On a sunny January day, I dusted off the snowshoes hidden in my shed to take advantage of the rare and beautiful snowfall that covered most of New England. The prospect of meeting a friend to go snowshoeing was exciting, as I adore the prospect of exerting myself while traversing midst nature.
So when I had the opportunity to do it again a week or so later, I jumped at the chance. However this time I found it was more like ice-shoeing. There was a narrow path, just wide enough for both my snowshoes, with the outer edge perilously close to the ledge overlooking a huge lake. That should have alerted me more than it did when I first went through that part of the trail. My companion was more eager and fearless than I, so I continued against a nagging sense of ‘is this really what I want to be doing?’ Gliding through the snow is fun, traipsing to avoiding slipping on icy treacherous terrain on a steep ledge, not so much.
I finally asked that we turn around, concerned about the nearing dusk as much as anything else. It was a state park where the safety creed is pretty much, proceed at your own risk. My extremities were starting to feel the biting cold, and even my new insulated gloves were not enough to keep my fingers warm. My toes were complaining as well. My friend had fallen behind to find a spot to relieve himself, and I figured I would speed up to get to the end to warm up as soon as possible. I assumed his greater strength and agility would enable him to catch up quickly.
And then I lost my footing and slipped. It happened so quickly that in one moment I was focused on balancing speed with caution, straining to hear the sound of oncoming ice crunching, and in the next I found myself splayed out on the side of the steep hill. All that held me back from plunging into the near frozen lake below, was some brush and scattered saplings. The lake was many feet below and I soon assessed that any move in the wrong direction, any miscalculated stir, would certainly lead me to complete the fall down the practically perpendicular side of the hill. I quickly grabbed onto the closest tree within reach, but it’s narrow trunk did not make me feel very secure. My body was twisted in such a way that the stillness I summoned required I settle into the precise shape of my frozen repose. I conserved my energy by surrendering to assessing the situation, grabbing with increasing fervor onto the thin trunk while gaging its strength to hold the tangled mass of me.
My friend showed up shortly afterwards and after his initial shock he went into ‘oh my god, how can I help you get back up’ mode. But looking up at him I could see that his plan to attach our poles to pull me up was sorely lacking in viability. I just knew it wouldn’t work. He did not have the advantage of my view from below, that any attempt of his to pull me up would surely pull us both down. It was then I decided to call 911, something he initially was resistant to. At first I thought it was the male thing not wanting to give up so quickly. It turns out that he could see that going for the phone in my pocket would be a risky move. He did not have his phone on him.
I realized it was the only choice so I summoned an inner strength, resolve and calm that must have been fueled by the hormone released when in fight or flight response. Amazingly my toes and fingers no longer felt cold, I no longer had to pee. The focus shifted to staying alive, and holding on. I started to slowly recall when I put my phone back in my pocket last, it was after we stopped to take a selfie to capture the exquisite stillness of the icy forest. I remember carefully zipping up my parka pocket, so as not to lose my phone, one thoughtful thing I did that day. And how I struggled a bit with the way the small zipper got stuck on the material. Shit, I thought, how can I possibly unzip the pocket with one hand when for sure it will be as stuck as it usually gets? Yet with no other option I very very carefully positioned myself to do just that. In extremely slow motion I retrieved the phone.
I made the call, and after a series of identifying and informational questions that I answered with willful calm, the dispatcher said he had my location and was sending the volunteer fire department. I realized why he’d asked how much battery power I had left on my phone. It took a few minutes for the system to register the GPS coordinates to discern my precise location. Oh how grateful I was that only a couple of weeks ago I had finally pushed through my resistance to upgrade my phone after many years of ridiculous pride that I could hang onto my phone until it died, despite its limited battery life.
For the 15, or 20, or maybe even 30 minutes after that, I did literally hang on for dear life. Except for when I managed to edge closer to a tree a bit thicker and hopefully stronger. Not wanting to waste energy on conversation, other than to occasionally mutter, “I am scared!” Or “I am really scared!” which was as authentic an outcry as I could muster, I tried not to look down at what I realized in a breath could be the certain end. It was becoming clear that I was a glance or moment away from slipping down the sweeping drop below. And I did not want things to end that way.
Knowing help was on the way, I was starting to feel a little more confident, although I’m not sure that’s the right word. But I found what I thought was a safe spot for my phone and positioned it in place with branches and ice, and actually thought about wanting to save it from falling down the hill. Not something someone convinced they were about to plummet to their death would think. Or maybe that’s a reflection of how dependent we’ve become on our phones and what an expensive pain in the ass it is to replace them.
I still hung on tightly hoping that the flimsy tree was strong enough to in fact continue to hold me. I swatted away images of my weight finally pulling the innocent sapling out by its roots. My mind drifted to my daughter, wondering if she would be okay if I didn’t make it. Then remorse that I never did execute that last draft of my will. And then, although I don’t remember the order of my thinking, I thought about the book I’m working on, the one I’ve waited most of my life to write, and how very much I wanted to publish it and get it out into the world. How the purpose behind writing it had become a paramount force in my life. And that I couldn’t imagine that not happening.
When the team showed up I discovered a primal affection for big strong guys in rescue mode. When one of them looked down to see me, his reflexive response was, “Oh my God!” which underscored how bad things really were. And then after their initial assessment and questioning of how I was doing, “I’m okay, I guess” was all I could manage with a brave front, they sent for an additional team to come with what they determined was needed to enact my rescue up the hill. It certainly confirmed that they were my only hope, the fact that even they couldn’t come down there without substantial equipment. I lost count of how many times each of the 6 or so men peering down at me would call out, “Just hold on!”
While I waited for another 10, 15 long minutes, one of the men assured me that based on the type of tree that had become my lifeline, I could be sure it was strong enough to hold me and that I should remain calm and not let go. I was impressed with how he easily identified that it was birch, and that he confidently knew the strength of its root system. I was holding on really tightly at that point. So tightly that when they did return with the hoisting equipment and a few more men, yeah good men for sure, and secured the rope around the tree above and lowered one of the bigger guys down, very slowly; when he told me to grab onto him as he got within reach, I was surprisingly hesitant. As if on some cellular level, I didn’t know if I could trust this intervention that required me to let go of the tree that I had grown to rely on and that had kept me from, well, dying.
He gently coaxed me by saying, “Just hug me like you love me” which was oddly touching, yet it did help enable me to tentatively let go and grab onto him. And in that moment I did love him, loved him absolutely. In a new way of thinking about love. Not in the, ‘he was young, strong and handsome and is recusing me from certain death’ kind of way, but in feeling the sheer beauty of the way humanity shows up in the form of volunteer firemen. And the assured way with which they delivered such a solid and competent rescue mission. There was a definite grace to their camaraderie, their collective quick decision-making, their smooth actions. I felt my heart expand to hold them in high esteem, raising my newly erected bar of fortitude and integrity and generosity.
I waited until we were eventually lifted onto the ledge to have a good cry, not quite a breakdown but a full release of gratitude, fear, grief and the end of a surreal movie starring myself. I was surprisingly unhurt, mostly I had slipped, not so much fallen. I was happy to be held up as I was sore and unstable walking to the ambulance. The EMT crew seemed almost disappointed that after waiting, there was really nothing to be done. Somehow I did not have frostbite or any injuries. I made a note to look up the power of such fear hormones to override certain bodily functions in the extreme cold. I discovered bruises later, but at the time I was just awash in a sea of gratitude and that’s all I could feel.
That night I sunk into a bath and stared at a fire, moved immeasurably by music, small gestures, the air on my skin. As the fog of the fear-filled hour lifted, I discovered something fresh that felt like a newly planted seed within me. In actuality it was always there, but covered up by veils of what transpires in our everyday life. The mundane, the world’s insanity, the disillusionments, all the stuff that obscures the brightest light of creation, the life force. I got to experience it, much like I’ve read near death experiences to be like, except I did not see the blaring light, or images of dead loved ones.
Obviously I didn’t die. But my proximity to death was so razor sharp that I tasted what it would be like. I felt it in the muscles that tensed to adjust to survival mode. I saw it when I gazed at the frozen water below and felt the shock of fear course through me like a flash of insight. I knew it from the way life fell into place like a snapshot capturing the quantity of an instant. I knew it in the way I saw not just my life, but life itself, with its simple oh so fragile timeline. In the way my heart lunged toward the men who spend their personal time saving people. In hanging on to life, I felt the thread that connects it to death, sure and strong. As clear as anything I’d ever seen. And hopefully will not see again, at least not in that way.
I took with me from this experience a newly visible connection to all that is life. And all that is death, both present and newly accounted for. It enhanced my curated spark of joy and presence and spirit that I speak, write, sing, and heal from. It affirmed that my decades of yoga and meditation discipline have more value that I previously attributed to them. I have a new refined and visceral understanding of how as spiritual beings we take up temporary residence in our bodies. It helped me to see in technicolored vividness, how powerful stillness truly is. In a way I will never underestimate.
So I decided to tell the story finally, and in the telling, I feel it anew and I know now it was time to share it so if someone reading it gets a glimpse of the power of my experience, then once again I’ve proven to myself that a writer does fulfill a higher purpose.
I sent a donation, copies of my book, and an over-the-top letter to the Fire Department. I am now making an effort to avoid cliches that threaten to taint my vernacular these days. Let’s just say things are very different. Not only will I avoid ice shoeing in the future, but I will see each moment if not with alacrity, then with hunger to grab onto each day firmly. As firmly and devotedly as if it is a young and powerful birch tree, both delicate with beauty, and strong as it needs to be.