Rachel wasn’t certain but thought she had frostbite on several fingers as well as her ears and the tip of her nose. Maybe the tissue hadn’t actually frozen but she was so cold she couldn’t tell. The afternoon was wearing on, the clouds so thick and snow falling so heavily that she had no idea where the sun was in the sky. She was in a world of white and grey, the lake reflecting the overcast and appearing as if it was dirty steel.
Bill was still unconscious and she had wrapped him as best she could in his nylon canopy. The fabric wasn’t terribly heavy but she hoped it would provide enough insulation to keep the man from freezing to death. Once he was cocooned, she looked around the area.
First she was checking to make sure the wolf hadn’t returned, though she wasn’t confident she would see it until it was lunging for her throat. The animal’s coat was a mottled grey and she had noticed how well it blended in with the snowy terrain.
Not seeing anything for the moment she turned, shivering from the biting wind, and looked around the small clear patch of ground she had chosen. Snow was thick in her hair and starting to accumulate on her shoulders and she knew it wouldn’t be long before both of them would succumb to the weather if she didn’t get a fire going. But even with a fire they still needed protection from the wind.
Two large trees grew next to each other, no more than a dozen feet apart. They were upwind from where she stood and as she stared at them an idea took shape. Rushing to her hastily dropped parachute she quickly pulled the canopy out and set to work with Bill’s knife.
It didn’t take long to cut all the ropes where they were attached to the pack, but it would have gone faster if she hadn’t been looking up and scanning for the wolf every few seconds. She was terrified it would approach while she was occupied and when she looked up it would be standing there, teeth barred, ready to pounce.
With the chute free, Rachel fought with it in the wind, finally succeeding in getting one edge to the closest tree. She began wrapping the attached lines around the trunk, beginning at ground level. Her fingers were stiff and numb from the cold and it took several attempts to tie a knot, but she eventually got it.
Slowly working her way up she kept wrapping the canopy lines around the trunk until she had reached a point a foot above her head. One end of the parachute nylon was now firmly secured to one of the trees, pulled tight against the rough bark. The free end flapped in the wind, snapping and popping like a flag.
Grabbing one of the flailing lines, Rachel stretched it to the other tree where she first wrapped the excess fabric around the trunk before pulling the line taut and starting to work on the knot. By now she was so cold she was shivering constantly and her fingers were stiff and unresponsive. The line slipped out of her grasp several times before she finally managed to tie it off.
Not pausing, she worked her way up the trunk at an agonizingly slow pace. But as she progressed the canopy blocked the wind. It flapped violently above where she was working, but as each knot went into place more and more of the wind was stopped. Finally reaching the same height as the first tree, Rachel collapsed onto her knees with a gasp.
She was still shivering, but without the wind chill the air immediately around her felt almost warm. She realized this wasn’t real, that there was nothing warm about the situation she was in, and if she stopped it wouldn’t be long before she’d fall asleep and never wake up.
Forcing herself to crawl around the area she began gathering twigs and small branches, shaking the snow off them as she worked. Several feet from the windbreak she had created, Rachel piled the wood on a mostly clear and dry patch of ground. The heavy branches of the trees over her head were providing shelter, and now with the canopy blocking the wind driven snow there was a large patch of ground that would stay dry.
She piled the kindling as best she could, barely able to keep from scattering what she had gathered as her arms and hands violently shook. Once she had a small pile and had managed to stuff handfuls of dry pine needles into it she scrambled to where Bill still lay motionless, wrapped in the other canopy. Not stopping to check on him she searched his pack until she came up with one of the waterproof matches.
It took her several tries to calm her hands enough to even strike the match, but her heart leapt when it finally flared. Thrusting it against a few pine needles she held her breath as the flame flickered, almost going out when a gust of wind made it under the edge of the windbreak. But the match kept burning, the needles quickly catching.
Soon the fire spread to all of the tinder then began licking the dry twigs. There was still some wind leaking under and around the edges of the canopy, but it was just enough to fan the flames and the fire quickly grew. Piling on more twigs and small branches, Rachel held her hands as close to the heat as she dared.
Her skin was so cold she couldn’t feel the warmth at first. Several times she pulled her hands back and checked them, making sure she wasn’t cooking her flesh without realizing it.
Piling more wood on the fire she reluctantly began moving around the area, away from the meager heat. She needed larger branches and lots of them. Fortune finally smiled on her. The area of the Sawtooth Mountains she was in was covered in old growth forest and it had been a very long time since fire had consumed everything in its path.
The forest floor was covered with fallen branches of all sizes. It had been a long summer with very little rain and the wood she gathered was dry and caught easily when she began piling it onto her campfire. Soon she had a roaring blaze and had to move back against the canopy stretched between the trees.
Slowly the shivers and shakes that had gripped her began to pass as her body warmed. Leaning over Bill’s still unmoving form she reached out to check him. He didn’t respond when she shook his shoulder and Rachel placed two fingers on his neck to check his pulse. When she couldn’t feel anything she leaned in and pressed her ear against his mouth, unsure if her fingers were just damaged from the cold or not.
There was no tickle of breath as she held her face in front of the pilot’s. He was dead. Rachel sat back with a groan. The morphine. Anesthetics not only block pain, they also inhibit the body’s thermoregulatory process. Shivering is one way the body tries to warm itself, fighting cold, as well as pulling blood from the extremities into the torso to protect the vital organs and the brain. The morphine had prevented that and the man had frozen to death.
Rachel wanted to cry, feeling partly responsible for his death since she was the one who had administered the narcotic. But she was too exhausted after dragging him down the hill and battling the wind and cold. Struggling with the rapidly stiffening corpse, she freed the canopy it was wrapped in and after piling more wood on the fire draped it around her body and lay down as close to the flames as she could.