Then I slipped over the hill out of sight . . . and into the back nine.
Wooosh. It was like floating on a cushion of air. I weaved in and out of the pines, making wide turns to keep from going too fast. Wow, I thought. This sure beats the groomed stuff.
For several minutes I descended deeper into the snow-clogged forest, giving no thought to anything but the biting wind in my face, the feel of the board beneath me. Getting back up never entered my mind.
Until I stopped.
I was pretty winded, so I sat down in the soft snow and rested. It took a while, but after I'd regained my energy, I stood up, ready to continue.
Then I looked up, and a slight twinge of fear rushed through me. Dad's warning about the back nine started replaying itself in my head. Only now I was listening.
I couldn't see the top of the hill. All around me was forest with a single track cut through the snow.
How long had I been descending? How far up was the top? Miles, maybe.
I unstrapped my board and took a step. Immediately I sank up to my chest. In a panic I threw myself onto my back to work my feet free, then took another step. Up to my armpits in snow.
Three steps and 15 minutes later I realized it was hopeless. I wouldn't be able to get back up, not without help. A twinge of fear shot through me again–only it wasn't just a twinge anymore. Dad wouldn't miss me for another hour, when I was to meet him for lunch. And who would know where to look? Not even the lift operator had seen me. I had made sure of it before I disappeared into the back nine.
I breathed a silent prayer: Lord, get me home. Then I looked hard at my situation. I had at least five hours of daylight. But it would be a while before Dad would give me up for lost and organize a search party. Right now the temperature was about 20 degrees, but after dark it would drop. If no one found me, I could freeze to death. I needed to make some kind of shelter. But before I started, I tried to see if anyone could hear me.
"Help!" I screamed at the top of my lungs. "Anyone out there?"
No answer. A soft wind blew through the pine branches. Other than that, silence. I was alone.
Using my board, I began tunneling into the snow at the base of a tree. I'd heard of people surviving severe weather conditions by tunneling. Exposed to the wind, I'd face temperatures that could easily drop below zero, especially at night. But by enclosing myself in an ice cave, I could stay alive.
I kept digging, knowing that by now Dad would be sure that I was missing. I knew he would be praying, "Lord, keep him safe. Help me find him."
It was close to 3:00 by the time I finished digging. Two hours of sunlight left. I called out once more, "Can anyone hear me?" No answer.
The cave was big enough to lie down in. The trunk of the tree formed one wall. Later in the day as the sun began to fade, the wind picked up. I was glad to be protected inside.
I lay back on my board to keep myself off the cold snow. I wiggled my toes and fingers to keep the circulation going, trying to keep myself awake. But I faded into sleep anyway.
When I woke up it was dark out. How long had I slept? My toes ached from cold. Even inside my little cave it had to be below zero.
I decided I had to keep moving if I was going to make it through the night. If I fell asleep again, I might never wake up.
I crawled out of the cave, dragging my board. In the moonlight I could see the path I had cut through the trees. If I stayed on it, maybe I'd be OK.
I placed my snowboard on the track and stomped on it, sinking into the snow. Then I picked it up and did it again. My board was my walkway through the snow. Five feet at a time I crept back up the mountain. Soon I was breathing heavily. Feeling came back to my toes. And somehow I knew that someone was praying for me–maybe many people were. I felt their strength as I moved up the hill.
Five feet at a time I kept at it, crunching my board into the snow and moving on. Hours went by. Every muscle in my body throbbed with pain. I wanted to stop, to sleep, but I fought it. Lord, get me back.
Finally I saw the boundary fence and the gap through which I had illegally–and foolishly–squeezed. I pulled myself to the top of chair 13, finally standing on hard-packed snow. Below me I saw the headlights of one of the grooming machines. I strapped into my snowboard as it neared and skied out in front of it, waving my arms and yelling, "Hey! Hey!"
A few minutes later I was sitting in the grooming machine, heading back down the mountain. The driver threw a blanket over me. "A lot of people have been looking for you, young man."
"Yeah," I said thankfully. "And a lot were praying, too."
I found out later that Dad had called Mom back home, and she had started a prayer chain. I believe the power of those prayers saved my life.
Next time Dad warns me about something, I'll listen.