I’m not sure what time it is. It’s still dark. I don’t know how long I was out. Snow is spilling in through the broken windshield. Can’t catch my breath. Maybe broke two or three ribs.
He was dead before we hit the treetops. I’ll never understand how he landed this thing without killing me, too. There’s a dog here and … a woman. Trying to get home to her fiancé and a rehearsal dinner. I’ll look.
• • •
Chapter one flashes back to twelve hours before, at the Salt Lake City Airport. The weather is closing in; his flight is delayed, passengers crowding everywhere, and Dr. Ben Payne, an orthopedic surgeon is catching up on his medical records dictation, sitting on the floor by an electric outlet. A woman perhaps age thirty asks if she can share the wall outlet. He agrees, and she begins dictation of a magazine story. Ben learns that Ashley Knox, a writer, hopes to reach Atlanta in time for her wedding two days hence.
Their flight is finally canceled. Ben rides a shuttle to the private plane area and finds he can charter a flight to Denver. Thinking about the girl who will be late for her wedding, he finds her in the long waiting line for taxis, and offers her the chance to get ahead of the storm; she accepts. Grover, private pilot, has had thousands of hours flying over the Rocky Mountains and gets prompt clearance from flight control. Despite the turbulent flying conditions, he handles his plane easily, while talking with Ashley about his own more than forty years of happy marriage. Grover introduces them both to his dog who is “flying copilot.”
As the plane rises higher to cross the Uinta Mountain Wilderness, Grover begins coughing occasionally. He draws a roll of Tums from his pocket, takes two. Physician sense alerted, Ben taps him on the shoulder. “Tell me about your bum ticker — how long you been coughing and popping antacids?” The plane continues to rise as they approaches the peaks; Grover changes the subject and answers a question from Ashley. A few minutes later he coughs, grunts, grabs his chest. Our speed slowed. Then, as if he’d done it a thousand times, he pancaked the plane against the mountain snow. That’s about the last thing I remember.
Ben slowly recovers consciousness, confusing the recent conversation with memories of his own wife. He’s gradually aware of chest pain and shivering. The plane’s tail has broken off, leaving them exposed to the air, but the rest of the plane is in deep snow, giving a cocoon-like shelter. Ashley lies comatose but the pulse in her neck is even. She has a dislocated shoulder and a bad angle to her left thigh, though the bone hadn’t broken through the skin. Her shoulder goes back into place easily, but the break in her left thigh bone is a problem. He is finally able to reduce the fracture and fashion two splints from broken pieces of the plane, tying them with wadded T-shirts from his luggage. Her thigh has swollen twice its size and he packs snow around it. He slowly realizes Grover had not been required to file a flight plan, and that no one knew he even had passengers. They are in a National Wilderness Area, seventy miles from anywhere, invisible to the occasional airplane high overhead. Grover’s plane has a few emergency supplies, but they both need medical attention, especially Ashley.
Rummaging around, Ben discovers two sleeping bags, a couple small packs of trail mix, and a small gas heater for water. No one knows their situation; it’s urgent to get to a lower elevation and find food. They are on their own. With daylight, and after Ashley has regained consciousness, Ben climbs a small ridge and sees that the only way showing any hope is to head southeast. He can fashion something like a stretcher for Ashley from part of the exposed wing, and a shovel of sorts from a rudder flap with which to dig in the snow and bury Grover’s body.
On day six, Ben gently lifts Ashley in her sleeping bag onto the sled, puts the dog beside her and adds Grover’s bow, arrows and fly rod. Ashley grabs his arm. “One question, and I want an honest answer. Can you get us out of here?”
“Seriously? No idea.”
Her eyes narrow. “We’ve got to work on our communication. I’m not asking you because I want honest answers. I want you to lie your butt off. Tell me we’ve got only a mile to go when there might be a hundred ahead of us.”
I laughed. “OK. Listen. There’s a helicopter waiting just beyond that first ridge. They’ve got sausage, muffins, and a dozen glazed donuts. And Starbucks.”
She patted me on the back. “Now you’re getting the hang of it.”
But the going was slow. Leaning into the harness I had devised, I would take three steps and stop to breathe. By noon, we had gone maybe a mile. By dusk, perhaps two. It wasn’t just my busted ribs. The air at 11,000 feet elevation is thin. And our food about gone. A few finger-sized fish. And one day, a rabbit.
Day 11. After an hour we’d come maybe a quarter mile, dropping maybe a hundred feet in elevation. She was not impressed. “How long do think you can do this?”
“We can’t do this. You can’t. We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
I stopped, sweat dripping off me, breathing deeply. “We can’t stay up here. If we do we’ll die. And I can’t leave you. If I do, you’ll die. So we’re walking out.”
Her frustration at being helpless bubbled over. She screamed, “It’s been eleven damn days and not a soul has come looking.. What’s your plan?”
“One step at a time.”
“And how long do you think you can keep that up?”
“As long as it takes.”
We didn’t speak again for several hours.
Day 15. Overlooking a wide valley in the distance, I could see some kind of horizontal line half-hidden.
Day 17, we see it closer, a building across a frozen lake. A large A-frame, empty; evidently a summer campground. No sign of car tracks, or people. But warm shelter! firewood, water. And big game nearby. A map on the wall with a “You are here” mark tells us we are in the Ashley National Forest. But it nearly becomes her memorial park before anyone finds us.
It will be another ten days before we will reach civilization. And, despite all the complications we have encountered so far, the end will be stranger yet.