Quandary Peak, Colorado
January 13, 2019
Warning: This story is sad and a little gruesome. The name of the young skier has been changed.
We lived on the mountain for one hour.
At 13,400 feet, we carved a nest in the snow. Eight strangers — nine, if you count David. I did not count David, though for one hour his name rang in the air like church bells. I knew David was dead.
It’s called a bluebird day. The sky is clear and windless, the snow has a supernatural shine. The whole world is white and blue, a combination more perfect than any other.
We were not quite airborne, not quite on earth.
Around 11am, we started the final push to the summit. A wide trench followed the ridgeline and it was easy hiking in microspikes, though a step to either side meant a plunge into powder. I wondered if I should dig a semi-private hole to pee. There were so many people on this mountain.
LB grumbled about it. “Think of it as a different experience,” I said. “Like a music festival.”
Mike was on skis and he pulled up beside us. “Is that a person?” he asked, pointing with his pole. “They’ve been stopped a really long time.”
“I think so,” I said, squinting. “Or two people — one of them on the ground?”
The face north of the ridge was full of skiers. All day they had slipped down the mountain with the ease of falling tears, leaving curly tracks in the snow. Mike was going to join them and wait for us at the car.
When we were parallel to the scene, Mike yelled out an inquiry. They were maybe fifty yards off trail. Someone shouted back, “I called 911!”
My heart banged.
“Do you have gauze?!”
Mike had gauze.
“Okay,” I said. “I don’t want to crowd the scene. Shout if you need help.”
Why would he need help? Bang, bang. I strapped my snowshoes on and hiked out halfway, poles poised.
Everything changed when the chanting began: “Come on David, COME ON DAVID!” For one hour, it beat out an endless rhythm, bouncing down the mountain from white to blue. Come on David!
I saw Mike start CPR. I turned to LB to scream, He’s doing CPR!
But before I could, Mike yelled, “WE NEED HELP.”
I took off. I followed Mike’s ski tracks, shaking. They want me to do CPR. I can’t do CPR; I am a fraud; I am helpless; I can’t do anything. My poles rattled in my hands, but I placed my snowshoes with more speed and precision than I ever had.
“Can you do CPR?” Mike asked.
I ripped off my mittens and crouched to unstrap. “Yes. It’s been years, but yes.” It had been years since a Wilderness First Responder course with a faceless dummy, not Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation on a human being.
I took a moment to ingest the scene. They had covered David in an emergency blanket, the watery tinfoil kind. It fluttered; a windless day at elevation was still windy. One man was holding David’s head and another pressed gauze to his forehead.
I didn’t recoil when I saw his face. “His tongue’s swelling,” someone said, and so was his right eye. His whole face was pulsing and bubbling and his lips spluttered, but he didn’t gasp. It was like a reverse exorcism, the man at his head still incanting madly: Come on David!
“Coach me,” I said to Mike, kneeling beside David’s body. I had stopped shaking. “Someone do rescue breaths.”
“I will,” he said. “I’ve been making out with him already.” David’s mouth was bright with blood, almost purple through my tinted sunglasses. He had wiry patches of facial hair, as people do when they’re barely old enough to grow it.
As Mike ran through the steps — “Find his sternum, push harder than you think you need to” — I realized I didn’t need them; CPR was a like riding a bike, right down to the song that popped into my head to keep the rhythm. They had given us a few options in NOLS, and Crazy in Love came unbidden. It almost drowned out Come on David.
I pressed my hand against the stiff shell of his jacket. He was a skinny guy, and the curves of his ribcage came together in a smooth arch. I stacked my palms and squared my shoulders as best I could, given that he was tilting dangerously on the mountainside. LOVEgotmeLOOKingsoCRAzyrightNOW,yourLOVEgotme… It felt shockingly similar to the dummy.
Break a rib. They told us it was okay to break a rib. If I broke a rib, maybe I was doing it right. And something did crack, like gas from a knuckle.
They also told us that CPR didn’t usually work. It was a last resort and functioned more to give closure than save lives. One of the men was David’s friend. He muttered a steady stream of encouragement: You got this, buddy.
I paused to let Mike blow into David’s mouth. “It’s not working,” someone said. “It’s coming out his head.”
I desperately tried to use the weight of my body rather than the weakening muscles in my arms. “Someone else take over,” I gasped, panting at altitude. Someone else moved in.
David had gone still. Later I would tell people softly, ashamed for putting myself in the story, that I had a feeling he died then — somewhere between the moment I found his sternum and the moment I lifted my hands away. “But who knows,” I would add quickly. And I would think about all the possible moments that David died, beginning when his head hit a rock. I would compare his final spluttering to a chicken with its head cut off, and people would look at me in horror, as if talking about chickens made it into a joke.
As I gazed across the valley at the distant ridges, so crisp against the sky, I thought of bluebirds. I thought of Peter Pan, the boy who flies but never grows up.
Come on, David!
Soon there were eight of us. We dug our nest wordlessly, tossing backpacks and skis up the slope. It didn’t matter who brought them. We had no possessions here.
Eventually the ones who didn’t know CPR had to sub in. I knelt across from one guy and told him to push to the beat of a more commonly used song — “Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive” — and the words shuddered in the icy air. It had seemed like an encouraging choice back in a fluorescent gymnasium, but now it felt like mockery.
I couldn’t pause, couldn’t lose a millisecond. “Doo, doo, doo, doo, stayin’ alive.”
We rotated giving chest compressions for forty minutes, and I apologized meekly for my lack of core strength. No one cared.
There were murmurs of what might have happened. It was unclear if anyone saw the crash, but blunt force trauma to the head suggested rocks. He hadn’t worn a helmet.
The man who had called 911 called again. “He hasn’t had a pulse for twenty minutes.” The hospital told us to keep doing CPR, no more rescue breaths. They said a helicopter was on its way.
“Come on, David!” the man at his head cried. He was staring into David’s face through thick glasses. “Come on David, come on David!”
Eight strangers. Everyone was so bundled up that I had trouble telling them apart, even Mike and LB. I was the only woman and maybe the youngest besides David himself, who was twenty-two. Other people skied past without stopping, and Mike expressed outrage.
“It’s fine,” I said. “We don’t need a crowd.”
No one spoke unless they had to. Occasionally someone reached out and touched another gently on the shoulder. There was a clairvoyance between us; most of them knew what I knew: David was gone. But we couldn’t give up.
I helped to grab soft items from around the nest and stuff them under David’s body. As I moved his legs, I wondered if they were cold or stiff underneath his ski pants. It had been nearly an hour.
A man with gray stubble stared at me from across the body, shaking his head. I saw it in his eyes as he started to speak.
“No,” I snapped. “Not now.” He shut his mouth and nodded. This was probably my most important contribution.
Come on David!
We heard the chopper before we saw it, and a few men began to cheer. When it came roaring into sight, we stripped off our colored jackets and waved them madly in the air.
It circled. “They’re looking for somewhere to land,” someone said.
For a second my composure slipped. “They don’t know where to land on FUCKING QUANDARY?!” We were standing on one of Colorado’s most popular peaks.
“David!” his friend cried. “David, search and rescue is here!”
Two red dots hiked up the ridge in slow motion. I was afraid some of the men had a naive trust in Search & Rescue, as if their arrival meant everything would be all right. Yet as I counted down their footsteps, I felt weirdly obliged to add my voice to the chorus of hope.
“You’re a badass, David,” I choked. “Search and rescue is thirty feet away.”
We stepped back as the man in the red jacket unpacked a portable AED. He peeled back the gauze on David’s head, and the urgency left his body immediately. “There’s exposed brain matter,” he said. “That’s not compatible with life.”
Not compatible with life.
The hive collapsed. We fell apart haphazardly, like leaves blowing, bricks crumbling, marbles scattered in the deep snow. David’s friend began to cry.
“I’m sorry,” the red jacket said kindly. “There was nothing that you could have done.”
Not compatible with life.
The man who had chanted Come on David stood up and stumbled in my direction. I lifted my arms and we gripped each other as tightly as we could, our winter clothes like a thick pillow between us.
David’s friend rolled away from the body and sat with his head in his hands. I saw Mike sit down next to him.
“You did good,” I whispered to nobody in particular. Instinctively, we backed up into a line.
My hands were stinging. The whole time I had felt nothing, even when I sat down and my leggings grew damp. I found one glove half-buried in the snow, and stuck my other hand in my armpit.
I waited as long as I could. It would be sacrilege, but I had to break the silence. “I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I know this seems… ”
As someone pulled my other glove out of the snow, I waited anxiously to see if it was covered in blood. To my horror, the cost ($80) flickered in my head. Later, this would be the funny part (which still, no one would laugh at).
There was no blood, and I felt guilty as I pulled it on. “Whose Patagonia is this?” the S&R woman asked, waving a blood-soaked windshirt. “We can clean it in the industrial washer at the station.”
We rolled David’s body onto a sled. It had no runners and the sides wrapped to obscure him. He was a small person.
Several men grabbed the sides like pallbearers. We were all overeager to help — every request from S&R was snatched up instantly, like birds diving at crumbs.
Back at the helicopter, I stood next to David’s friend. They would take him down in the chopper, said the red jacket, but not on the same flight as the body.
“Stay strong,” someone told him. I wanted to violently disagree. I wanted to tell him that he was allowed to feel anything right now.
But I didn’t. He radiated a tangible grief, and I recalled the template for my own nightmares: an earth-shattering mistake creates a painful new world, from which there is no return. I wake sweating and realize that nothing happened. I reassure myself that nothing so awful ever will.
After talking to the sheriff and coroner at the trailhead, we drove into Breckenridge for pizza. We made dark jokes and assured each other that this was healthy. “He was probably a real piece of shit,” I offered shakily. “A rapist or something.”
The pizza LB ordered was buffalo chicken, and I examined it in horror. “I can’t eat this,” I said. “The sauce looks like blood. The chicken looks like brain matter.”
“Are you kidding?” he replied. “That looks the least like brain matter out of anything I’ve seen all day.” I moaned with laughter and grabbed a slice.
We hit the worst traffic on the way home. I played familiar songs and belted along; it was obscene and I was sorry for Mike, but I needed something to fill my mind and lungs. (The dice was loaded from the start! And I bet! And you exploded into my heart!)
“It’s weird,” I said, looking out at the long line of taillights. “I keep catching myself assuming that everyone else in these cars is going through the same thing. Like I forget that it didn’t happen to everyone.”
“Don’t be sorry for me,” I told people.
But I wrote in my diary, It’s been 48 hours since we lost David.
When had he become ours to lose?
Maybe it was when Mike tasted his blood, or when I heard Come on David! and charged across the snow. Maybe it wasn’t until he died legally, which the coroner wanted to hear about, with someone’s hands on his chest, someone chanting and someone counting, someone singing in her head.
Eight strangers lived on the mountain. We lost David, who was only ours because we lost him. A paradox on Quandary, a Möbius Strip against a bluebird sky.
Four days after Quandary, I woke up and didn’t immediately think about David and snow and red-purple blood.
When they released his full name, we scrolled pretty far down his Facebook. In 2016, his dog had died and he wrote, can’t wait to see you again. I closed the browser window and felt sick.
Two months passed and I didn’t hike very much. When I did, I carried a large med kit and an emergency bivvy sack.
Mike sent me a podcast about stress injuries. “It rings true,” I told him. “But I’m basically a yarn drawer full of mental illnesses, so I don’t know if I can untangle this.”
Winter tick-tocked into spring.