Guest Post: Mountain Survival

Hello readers! This week I wanted to give you all a taste of something a little different: a work of educational fiction that my dad wrote. It’s a short story about a man who runs into some trouble on a cross-country skiing trip. The work is intended to be instructional — that is, you are asked to think about what the character in the story does and about whether or not it was a good idea. I hope you enjoy it! Next week I’ll pick back up where I left off on the Fureai Trail series.


Mountain Survival

By Monty Heise

The snow had started an hour ago and it was now approaching white out conditions. Joel stopped and leaned into his ski poles and wiped his nose with the back of his glove. His mustache was coated with ice, and he could no longer feel his fingers or his toes. He looked behind him and could see that his ski tracks were rapidly filling up with new snow. There was no point in going any farther up the couloir. All that awaited up there was a possible death, probably by avalanche if it kept snowing.

He was four hours out of Elk Horn Ski Lodge, if he turned back now he would have no hope of making it back before dark. He would be caught out in the open in temperatures below zero. His only hope was to find shelter out of the wind, spend the night and hope for better conditions in the morning.

The day had started in bright sunlight as he unloaded his gear from his Subaru at the lodge. He had run into another group of cross country skiers who were just coming out of the back country. He had spent too much time sitting in the lodge talking with them about their 4 days out on the trails. They had spent the previous night at the trail cabin which was his goal for this evening and had traversed the trail he would be using. He was gathering vital winter skiing information. Weather forecast predicted snow but he was not worried, he liked fresh snow it possessed greater grip and would be easier to ski on. His goal was a ski cabin on the ridge about 10 miles out. He would ski about 5 miles of that until it got to steep, then he would cache his skis and start the climb up to the ridge. Since it was an out and back trip, he would retrieve his skis on the return trip.  

Joel looked around him, he could not see any farther than about 25 feet in any direction, no place to shelter here. Had he seen any place behind him that might work? Since he had not really been looking for shelter, nothing came to mind. He dropped his pack and pulled out his map. He kneeled down into the snow and turned his back to the wind so he could open the map and find his location. He followed his route up from the ski lodge on the map. How many times had he crossed the creek on his way up? Twice or three times, he wished he had paid more attention. But the trail was well marked, he was not in any danger of getting lost. He checked his watch, 4 hours, going was rough and slow, so maybe one mile an hour. He looked at the map again. He measured out about 4 miles in his mind. That would put him at about here, he thought. He was around the 9,000 foot level and there was a glacial moraine about a half mile in front of him. He decided to try to make it there. It would block the wind and hopefully provide him a place to shelter. Since he was planning on staying in the cabin he had not brought a tent alone. He had brought his collapsible snow shovel to dig a snow cave in an emergency. It was starting to look like he would need it.

He grabbed an energy bar and some water out of his backpack. His water bottle was already slushy and starting to freeze. He took a drink and then slid it into his parka, nothing like ice cold bottle of water up against his side when he was already cold. He couldn’t drink ice so he would need liquid water so he did not get dehydrated, which was always a consideration at this altitude. He was not hungry but he knew he would need the energy before he got to the moraine, so he forced the energy bar down. He stood back up slipped his pack back on, and grabbed his ski poles and started on up the trail. In his mind he was wishing for the snow to stop and the sun to come out. It would do wonders for his morale. He was moving very quickly into a survival situation, his mind quickly switched over to survival mode.

He needed to keep his eyes open for a snow cornice along the creek that would provide a good opportunity for a snow cave. He would like to make it to the moraine, but he would not pass up a good place, for someplace that may or may not exist, further up the trail. He was already cold, getting warm was moving up his priority list.

That was when he heard it. The deep roar, far off, but still fearful. There was an avalanche coming down off the ridge up ahead of him. Every cross country skiers nightmare. He was still below the timber line and felt somewhat safe, but he was coming up on the edge and would no longer be protected by the trees.

Kick, Kick, Kick, as he tried to get a rhythm going, got to make some time, got to find some shelter before dark, he thought. Pushing on, was his only hope.   

He started encountering down trees across the trail which was a pain in the ass, some he could turn sideways and step over with his skis still on, but some required him to take his skis off to climb over them. All this was starting to take an emotional toll on him and burning much needed energy that he might need later on.

As he broke out of the trees into an open Alpine meadow just above the tree line he could see the moraine just above him.  The trail turned right and started to climb around the moraine.  Joel stopped, he was going to go left up along the edge of the moraine to look for shelter.  He took off his ski’s and stuck them in the snow in the form of an  “X” as a marker for him or any rescuers that might come looking for him, to show the point he had left the trail and on what side of the trail.  By morning there could be several feet of snow covering the ground and it would make it very difficult to locate the trail.  He looked at his classic Ashnes Skis, totally white with green trim.  He wished they had some color which would make them easier to see in the snow.  

The glacier that had built the moraine was long gone but the boulders that the ice had pushed up, had built a dam across the valley and now a lake existed behind it, that was still froze from the long winter. He could surely find some rocks large enough to crawl between and possible use his emergency tarp as a cover to make a wind proof shelter. It might not be comfortable but comfort was no longer his goal, dry and warm was all he could hope for at this point.

He found the perfect place, two boulders leaning against each together. He stopped, dropped his pack and crawled up under them into a little pocket that was stuffed with grasses and lichens, a secret stash some Marmot made during the previous summer to provide it with winter food. He was wondering why it had not come for it’s food over the winter? Maybe it had ended up as some Eagle’s meal. He spread the cache of grass out to form a bed, that would give him some insulation against the frozen ground, then he crawled back out to get his pack.  

He pulled out his orange tarp out of his pack, and fashioned a cover over the entrance. If he needed rescued the orange would stand out well in the snow. He tossed his pack inside his shelter and then crawled in under the tarp.  

Snug as a bug in a rug, he thought, as his father used to say.

Joel pulled out his sleeping bag, stripped off his outer clothes and crawled in the bag. First order of business, get those fingers and toes warmed up. He then pulled out his tiny backpacking stove and fired it up to heat some water for something warm to drink, warm stomach, warm body.

This was an overnight trip, but he had packed a three day supply of food, but he would go into emergency mold just in case. He could make his supply of food last 6 days, if he stayed in his sleeping bag and did not have to burn a lot of calories staying warm or moving around. Water would be the problem, he was only carrying two liters which might only last him a couple of days. To get more he would have to either melt snow or journey down to the creek to get more. Melting snow would mean, he would burn up his supply of gas early, or going for the creek would mean getting wet and he would burn lots of calories. A lose, lose situation, but he needed water to survive. Joel would conserve resources, until he got a look at the weather tomorrow.

He dug through his pack for everything that contained moisture or a battery, all would have to go in his sleeping bag with him tonight. Anything not in his bag would freeze. So energy bars, tuna packs, headlamp, mp3 player all in the sleeping bag. He checked his phone for service there was none on this side of the ridge, as the backcountry manager at the lodge told him, but the group he had talked to earlier, who had come out earlier today, said there was cell signal on the ridge. It was closer to the ridge than it was to the lodge. Only problem it was still 3 miles and 2,000 feet above him in a steep area subject to avalanches. Going down would be easier and safer. He had filed a backcountry ski trip plan with the backcountry dude at the lodge. If he did not come out tomorrow evening they would know he was in trouble and would start looking for him.

For now he was comfortable, dry and warming up. It was starting to get dark. It would be 14 hours before the sun came up again and he would be able to move again. Might as well listen to some music and read a book. He would prefer to stay up and sleep until dawn than fall asleep at 7 PM and wake up at 3 AM and have to wait hours for the sun to come up at subzero temperatures. He could hear the wind hollowing outside his little shelter. Blowing snow meant drifts to contend with in the morning.

He mummed up the hood on his sleeping bag to get the maximum amount of warming out of it. Leaving a 3 inch round breathing hole for his nose to stick out and allow moisture to vent out of the bag. He then clicked off his head lamp, turned off the music. Even with a lot of unknowns that would have to be resolved in the morning, he slept warm, secure, as the blizzard dropped eighteen inches of snow, just inches from the end of his toes.

He woke up an hour before the freezing dawn. He grabbed his head lamp and looked out and saw the snow fall. It looked like it had quit, but the wind was still blowing so it was hard to tell. He would just set it out to dawn. He fired up the stove and heated water for oatmeal and a cup of coffee. He was already into his second liter of water. Water would be the priority today. With this much new wet snow on top of old dry snow, avalanches would be a real danger going up, so if he decided to move at all, it would be back down to the lodge. He could just sit tight for another 24 hours to make sure the snow was over. He had plenty of food, he had a dry shelter, dry gear. Moving would risk himself and his gear getting wet.

 He would not be reported late getting in, until sundown this evening, they would not come looking for him until the following morning if he was considered the most in danger. Other groups might be in more danger and take priority. His decision was to play it safe, stay dry. He would use some gas to melt some snow and refill his one liter bottle. He would not burn any more fuel today. For lunch and dinner he would eat energy bars. Tomorrow he would use his stove for a warm high energy breakfast and then start back to the lodge.   

The next morning after a very long boring day and evening in his sleeping bag, he awoke, cooked his breakfast and packed up his gear. Joel worked down along the edge of the moraine in knee deep snow to where he had left his skis. It took him awhile to get the ice off the edges, but soon he was on his way down the trail. The deep snow slowed his process but it was all downhill. At the creek he filled both water bottles just in case he had another night out. Soon in the distance he heard a motor. He stopped and listened, maybe a snow cat coming in his direction. The snow covered road that he had come up two days before was only a mile below him.  

An hour later he saw two guys in snow shoes coming up the trail. They shook hands and Joel told them his story and they started back down to the snow cat.   


  1. Joel did a lot of things right. Name 10 things he did correctly.
  2. Even though he did a lot of things correctly, name a couple of mistakes he made.

©copyright, Monty Heise, January 2018, all rights reserved

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