Winter Holiday by Bruin Fisher – Day 3

I woke to sunlight streaming through the window because I'd forgotten to close the curtains, and immediately I knew something was wrong. There was an eerie silence. In the cottage it's always quiet except for the occasional car passing on the road outside but this was a different level of quiet. I looked at the clock by the bed. I hadn't set the alarm and the clock said 8:45 so I'd slept longer than I meant to. Must have been all the fresh air. I got up and squinted out of the window at a surreal landscape of white on white. There must have been a very heavy snowfall all night because everything was coated with a thick layer of snow. Maybe a foot deep. The trees between the cottage and the lake were draped in snow, their branches drooping drunkenly with the unaccustomed weight. The meadow that runs down to the lake was smooth and white, with tiny patterns of animal and bird footprints criss-crossing it and sparkling in the sun. The view was absolutely beautiful and I ran to dress, pulling jeans over the boxers I'd been wearing in bed, and grabbing a clean white T and a fawn check shirt to go over the top. I ran downstairs and grabbed my quilted ski jacket and my camera rucksack and rushed to the front door – which I found I couldn't open.

I went to the front room window and looked across to the door and I could see the wind must have drifted the snow, piling it high against the door. I abandoned my photography plans for the time being, then I took the time to put my boot socks and walking boots on, and to wrap my waterproof gaiters over the top. Then I climbed out through the window, and trudged through the snow out to the shed in the back garden where I found a shovel. Back at the front door it didn't take too long to clear the door and the pathway out to the road. By this time I was cold and shivering and the ends of my fingers were painful. I climbed back into the house opened and closed the front door – just to be sure I could. Then I made myself a cup of coffee, lit the fire in the living room and sat warming my hands around the cup while I wondered what to do with the day.

It didn't take long to decide that I needed to make the best of the snow. In southern England snow rarely lasts long – we don't get cold enough temperatures – and pristine snow is a rare treat. Up here in the Lake District the climate is quite a bit colder than down south, but nevertheless I didn't expect the snow to last long. So once I could feel my fingers again properly, I put on two jerseys under my ski jacket, scarf and the woollen hat that I look so stupid in, and gloves – why didn't I think to put gloves on before I went out the first time? Over the top of all that I struggled to shoulder my rucksack, having to loosen the straps to get it on over the bulk of the clothes I was wearing. But I was warm and wind- and waterproof so I reckoned I'd be able to stay out as long as I wanted to get plenty of pictures. I remembered just before setting out to put my spare camera battery in my shirt breast pocket. Camera batteries tend to fail in cold temperatures, and this way I could swap the one I'd been keeping warm close to my skin if mine failed.

Once I got out I found that already the sun had disappeared behind a bank of heavy dark clouds which seemed to be building over to the west. So any hopes of beautiful snow crystals glinting in sunlight were lost. The whole area began to look dark and foreboding despite the snow on the ground. Nevertheless I persevered and found a few subjects for my camera. I didn't have any trouble with battery failure but I had to be careful not to breathe on the lens surface because it would mist up immediately if I did – and then it took ages to clear.

I can get completely absorbed in what I'm doing when I'm out taking pictures, and when I first looked at my watch it was already 2:30pm and I realised I was hungry. By this time I was about a mile past the village at the head of the valley and I decided I would walk back down into Grasmere and find the pub with the funny name again. So I headed back. It was taking me twice as long to get around because of the snow and although my boots and gaiters were still keeping my feet nicely dry I was by now beginning to feel my toes getting painfully cold. So I set up a brisk pace to get down to the village and by about 3pm I was in the Fallen Poet, leaning into the roaring fire along with several other guys trying to warm the extremities.

The atmosphere in the pub was quite different than it had been the previous day. As soon as I walked in I'd asked the barman for a bowl of soup and although it was by now mid-afternoon and he might have refused to serve me so long past lunchtime, he took my order politely. Among the customers there was no laughing and joking, and there were far fewer of them – in fact to my surprise looking around me the five other customers in the pub were all guys about my age. It could have been the YMCA. No, perhaps not.

My soup arrived with a big fresh bread roll and plenty of butter and a fresh green salad too. I ate hungrily and soon began to feel warm again.

There was a tension between the men sharing the fire with me. There wasn't much talking but occasionally they'd look at each other with an anxious expression and I was curious. I'm shy enough to keep myself to myself normally, but I was sitting shoulder to shoulder with these guys and I felt I had to either talk to them or move away to give them space. So I asked:

“What's going on, then?”

I didn't know who to speak to so I just threw my question into the fire to see who would pick it up. The guy to my right answered me:

“There are two climbers missing on Helvellyn.”

He went silent again and I wondered for a moment if I should let it drop. He clearly didn't want to talk. But something made me try again.

“Hi,” I said. “I'm Joel.”

It was a palpable moment before he sat upright and turned and smiled.

“Pleased to meet you, I'm Dave. That's Tom, beside him is Andy and the goof on the end is Brad. We're the Patterdale Mountain Rescue Team and we're waiting to hear if we're needed.”

So now I understood the tension. Helvellyn is the highest mountain in the Lake District and although I've climbed many of the hills over the years I'd never tackled Helvellyn in the summer let alone in January.

“Whereabouts are these guys?” I asked.

“All we know is they left their hotel in Ambleside yesterday morning and didn't arrive back last night. They'd told the receptionist they were going to tackle the mountain and no-one's heard from them since. We don't know if they've got decent emergency kit with them or even if they've got a mobile phone.”

“So what happens next?”

It was Tom who answered this time.

“We wait. Maybe they'll come down under their own steam – it happens sometimes. Maybe they have got a mobile and they'll have the sense to use it. Maybe somebody will spot them on the slope and call in. We haven't actually received a distress call so we don't act unless we do. But we've got another problem just now, we're below strength.”

Brad joined in:

“The team is twelve men and we need eight to make up a rescue team. But we've got several guys out of action at the moment and we can't get hold of two more which brings us down to six which isn't enough. Even if we're called, we can't go with only six, it's the rule.”

“Where's your sixth man?” I asked, counting again the five men with me.

“Gary's in the other room talking to the military base about using their helicopter. He's our team leader. I don't think even Gary'll be able to persuade them to fly the helicopter for us though. For one thing we haven't had a distress call, and for another, the forecast is for more snow. Apparently we're going to be in a blizzard by nightfall.”

I thought back to the dark clouds I'd seen building earlier in the day. Since then I hadn't really looked into the sky. What a townie.

I looked into their faces. These guys were brave and well-motivated, that much showed on their faces. And they were here ready to risk their lives to help somebody out. Somebody who had probably got themselves into a mess through their own foolhardiness or incompetence. I was filled with admiration for them.

I don't know to this day what made me speak up then. Like I've said, I'm shy. I'm also not particularly brave and I'm certainly not an experienced climber but I'm fit and healthy and I've got good stamina from all the cycling I do around the country lanes in Surrey. So I said it:

“I'll come with you if it would help”.

They all turned to look me in the eye and Tom reached across and shook me by the hand.

“Well said, Joel, and thanks. But we really need the guys we've trained with. If we can't get hold of them it'll be up to Gary to decide what to do about it. But I'll tell him you've offered if you're sure?”

“Yes I'd like that. I'll hang around until you hear one way or the other.”

The room went quiet again as we all went back to our thoughts. What had I let myself in for, I asked myself? I was way out of my depth and I realised I could get myself in serious trouble for opening my big mouth. So I calmed myself down remembering that they were not going to take me up on my offer. Relax, Joel, breathe.

Minutes passed and the place began to feel like a dentist's waiting room. Then a door opened beside the bar and Tom got up and began talking quietly to the man who walked in. The two walked across the room towards me and Tom called out to me:

“Joel, this is Gary, our team leader. I've just told him you've volunteered to join the team.”

I stood up and turned, raising my hand to shake the hand of the team leader. Our eyes met and for a moment I froze. Here was my shepherd again. He was shaking my hand but I wasn't shaking his back. Pulling myself together I gave his hand what I hoped was a manly grip and shook it once and then dropped it. I was still looking into his eyes, piercing blue eyes that seemed to look right through me. A frown passed over his face and he turned away, leaving me gaping stupidly. I looked down at my hand which was tingling slightly. What had just happened? Nothing, I told myself – but I couldn't quite believe that.

So had I just joined the team or not? I had no idea. A phone rang. Gary spun his broad shoulders and headed back into the back room. A moment later the ringing stopped and the room went silent.

We didn't have long to wait. Gary cannoned through the door and barked out the news

“There are two of them. They're fifty metres below Striding Edge near the summit of Helvellyn. One has a probable broken leg, the other is staying with him. He's used his mobile phone but why the hell he left it till now I don't know. They're both okay but they can't move and the weather's deteriorating fast. We're going.”

He was looking like thunder and I felt I should be somewhere else. I was an intruder and these guys had a job to do that I could have no part of and would only be in the way. I turned to pick up my rucksack. I could go back to the cottage and sit by the fire and wait for the storm to pass. But now Gary was in front of me again and talking to me.

“Have you any experience on mountains?”

“I've climbed Scafell and Ben Nevis but in good summer conditions. I've never climbed Helvellyn and I've never climbed any Munro in winter.” I knew I must give him accurate information – no good trying to talk up my abilities.

“You look like you've got good clothing. Have you any emergency equipment?”

“I have an emergency foil blanket in my rucksack, a sit mat and whistle, and my mobile phone. That's all.”

“How strong are you?” He grabbed my upper arm and squeezed. Through two jerseys I don't know what he could tell but I do have strong arms so I flexed my bicep against his grip. One of those blond eyebrows lifted momentarily before he let me go.

“Okay,” he muttered, “you're in. It's against the rules but I don't see that we have any choice. I want you right by me always – and whatever I tell you, you do, immediately and without question. If you fall behind or in any way hold us up, we'll leave you behind. Have you got that?”

I nodded without speaking. I was being shown quickly and brutally that this was for real and I would need to shape up to work with these guys. A shiver ran down my spine despite the heat from the fire and I knew I was frightened.

Then suddenly things started happening very fast.

“Follow me!” called Gary and I followed the whole team as we filed out to the back room where Gary had taken his phone call. On one wall were a line of lockers and on the opposite wall was an Ordnance Survey walker's map of the southern lakes with Helvellyn at the top right corner looking big and ominous even as a series of lines on a map.

The other team members were ignoring me completely now, so Gary opened a locker and pulled out a rucksack. He passed it to me saying:

“Empty this and re-load it so you know exactly what's in it and where.”

I did as I was told, carefully opening the main compartment and the zipped side pockets and finding maps, compass, GPS receiver, torch, whistle, a folding shovel, a foil emergency blanket like mine, a sleeping bag and some clothes – socks, underwear and two jerseys. I wondered why I would need to change my underwear up a mountain in a blizzard.

Something was definitely up – the team members were talking happily together, laughing and joking, but I got the impression they were talking to Gary only when necessary, and no-one even acknowledged that I was there. Once everyone had their equipment, we barrelled out of the little room into the yard at the back of the pub and into a battered old Land Rover. Tom took the driver's seat and we were off up the road. Huddled on one of the dicky seats in the back of the Land Rover I had time to notice the weather which was clearly turning dirty. The wind was blowing the Rover all over the road and Tom was fighting to keep control. We were on a fairly major road, and there'd been traffic on it since daybreak, so the snowfall had turned to slush except in some places where it had turned to packed ice. It made for an interesting journey. We came to the foot of Helvellyn and turned off the main road onto a narrow lane and the Land Rover's tyres couldn't get a grip on the packed snow. Tom and Andy got out of the front seats with snow chains and fitted them around the tyres amazingly quickly and in no time they were back in their seats and we were making slow noisy progress along the narrow lane up the lower slopes of the mountain.

We came to a point where the lane we were following curved back down the slope – so we had come as far as we could come by car. Tom parked the Land Rover at a point where the lane widened a little and we started up the mountain on foot.

I just followed the man ahead. It was clear that these guys knew exactly what they were doing. I noticed that the bad atmosphere I thought there had been in the pub had definitely dissolved now. Brad tapped me on the shoulder as we set off and grinned which I took as a friendly sign, and Andy smiled at me and asked:

“You ready?”

- and when I nodded he led the way along a footpath that I couldn't even see because of the snow.

I've done quite a bit of hill walking, and some mountain climbing and you get to the point walking with friends when you feel like you need a rest. It becomes harder and harder to keep going and you have to decide whether to call for a rest break. Depending on who you're with and how macho you feel the need to be, you either grit your teeth and keep going or you flop down and announce you're not going on before you've had a bar of chocolate covered Kendal Mint Cake. But that's walking for pleasure, at your own pace, and in ideal conditions. This was different.

Quite quickly I felt exhausted, probably because it is so much more effort walking in deep snow. But no way was I going to be the one to call for a rest break. No way. I couldn't be a wuss in front of these guys, hard mountain men who probably bit the heads off live chickens for entertainment. So I forced myself onward, driven by dogged pride, and it was Tom who first called a halt. We stood for five minutes and looked around. We were now well above the valley and the wind was stronger and colder. I was glad of my ski jacket which keeps the cold out in most conditions but I was going to test it further than it had been tested before.

The light was beginning to fail and Gary was up ahead talking on a walkie-talkie. As we walked I called out to Brad ahead of me and asked who Gary was talking to.

“That's Stephen back at base. We're lucky to have him. He used to be a regular on the team but he's left the village to go studying medicine at university and he'll be gone again in a day or so. We couldn't have done this without him.”

I thought for a moment.

“Stephen? You don't mean the Grasmere Gingerbread Stephen?”

“That's the man.”

I smiled.

By the time we reached the treacherous Striding Edge it was snowing again, but up here it was snowing sideways. The snow was being driven horizontally into our faces making progress twice as difficult. Striding Edge is a narrow ridge sloping away sharply both sides leading up to the very summit of Helvellyn. There's scarcely safe foothold to walk along it single-file in good conditions, and if you lose your grip and slip off the ridge you fall about 200 feet before the slope eases and you can get a purchase. It's a deathtrap, and what these two climbers thought they were doing on it in these conditions I couldn't imagine.

We didn't try to walk Striding Edge, but we spread out and combed the terrain below it where the climber would have fallen to if he'd slipped. We walked the entire length of the Edge and back again slightly further up the slope but there was no sign of our wounded climber or his companion. I was beginning to wonder if we'd responded to a hoax call, when Gary signalled to us to walk around to the other side of the Edge and search the other slope. The wind was now howling in our ears, the light was failing fast and the snow was falling thicker which made visibility a further problem. Fortunately this time we hadn't gone very far when Andy called out and moved forward quickly. When we caught up we found him gently moving his hands along the right leg of a young man whose face was grey and pinched and who looked only half conscious. He looked in a bad way and I wondered how we were going to get him off the mountain – it was going to be hard enough getting ourselves off. The wounded lad's companion was a girl who couldn't have been more than 16 who was shaking and crying and getting in Andy's way. Gary called us to him and everyone except Andy and the girl gathered around. Shouting, he told us the military had agreed to scramble their helicopter, that it would be with us in ten minutes and would take the wounded man on a stretcher and five others off the mountain. Two of us couldn't go in the copter, and Gary told the team that he and I would stay and walk off the hill. I wasn't consulted but before I could get upset about that I reflected I was the junior member and I said nothing.

We used the minutes waiting for the chopper to make the patient as comfortable as we could and manoeuvre him onto the stretcher that Tom had assembled from his rucksack. Then all six of us took a handhold and carried his stretcher a few yards to what we judged to be the best landing spot for the helicopter. In no time at all the machine loomed above us and lit us up in its searchlight. The pilot seemed quite unaffected by the snowstorm and dropped his machine right beside us. We loaded the stretcher into the craft, then Andy climbed in next to the patient, and Brad Tom and Dave got in next, and Dave gave the girl his hand helping her up into the machine. Gary and I were left to wave to the big chopper as it rose up into the dusk and became quickly invisible through the snowstorm. I looked at Gary who didn't seem at all perturbed at our predicament.

“What now?” I asked.

“Take my hand and don't let go.” he ordered.

I bit back a protest – it was hard enough making yourself heard in the storm without me questioning his orders. So like a little child I put my hand in his and trotted along behind him as best I could.

I could see his broad shoulders pushing through the storm in front of me but not much more. In one hand he was holding mine, in his other hand he held his GPS receiver. I occasionally caught a glimpse of the illuminated display as he moved onwards. The storm was worsening, though, and I felt sure we couldn't get all the way down off the mountain safely in these conditions.

All of a sudden Gary stopped and crouched down behind a dry stone wall, sheltering from the worst of the blizzard. I joined him hunkered down in the lee of the wall. He called:

“Give me your emergency blanket!”

So I swung my rucksack off my shoulders and took the little package from the zipped side pocket. He took it and unfolded the thin foil insulating material, holding it tight to keep the wind from taking it. He crabbed along the wall a few feet and disappeared through a hole in the wall into what looked like a dark cave. Moments later he was back without the blanket.

“Follow me in,” he shouted, “and pass me your sleeping bag.”

I crouched and half-crawled through the hole and found myself in a small square room formed from four sides of dry stone walling about three feet high and a crazy roof made of logs, corrugated iron sheets and turf far too low to stand under. Parts of the roof had long since given way so the snow had piled up below the holes but there was enough roof left to form an effective shelter from the storm in one corner of the little room. Here Gary had spread out the foil blanket on the ground and he motioned for me to sit next to him on it.

“This is an old sheepfold the shepherds used to use in winter. We'll stay here for the night, and in the morning the storm may have blown itself out, and we can walk back down easily. Are you alright?”

He didn't need to shout, the noise of the wind and snow was less inside the ramshackle old structure.

“I'm okay but I'm getting cold!” I replied.

He nodded and I thought he was about to speak again, but instead he slid his rucksack off his back and pulled the walkie-talkie I'd seen him use earlier from a mesh pocket.

“Gary to base. Can you hear me?”

“Base here. Clear signal. Are you alright?” The tinny loudspeaker distorted the voice and Gary turned down the volume a little.

“We're fine. We're at Donald's Pen. We'll stay here until the storm blows out or until daylight and we'll walk down then. I'll call you again at 8am.”

“Okay Gary, take care and we'll see you at the Poet when you get down.”

“Good one, Stephen. 'Bye!”

Gary waited a moment in case there was a further reply and then turned the radio off. I'd felt considerable relief hearing the voice on the radio and knowing that we were not out of touch with civilisation, and now that lifeline was cut off again I felt very alone. I looked across to Gary and was surprised to see that he looked strained. The sparkle had gone out of his eyes and he looked spent. He saw me looking at him and frowned.

“We'll have to ward off hypothermia. Take off your boots.”

I was getting used to obeying orders without question because I took off my boots and he did the same. Then he really took me by surprise.

“Come closer.” he commanded.

I shuffled across the foil until we were sat next to each other. He grabbed the sleeping bag from me and fed his feet into the neck of the bag.

“You too!” he commanded and I put my feet in.

Now he slid the bag up our legs until he couldn't get it any higher.

“Hold me close!” he said.

When I didn't respond, trying to make sense of what he'd just said, he leaned across me and wrapped me in a bear-hug. His mouth just an inch or two from my ear, he spoke through gritted teeth: “Hold me close, I said.”

I put my arms around him and there we were, hugging each other in a blizzard in the dark on the slopes of Helvellyn.

Once we were wrapped together, Gary wriggled the sleeping bag higher and higher until we were fully in the bag. He tightened the drawstring at the top a little and pulled my now half-empty rucksack under the sleeping bag opening so we could use it as a pillow.

“Are you comfy?” he asked.

“Mm, yes I guess.” I replied.

A broad grin was spreading across my face, I couldn't help it and I knew he couldn't see so I didn't try to suppress it. I closed my eyes.

“It's the best way to keep warm when you've got to sleep. Otherwise hypothermia can take over and you go to sleep and never wake up. This way we benefit from each other's body heat. You don't mind, do you?”

“No since you put it that way.” I said, resisting the urge to giggle.

“Okay, so get some sleep. We'll see what the weather's doing in the morning.”

Despite my exhaustion, I didn't fall asleep straight away. Well I've never been in such a situation before – hugging a cute studly guy in a sleeping bag in a blizzard up a mountain. So I lay there hoping I wasn't keeping him awake. I thought he'd gone to sleep, his breathing became very regular. But a few minutes later he spoke.

“So, you're gay, right?”

“Whaa..?” I did my rabbit-caught-in-headlights impression again.

“Okay, okay, I'm sorry. Forget I asked that. Bad idea, considering our position just now. Just don't freak out on me okay? I'm sorry.”

When I felt it was safe to try speaking, I tried a question.

“Er... What made you think I was gay?”

“Well, I've done this lots of times in training with most of the guys on the team and I find straight men get freaked by it and they go very rigid. They can't relax hugging another man like this. But when I hugged you, you hugged me back. That's cool – it's what you're supposed to do – maximum body-to-body contact to preserve heat. But I just hoped you might be gay. Up to now, I'm the only gay guy on the team and it gets a bit lonely seeing the guys with their wives and girlfriends, or listening to some of the stories they tell. But I'm cool – I'm sorry, I won't bring the subject up again.”

This was a lot to take in and I took my time over it. Gary had just told me he was gay and he hoped I was gay too. I on the other hand had as good as denied it. Typical. You have to know I'm not 'out' to anybody. Not even to Claire who knows me as well as anyone. Dammit I'd only come out to myself just recently. Maybe I'm a late developer but I really didn't accept that I was gay until about six months ago, and now this fantastic, heroic guy just told me matter-of-factly that he's gay.

“Well, I'm gay too.” I almost whispered. But he heard me. Cheek to cheek, stubble to stubble, my mouth was so close to his ear he couldn't help but hear me. And he hugged me a little tighter. But neither of us said anything more until first he and then I fell asleep.

Day 4

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