Frostbite, 1981 by Paul Rousseau

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Don’s gloves are useless. He fell hands first into a stream five miles back. Water entered the gloves. Now they are frozen. He can barely grasp his walking poles. “We need to make camp. I’ve had it, my hands have had it.” His voice is desperate. After six miles on a cold, snow-drifted trail, we clear an encampment. Soon, the crackle of a campfire breaks the silence of the wilds. He pulls his gloves off and leans into the fire to warm his hands. His right index and left middle fingers are white. They appear frostbitten. 

The daylight waning, we climb into our tent. We are without cell phones (they were not yet ubiquitous), and miles from town. The weather forecast is for more snow, deeper drifts, and colder temperatures. We warm some water on a small stove, make dinner, then soak Don’s hands. He crawls into his sleeping bag, wraps his hands in gauze, and covers them with two pairs of clean woolen socks. 

By morning, his gloves are thawed but still wet. The weather is screeching, the snow gusting sideways. It is a blizzard. We are not going anywhere. The campfire is long extinguished, although the small stove keeps the tent comfortable. I disperse the drift that has gathered at the door of the tent but leave the side drifts as buffers against the swirling wind, then settle in for a worrisome day. Don warms his hands continuously by the stove. We heat more water and soak them. We sit in shared silence and attempt to stay warm. Don removes his boots. Three toes are white, two pale. He refuses to soak them; instead, he covers them with dry, clean socks. “I’m going to bed; I’ll soak them tomorrow.”

The following morning, the snow covers the landscape in quiet repose. The sun glances over the horizon, cutting black contours of the surrounding mountains. More altitude, colder temperatures, slower miles, more frostbite. As Don stirs in his sleeping bag, I decide the safest option is to turn back. Six miles of flat terrain is better than five miles of a soaring, uphill struggle. Don agrees, reluctantly. He is on this hike because of a pending divorce. He wanted to accomplish something of significance. We eat breakfast, soak his fingers and toes, and break camp. We search for evidence of the trail; there is none, everything appears the same—white. A map is worthless. We default to my fallible mental compass. 

We trudge for a mile; it takes two hours. We rest. I light the stove. We warm our hands and feet and prepare hot chocolate and soup. I begin to worry Don might succumb to hypothermia. He is shivering uncontrollably, his speech mildly slurred. I decide to activate an emergency beacon and wait. I erect the tent. Don stumbles and falls, then climbs inside. I wrap him in blankets. tell stories, sing songs, and question him with trivia, repeatedly. The day passes slowly. Finally, the sun sets in flickering patches. 

I am concerned there has been no response to the emergency beacon. I check the device; the alert is not activated. Fuck. I activate it again; it flashes. I lie next to Don in his sleeping bag to afford more heat. He mumbles disjointed words and rambling sentences. I am unsettled, discomfited, regretful. I sleep little. I worry I will awake next to a corpse.

The dawn rises cloudy. It is quiet. Don is asleep. Then, the distant whoosh whoosh whoosh of a helicopter. The sound gets louder and louder. I scramble from the tent. A helicopter floats above dangling a rope and body basket. I hear the high-pitched ring of snowmobiles. Then voices, louder and louder.

 

Paul Rousseau is a semi-retired physician and writer, published or forthcoming in The Healing Muse, Blood and Thunder, Intima. A Journal of Narrative Medicine, The Human Touch, Please See Me, Months To Years, The Examined Life, Burningword Literary Journal, Cleaning up Glitter, The Centifictionist,  Dr. T. J. Eckleburg Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Tendon, and others. Lover of dogs.

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