[This Full Value story first appeared in Alpinist 60 , which is now available on newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]
One need not be a Chamber–to be Haunted
OF THE NINE PEOPLE in my family, only my father believed our house on Law Street wasn’t haunted.
The house was built in the 1930s and stood on a quiet, tree-lined street in the suburban Midwest. I’ve kept only sweet memories of the place, except, maybe, of the basement, which as children we both feared and avoided. It was half-finished with dark-tiled floors and dark-paneled walls that divided the space oddly. The laundry room, pantry, tool room, and bathroom were partitioned off from a central living space that appeared disproportionately large, as if the carpenter had lost interest before installing a last wall or two that logically would have made two or three smaller rooms. Under the front porch was an unpainted cement room with a coal chute door that had been sealed. It was clear to us as children that this room could have had no other purpose than that of a torture chamber. If you forgot to turn on the light in the stairwell before you descended, you had to return up in the dark, and I always ran, three steps at a time, feeling chased by some invisible force. I would arrive in the kitchen, panting and relieved.
My sisters had slightly more dramatic stories of the ghost we sensed in that house. My own story was modest and occurred long after I had mastered my childhood fears and had co-opted the basement for a bit of hard-to-find privacy. I was studying late into the night. At about 2:30 a.m., or just after closing time at The New Place–the local dive bar where we all intuited we would end our days if we didn’t find some way to escape–I heard the heavy oak front door swing open on its creaking hinges, heard it close again, and then heard footsteps walk through the living room just above me. This could only be my brother Matt, having safely navigated the streets after last call. I raced up the stairs to hear the latest barroom gossip. But my brother wasn’t there; no one was. He would come home a few hours later.
I’m not much for the paranormal–I believe in luck–but let’s just say that when my sister reported that she’d awakened to an invisible stranger who had entered her room and sat at the end of her bed, well, I didn’t doubt her.
THAT WAS 1974, OR ’75, just before I left my hometown for good. I’ve lived in five states since, and where I am now, here in Alaska, is where I have felt the most at home. This is not the occasion for me to deconstruct the following events, only to summarize them.
My friend Ralph and I hiked into the Snowbird Hut in the Talkeetna Mountains on a perfect late autumn morning with a forecast for continued good weather: a slight chance of flurries. We carried skis with the hope of finding a line higher up where we could make a few early season turns.
Memory latches on to the easy exterior details: the terrain underfoot, the peaks on the horizon, the sky overhead, the dumb work of ascent, the conversation–what little of it there is among the heavy breathing. But I had been living a double life for nearly a year: my wife and I had lost our son, and that obdurate fact had become a secret self that never leaves my consciousness, not even in the high mountains.
The hike to the hut took us longer than we expected, most of the day. There had been patches of ice carefully traversed–but little snow. Once we arrived, the Alaskan winter set in, unexpectedly, and began covering us with a blanket of drifts well over two feet deep.
The time in the hut was a dark idyll. Outside, the visibility dwindled to nothing as the snow fell, and so we decided to conserve our strength for our planned departure on the second morning. We were warm–there was a kerosene stove for heat–and we spent the time reading the hut logbook’s entries, which repeatedly extolled the glories of nonexistent mythical hot springs and warned about the hot sauce someone had left behind (It will turn your asshole into a flamethrower!). I kept hearing a clattering out on the porch, and I finally opened it to find a raven huddled there. It paused a beat to regard me indifferently before hopping off the deck and onto the snowy boulderfield below.
After I went back inside, I could hear its claws skittering as it landed outside the door again. Since there was no food there, we could only assume it found respite from the wind and snow in the corner of the doorway. For some reason whenever Ralph tried to see it, it hopped or flew out of his view. Native Alaskans give the raven many prominent attributes, none of which I know. My own cultural reference is Poe’s talking raven with its gloomy message: “Nevermore.” Eventually, we both watched the bird wing up the mountain in an unhurried glide.
Ralph gave me a lesson in using his avalanche beacons, which we had judged superior to mine. But mostly we killed time until the second morning when we planned to leave. I was reading Charles Simic’s prose, and the last thing I wrote in my journal that night was a quote from him: There’s truth with eyes open and truth with eyes closed and they often do not recognize each other on the street.
In the morning we struggled down to the glacier through deep drifts, and barely located our buried skis. We knew the glacier to be crevasseless, although we would have to skirt an enormous moulin. But there was little danger of skiing into it: formed by glacier melt, its downward spiraling whirlpool was too large to miss. Nonetheless, we could hear its subterranean meltwater, an eerie reminder that a frozen underworld lurked below the surface.
We went up over the pass, with considerable effort. I couldn’t keep my skis on the snow’s surface, and every step was freighted with its weight. As we descended the other side, my heart went into atrial fibrillation–a condition in which it ratchets itself to upward of 200 beats per minute. I couldn’t really catch my breath, much less continue to ski through two feet of fresh snow. At some point, mostly unknown to me at the time, Ralph entered into what he later referred to as a hypervigilant state. Slipping back into the shorthand of his search and rescue days, he remained alert for an LZ–a Landing Zone.
We (by which I mean mostly Ralph) built a snow cave and burrowed in for the night. I remember not having the energy to swallow a piece of white chocolate that Ralph hand-fed me.
Luckily, and unbeknownst to me, Ralph had been able to send out a text message to his wife in Wasilla, and to his daughter in Hong Kong, with our coordinates. In fading daylight, we could hear the muffled whack-whack-whack-whack of an unseen helicopter above the clouds, but there was no chance of it landing.
Having packed for two nights in a lavishly stocked hut, we were embarrassingly underprepared for a third night out in the Alaskan winter. The cave was coffin-sized, and its entrance had to be slithered through. I thought it best to not mention Poe again. Sharing a single summer-thin sleeping bag and a two-foot square of cardboard-thick ensolite I had pinched from the hut at the last minute, we shivered through the night, minute by minute, losing body heat by the hour.
Just before dawn, the first detail of a two-pronged rescue arrived: a party of three really strong young skiers–friends of Ralph. They swaddled us in warm down clothes, fed us sweet hot tea from thermoses and homemade burritos wrapped in aluminum foil. To reach us, they had set off from their cars at about midnight on a Friday night, ignoring stout warnings to let Search and Rescue and the State Troopers do their jobs. Now, they set up a large, floorless pyramid tent, and we crammed in there among layers of down with their two dogs, who gamboled about as if on a winter lark. As the guys shoveled snow to clear a spot for the tent, one of the dogs chased every flung shovelful–a fun game after a steep, five-hour hike through deep snow in the dark. They might as well have descended from the heavens.
The five of us dozed off amid the down and the dogs and the steaming drinks and waited for daylight.
At first light, a helicopter appeared over a ridge and whisked Ralph and me to safety. A lot more could be written about this whole ordeal, but suffice it to say that I probably wouldn’t have made it through another night out there.
There were real, tangible reasons for our survival, mostly having to do with Ralph’s level-headedness. But also because he was a well-respected local veteran of many rescue missions, his request for help was taken very seriously. I was lucky to have been with him.
And how else did “luck” play into our survival? We were lucky that the weather cleared enough for a helicopter to land. But, a naysayer might add, we were unlucky that the searchers hadn’t reached us the night before when we could hear their rotors above the clouds. Also, we were unlucky that the prediction of “flurries” had been wildly underestimated and turned into “feet” of accumulation.
Later, someone would ask me what Ralph and I talked about all night in that cave. The truth is that we barely spoke. If by chance one of us had fallen asleep, the other wouldn’t have wanted to wake him. My mental energy was spent on trying to stay warm, moving my toes all night so they wouldn’t freeze, trying to find a position where all my body was covered with some kind of insulating layer, and shifting as one limb after another went numb. The roof of the chamber was inches from my face, and every movement brought a sprinkling of ice onto our skin. I couldn’t help remembering that hypothermia had been a huge factor in my son’s death and that he had died almost exactly one year to the day earlier, drowned in Willow Creek, which I further couldn’t help remembering was just a scant dozen or so miles away. If I was going out for good, hypothermia was what was going to take me, and I felt foolish, caught up in forces larger than myself.
Later, my wife Aisha reminded me that as I was packing, I found a new chain for my St. Bernard medal–patron saint of skiers and alpinists–and I had it around my neck during the ordeal, though I hadn’t worn it for months previously. She also reminded me that the prior Sunday–three days before our trip–she and I had wandered into a high mass. When we are in downtown Anchorage, we always stop by Holy Family Cathedral to light a devotional candle for our son, but also for the living. This time we found ourselves listening to the liturgy in Latin, immersed in the holy mystery and ritual of my child- hood. The priest stood with his back to the congregation, and as we knelt at a relic-studded altar railing, he delivered communion to us, placing the wafers on our tongues, while an altar boy held a gold-plated paten under our chin to catch any errant hosts. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I would have a lot to be sorry for.
My poor wife. She suffered through another bad night–we had experienced many since the death of our son. She solicited support and well wishes on Facebook. Friends kept vigil with her, with wine. My buddy Charlie drew a map for her by hand, explaining where we were and how the conditions conspired against us, though he hadn’t known about my heart at the time. Later he would declare that the only way our situation could have been prevented was by not going out at all.
My sister Stevie, who is devout (the only one of us seven siblings of whom this can be said), rallied her prayer group to pray for my safety. She has done this many times on our family’s behalf. At first, I admit, we felt this act mildly embarrassing. But too many times we have found ourselves in circumstances over which we have had little control. We are grateful for love, however it may be manifested.
After a few days, I called my sister to thank her for her support. Stevie told me that I had appeared to her that night in two dreams. In one of them, she was in the house on Law Street working the phone on my behalf (calling for prayers, no doubt, though she didn’t relate this information). She described the wallpaper, which was distinctive and colorful–a red and blue paisley against a white background. The phone, too, was red, a fact she had my mother corroborate, uncertain of her own memory of the house that she’d loved, and left, close to thirty years earlier. While Stevie was on the dream phone, she saw me walk in the front door and she told the person she was talking to that it was over; I was safe.
When Stevie related this dream to me, I thought back to that night in 1974 when I was studying in the basement, and I heard that heavy door creak open and the ghost walk into the house. Now the lines from a Gordon Lightfoot song of that era echo in my mind: “You know that ghost is me.” The chill that had tingled down my back as I listened to the footsteps of my ghost self was different from the deep cold we suffered through in that snow cave. But I’m home now, protected by angels, and warm.
[This Full Value story first appeared in Alpinist 60 , which is now available on newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]