I can only think of three times when death has been at my door, and they all happened during the summer of 1970, when I was working as a bus boy at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta. What was that all about? What was I being asked to see? Here’s one of the days that changed my life:
I loved hiking with friends in the mountains. Our group had just passed over the Carthew Summit, a low point on Carthew Ridge, and were heading down to the three Carthew Lakes. Bare scree slopes and below that we could see meadows of tiny white and yellow wildflowers. What could be more beautiful? Some of us were fast. Carol, Paul and I, however, were drinking in the sights. Off to the left, we saw about ten bighorn sheep, and the curls on those horns were sure new to us rookie mountaineers. A bit scary too. Even more scary when the sheep started ambling towards us.
I panicked. I didn’t know anything about sheep. I had us run downhill towards some big rocks. Between them, the scree slope gave way to a steep snowfield. We nipped into the cleft between the rock and the snow, breathing hard. I poked my head out from our sanctuary and saw a bighorn just above. “They’re coming!” I grabbed Carol’s hand and pulled her onto the 45 degree snow. We were wearing running shoes. I caught a glimpse of the turquoise lake perhaps 100 feet below – the snow dove right into it.
I lost my footing and started sliding on my stomach. I smashed my runners into the snow and grabbed Carol’s ankles as she fell above me. “Toes in! Toes in!” I didn’t think that but I guess my body did. We somehow stopped, and I held Carol, as the white pressed against our faces and hands. And there we stayed, with the numbness slowly taking over.
“My God, I’m going to die,” said my brain. “I can’t swim and I’m going to die. Carol too.” As I let a likely death flood over me, I heard Paul above us say “I’m coming down.” With rescue on his mind, Paul took a few steps onto the snow … and down he went. The toes didn’t work for him. He slid past us, way past us, and plunged into the lake. Paul had told me at some point that he was a strong swimmer but that didn’t help him much now. Carol and I heard huge inhales of air, and over my shoulder I watched him struggle in slow motion towards the shore. His head went under a couple of times. “O my God, I’m dead,” came from within, as Paul collapsed at the edge of Upper Carthew Lake.
Minutes later, once Paul had dragged himself upright, he said that he was going to run to Middle Carthew Lake to get the others. Someone with hiking boots would save us. And off he went. Carol and I continued our numb embrace of the snow. How long could I hold her up? Would she just fall into me and take me into the water with her?
Finally, we saw little dots running up the trail towards us. Once they reached the edge of the snow slope, they just stared at us for a bit, and then someone uttered some words of encouragement. The snowfield must have been 100 yards long, and Carol and I were somewhere in the middle, about 40 feet above the water.
Ron, one of the hotel bellmen, said “I’m coming to get you.” He started gouging steps in the snow with his hiking boots, and worked his way across with infinite care and slowness. When he reached us, Ron cut steps just downslope from my feet. I edged into them, and together we lowered Carol into other footholds. She and I were dazed but standing up at last. Ron turned back, and led Carol and then me across the face of the snow. So slow. As we got within conversation distance of our friends, a supremely loud “Crack!” noise assaulted our ears and the whole 100 yards of snow fell away into the lake with a “Thwump!” I watched the snow crack away no more than two feet to the left of my left foot, and we later saw that the fallaway was undercut below our precious footholds. We all ran … into the arms of our friends.
To be almost dead is to be very much alive – in the body and in the heart. Forty-four years later, I often relive our Carthew adventure. It wasn’t time for me to be taken. There was a lot of living and giving to be done. And there still is.