Illustrations by Rich Kelly
[dropcap]H[/dropcap]ere I am, miles from home, alone and buried alive. My name is Tracer Finn, and I’m almost 14. Other than common sense, I don’t think anything can prepare a snowboarder for the sheer violence of an avalanche. It was 700 feet of terror and louder than a derailing freight train. If it weren’t for my helmet, I would probably be dead.
Then again, maybe I was dead and didn’t know it.
It was just before five in the morning when my mom pulled into the school parking lot to drop me off to catch the team bus. I would love to say that I was a member of our school’s state-champion snowboarding team, but I was not.
Because the team had only 20 active members, 10 boys and 10 girls, Coach Parker came up with an idea to help offset the team’s travel costs. If you were a student in good standing and had a permission slip from your parents, you could catch a ride to the ski resort for 20 bucks.
As we pulled into the parking lot, my mom thought I might have had the pickup time wrong because the parking lot was empty. This move, however, was by design. My design. If I’ve learned one thing about being an incoming freshman, it was to never draw attention to yourself. A surefire way to set off a geek alarm is to have your mom drop you off in, of all things, a minivan.
“I knew the backcountry was off-limits and way beyond my skill set, but I was feeling confident … until I saw the ‘AVALANCHE TERRITORY’ sign.
No, I knew what I was doing with the early drop-off, so I quickly said goodbye, grabbed my snowboard and jumped out.
If I’d had a clue that it might have been the last time I’d ever see my mom again, I probably would have ignored my pursuit of “cool” and sat with her until the team bus arrived. Now I’ll never know what we might have talked about. I’ll never know what kind of laughter we might have shared together, because if there was one thing we knew how to do, it was laugh.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s hard to imagine anything like this would ever happen, but now that I’m buried alive and freezing, I can’t help but wonder why we push away the people who love us the most so we can appear cool to others. Fitting in with the crowd and the pursuit of cool meant nothing to me right now.
Right now, I was freezing to death.
“GET UP, TRACER,” my mind interrupted. “You have to move or you are going to die!”
Here I was, crouched in a fetal position, surrounded by tons of snow, and my mind is ordering me to do something that I’d already tried a dozen times before? I can hardly breathe, let alone move.
To think all of this could have been avoided was maddening to me. In a single moment, my life changed. And for what? I thought. To fit in with the crowd and have the other kids say, “There goes Tracer Finn, a no-fear freshman”?
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]y moment of stupidity presented itself at the top of the double black-diamond run Wicked. Earlier that morning, I decided to follow some of the guys on the snowboarding team. I knew they were more experienced than I was, but since I was able to keep up with them and most of their moves, I was proud of my decision.
That is, until Rusty Larson, our 17-year-old reigning state champion, decided to show off for some of the girls.
One by one, the older guys followed Rusty and ducked under the hazard fencing, which blocked access to the mountain’s treacherous backcountry. I knew the backcountry was off-limits and way beyond my skill set, but I was feeling confident … until I saw the “AVALANCHE TERRITORY” sign.
Exploring the backcountry was one thing, but exploring avalanche territory was something I wanted nothing to do with. When I was about to turn around in retreat, I locked eyes with Julie Nagle, the prettiest girl on the snowboarding team.
Up to this point, I wasn’t sure if she even knew I existed, but when she smiled at me, I could feel my heart skip a beat. How can you turn back now? I thought. I knew if I did, I would soon be known as “Tracer Finn, that chicken freshman.”
Taking a deep breath, I smiled back at Julie, slapped the “Avalanche Territory” sign and dropped into the deep powder of the backcountry. The slope was steep and despite all the powder, I was already moving fast — too fast.
Suddenly, the trees closed in around me as the run got tighter, which forced me to keep the nose of my board pointed straight downhill. Then, I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach — where were the board tracks from Rusty and the other guys?
Thinking fast, I leaned toward the backside and made a cut to the white-powder clearing of the backcountry. Like a cannonball, I shot out of the trees and began to glide across the snow of a steep gorge.
My board finally stopped chattering the way a board chatters when you are pushing the limits, so my idea was working. That is, until everything turned terribly wrong when a giant shelf of snow gave way and closed on me like the jaws of an angry lion.
Looking up for a possible escape route, I saw 700 feet of terror barreling down on me. A wall of snow hit me like an NFL linebacker, lifted me high into the air and slammed me down so hard I could hear the sickening sound of the air rapidly exiting my lungs.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f I had only ignored my ego in that critical moment when I saw the avalanche sign, I might be sitting on the chairlift with Julie instead of being buried alive. Who knows, I might have found the courage to ask her for her phone number and send her a text … wait … DUDE! Your phone is in your jacket pocket! Maybe you can call for help?
My fingers were so cold, they barely answered the urgent commands from my brain, but slowly they began to wiggle and tunnel into the small pocket of air in the middle of my crouched position.
Before long, I felt the leather dongle of my zipper pocket. Grasping the now-frozen dongle between my gloved index finger and thumb, I began to pull open the pocket. Each opening tooth of the zipper echoed like a clap of thunder throughout my coffin of snow.
Reaching in, I could feel the top of my phone. I would need to drop my left shoulder to grab it, but that was easier said than done. Summoning every bit of strength left in my tired muscles, I shot my shoulder down and toward the air pocket. The move suddenly caused the snow to collapse in around me. Before I knew what was happening, I was tumbling down the mountain again.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hen, as fast as the chaos began, it was over. I was, once again, surrounded by the deafening silence of the backcountry, but something was different. My arm moved. Reaching up, I cleared the snow from my goggles and felt the warm afternoon sun hit my face. My nightmare was finally over. I was alive.
Lying there for a long moment, I began to wonder … how long had I been buried? Was I even buried at all, or was this simply the end of the initial avalanche? During the chaos of tumbling, maybe I hit my head and my mental chatter was simply a dreamlike state of unconsciousness?
The only thing I knew for certain was that my life would never be the same. From this moment on, I would always obey the rules whenever I set out on an adventure. I would always listen to my instincts and never, ever, ever try to impress someone in the pursuit of cool.
Eric DelaBarre is the author of Saltwater Taffy. The award-winning adventure novel follows the lives of five friends as they uncover a treasure map that once belonged to the ruthless New Orleans pirate, Jean Lafitte. The discovery thrusts them from one treasure hunting adventure to the next as they try to out-wit, out-think and out-maneuver everyone from the one-legged junk-yard man and an overbearing town bully, to the creepy old man living at the top of the hill.
Saltwater Taffy is a race to-the-finish adventure that grabs the reader and never lets go.