Published in Macalester Today
Sometimes I wake up with a start. In that moment between sleep and wake, before light splits open the pre-dawn darkness, I hear a quiet woomph. It is as if the world is settling, forcing loose one final breath, folding in on itself. Imagine air expelled from your lungs by a punch to the stomach. Imagine a bag of flour dropped on the floor.
That’s the sound I associate with being buried alive.
Let me paint the scene. After losing my personal compass junior year, I signed up for a semester in the wilderness. Realizing I’d been a slave to obligation, I was hungry to get some self-determination back. You see, I had cradled a fantasy for most of my life: I would take off on a sojourn into the wild, face the wilderness within and without. This is the sort of madness that desperate people hope for; I was desperate. So I enrolled in a Rocky Mountains National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course and by mid-February was on a tiny plane to Riverton, Wyoming.
I met my group shortly after I landed. We were 15 students between 18 and 22—three women, 12 men—all from different walks of life: a fraternity at Ole Miss, a mental inpatient facility, a future in the Marines. I knew I’d enjoy them, but I was there in search of me.
The 15 of us, all initially strangers, met our instructors, strapped on skis, and set out to live in four feet of snow for 18 days with only what we could pull in a sled. A few days into Yellowstone we reached a camp where we could ditch our cold tents and construct shelters called quinzhees. To build a quinzhee you spend three or four hours mounding snow until you have a pile 12 feet by 15 feet. As you pile it, you pack it down so it’s dense and semi-frozen, then you leave it to set for a few hours. It’s sort of like the snow at the end of your driveway after a blizzard and a plow have come through. Once the pile has set, you hollow it out to create a living space. The temperature inside hovers around 30 degrees.
I was working with Sara and Dani, the two other women in the group. Sara started digging from the bottom, hollowed out a door, then started excavating the interior. Once she made enough room for a second person to be inside, I crawled in.
The space was tight. I had just enough room to move my shovel. Sara was to my left. We chipped away at the icy walls in tandem. Scratch, scratch, scratch, woomph.
I felt it before I saw it, and by the time I saw it, I was immobile. The mound had collapsed on us, and I was pinned under five feet of ice-snow, splayed on my stomach, one arm beneath me, the other outstretched. The force of the collapsing ceiling had ripped my legs from under me, and now hundreds of pounds of ice were pressing down on me. Fortunately, my head was turned to the left, allowing a small pocket of air to remain around my face. Through this pocket I could see Sara a few feet away, her eyes full of fear. I tried yelling, moving. I couldn’t. I was entombed in snow the consistency of concrete. I was helpless.
After a minute, an eternity, I could feel the snow around me shifting enough to signal that people were walking above me. I couldn’t hear them, but I knew my peers were digging me out. Another minute, another lifetime, and the darkness broke a bit. They were getting closer. And then I could hear them approaching from the side. Dig dig dig dig dig! We were miles and days from a hospital. Dig dig dig dig dig! My leg was throbbing, bent at an odd angle. Dig dig dig dig dig! I couldn’t hold in the terror anymore. They’re so close!
And then it collapsed again. My heart stopped.
The second time was worse. To be so close to salvation, to see the light breaking through, and then to be swallowed again by cold darkness… something inside me broke. The second collapse pinned my throat. I couldn’t breathe; the pocket around my face was gone. The edges of my vision started to close in. I could feel the snow shifting above me, and with each step my would-be rescuers took, the snow got a little denser, the weight a little heavier, the air a little scarcer.
The rest I don’t remember well. I’m told that three minutes after the second collapse, they excavated me. All I recall is a paralysis so dark and complete it could have been three minutes or three hours. After they laid me out in the snow I moved, my vision opened again, and after one breath, two breaths, I felt so completely, fully alive that I started laughing and weeping. I looked around me: Marc with his silly man-child beard. John shirtless because shoveling made him hot. Reed with his goofy snow booties. Matt, the ever-ready Boy Scout, already looking for a first aid kit. They were what mattered. These guys, these competitive, sexist-joke-telling, bacon-loving guys, these strangers, had saved my life.
I had found the missing piece, and it was people. For three years in college, and for many years before that, my schedule had replaced relationships. Now I was ready to let that go, to make room for people for the first time.