For the first half of this story, please see the column printed on Tuesday where the author details how her family was caught in a snowstorm and forced to spend the night in the Snowy Range Mountains when she was 12 years old.
For the next 12 hours the four of us were lying shoulder to shoulder as though we were sharing a king bed. Except both the bed and blanket were made of snow and the wind was howling above us as we lay perched on the side of a mountain.
How do you fill 12 hours of lying on cold snow in the dark? In our case, we talked off and on. We prayed silently and together. We checked on each other. We imagined laying on a beach in Mexico together in the same configuration. We made a few jokes and tried to keep everything in perspective. Above all, we endured.
At one point in the night my mom and brother were standing outside the shelter to alleviate the leg cramps that had set in from some combination of dehydration and lying in the same position for far too long. It was probably about 2:00 a.m. and there was a bit of a lull in the storm. I overheard my brother tell my mom, “It sure is beautiful out here.” My brother has always been an optimist.
Our shelf-like snow shelter deteriorated throughout the night. Every time we crawled back in after being out of the shelter we would push more snow into the bottom. This meant that by the early morning hours our helmet-covered heads and shoulders were completely outside of the shelter. The wind and snow formed drifts around us, much like wild animals hunkered down in a storm. This both offered slight warmth and created a frightening sight for my parents to see two of their children literally drifted into the side of the mountain.
Eventually the dark sky softened to let us know morning was approaching. We stirred slowly and my brother and I waited for mom to decide on a plan. I was hard at work trying to rescue a package of frozen thin mint girl scout cookies from the snowbank when mom said we were going to walk back to the snowmobiles. I remember really wanting at least one cookie before we left, but to no avail.
We began the trek back to our snowmobiles with my brother and mom swapping turns breaking trail. We were all pretty tired from the lack of sleep, water and food. I don’t remember much chatter on the hike, but I do remember finally starting to warm up a little. When we got to the snowmobiles we started one up to use the heated handlebar grips to warm our hands. As my mom took off her glove I couldn’t help but notice the grayish blue color of her fingers.
All of the sleds had been stuck when we left them, so we started working to get them unstuck. In the distance we could hear what sounded like a snowmobile. We each held our breath, hoping it was getting closer. Sure enough, a single snowmobile and rider came through the trees and rode right to us. He stopped and asked, “Are you guys the Gentry’s?” My mom nearly tackled him as we nodded in agreement.
We soon learned that my uncle and brother had known something was wrong when we didn’t show up for breakfast that morning. They checked the hotel, which had no record of us ever arriving. They drove up to the trailhead to find our trailer covered with over a foot of new snow, confirming we were still on the mountain. They convinced a few other riders in the parking lot to help look for us, and ultimately one of those riders was the first to find us.
The next two hours were a total whirlwind. My uncle and the other riders all converged and showered us with food, water and hand warmers. We finished getting the snowmobiles unstuck, including my dad’s from the small ravine he had ridden off. Given the state of my small, tired body, I got to ride double with my uncle. Even just keeping a hold of his jacket felt exhausting.
By some stroke of luck, our rescuers had a camper parked in the parking lot. As my uncle and others returned to get my sled, these kind people ushered my brother and me into the bed in the back of the camper. They piled every blanket available on top of us and cranked the heat on high. A little while later a ski patroller from the nearby Snowy Range Ski Area was called to come over and check us out. He was more than a little surprised when he finished his evaluation and commented, “Some people come off the ski hill after a day of skiing in worse shape than you folks. Good job taking care of each other out there.”
We soon began a long, slow drive through a continued storm to get back home. When we stopped for breakfast at a diner in Laramie, I was quick to order that hot chocolate with whip cream on top.
That night we all got in our backyard hot tub and recounted the experiences up on the mountain. We vowed that one year to the day we would be lying on a beach in Mexico, a promise delightfully fulfilled one year later.
On Monday morning I remember returning to middle school and hearing my friends talk about which movies they watched at their respective sleepovers. I thought to myself, “Wow, we certainly had different weekend experiences.
Even 25 years later, I don’t share this experience lightly. There is something extremely powerful about having an experience that tests your mental and physical capacity at such a young age. I have no doubt that it shaped me in both conscious and unconscious ways.
Seeing my mom make difficult decisions on this night opened the door for me to become a backcountry guide a decade later. My favorite courses to work were winter courses in which we traveled on skis and slept in snow shelters for 14-17 days at a time. It was never lost on me the difference between winter camping on purpose with plenty of gear as compared to sliding into a snow drift with nothing more than the clothes we were wearing.
When I am facing a difficult situation or a high degree of uncertainty, I also find myself scanning back to this memory. I am reminded to keep making one decision at a time as my mom did. To find beauty in a barren landscape as my brother did. And to look out for one another as my dad, uncle and others did.
Now a parent myself, I can see an additional layer of emotion that must have been woven into that night for my parents. I am all the more grateful for their resolve to endure and stay far away from guilt and doubt amid uncertainty.
And I suppose I also learned that sometimes the hardest things in life won’t fit neatly into a Monday morning conversation with your peers. And to take this as a sign you are growing in ways that others are not.
This past MLK weekend I went snowmobiling with my husband and friends very close to where we spent the night 25 years ago. There were four of us and the riding challenged all of us both physically and mentally. On the second day a significant storm blew in and made it difficult to see anything. Fortunately, we have spent countless hours in these mountains and knew how to navigate without much visibility.
As we made our way back to the truck in full whiteout conditions, I couldn’t help but smile at the weather’s nod to my experience all those years ago. This time we made it to the parking lot and home in time to enjoy toddler hugs and a warm bed for the night.
If you find yourself facing the hardest thing you have ever done, don’t be surprised if it feels chaotic and frightening. You are setting a new boundary for what your mind and body know to be possible. This also means that amid every future experience that isn’t quite that hard, you will have perspective and greater confidence. By my estimation, reaching our full potential requires us to test these boundaries frequently. Which leaves me grateful for starting that journey on a cold, windy night in the Snowy Range Mountains.