Chet Kelly hated the cold and hated snow even more. The only thing that could draw him to a local ski resort was a woman. And what a woman she was. Big Red, an exotic dancer, had revealed a passion for snow skiing, inviting Chet to join her at Sky Valley resort for his four off-duty days. He had visions of a roaring fire and snuggling together to keep warm.
The two lane blacktop curved up and around the mountain. There were deep ravines falling away from the edge of the pavement. Snow was falling softly, tiny flakes that stuck to Chet's VW bus. He could remember hearing his father calling snow like that sneaky and more likely to stick than the big fat flakes.
He would be glad when he got to the resort. His heater wasn't working right. As Chet shivered, he glanced at the map provided by his lady friend.
"Man, I could really use a cup of coffee," he said aloud.
As Chet came around the next hairpin turn, he hit a patch of black ice. The van's well-worn tires couldn't grip the road. The vehicle began sliding to the edge of the road. Nothing Chet did or didn't do changed his direction. There were no guardrails to halt his progress. With no one around to see, the VW, Chet trapped inside, went off the road, sliding down the steep ravine and crashing through the thick brush. The van slowly rotated until Chet was heading down head first. The vehicle hit a tree trunk head-on, slamming Chet against the steering wheel.
Silence settled around the wrecked vehicle, an unconscious Chet jammed painfully under the crushed front of the van. The snow began falling faster and thicker, beginning to coat the vehicle as the heat from the engine dissipated.
"Ohhhhhh," the stocky firefighter groaned as he slowly came back to consciousness. He looked around blearily, trying to pull himself out of the van. He screamed in pain, passing out once again. The darkness fell around the crumpled bus as the temperature began to fall.
It was hours later before Chet opened his eyes once again. This time he didn't move other than checking his injuries. A large bump on his forehead and a pounding headache implied a concussion. The agony in the lower part of his body was almost bad enough to make him scream again as he carefully felt around his pelvis area.
It wasn't long before Chet realized that he had broken his hip. It would mean no way could he crawl out of the vehicle and make his way to the top of the ravine. Exhaling shakily, Chet listened for noise from the road above, but there was only silence.
He tried to use the horn. There was no sound. The damage to the front of the van had destroyed both the headlights and the horn. Chet leaned over carefully, trying to see out the car window, now a spiderweb of fractured glass. He would estimate that he was around 150 feet from the top of the ravine. It would take a miracle for anyone to hear or see him, nestled among the trees and brush.
Freezing, Chet tried to find something to cover himself with. His luggage was in the back of the van, out of his reach. He was wearing only a light jacket to drive in. He looked around, then up at the roof of the vehicle. Frowning, Chet reached carefully into his pocket, the movement bringing tears to his eyes.
He pulled out his pocket knife, a gift from his friend and fellow firefighter, Marco Lopez. He opened the knife and began cutting the lining from the interior roof, reaching as far as he could to cut a large area. He was forced to stop when the pain became overwhelming.
Finally Chet had a large piece of material. He wrapped it around himself like a blanket. He would have to survive the night and hope that Big Red would report him missing the next morning.
It was a long night for Chet, the combination of the cold and the pain of his injuries causing his sleep to be intermittent. Shivering from the cold, Chet knew he needed to make more heat. He hadn't smelled any gasoline, so he decided to take a chance and try to make a fire. He would need to be very careful.
Chet felt around the seats, finding an engineer's manual and grinned. "Alright!" he crowed. "I can do this." He found his lighter and carefully placed it on the dashboard of the van. He ripped the paper out and shoved it into a bowl-shaped piece of metal debris from the passenger door. He lit the paper and sighed as it caught fire. He enjoyed the slight warming of the surrounding air and turned to his next concern: water.
During his search for fuel, he had felt an old bottle that used to hold soda. It was empty now, but could be used to contain snow which could be melted to drink. He never knew having a dirty van could be a lifesaver. A typical bachelor vehicle, it caught a little bit of everything.
Chet pulled the bottle out and carefully used it to break the shattered window , needed to scoop up some snow. He wasn't thrilled about removing another barrier against the snow, but he would need water, if not now, soon.
Once the 8 ounce bottle was filled with relatively clean snow, Chet held it over the burning paper. It didn't take long for the snow to melt and he set the bottle aside to allow the water to cool once again before drinking it.
"Now I need food." There was a bag of munchies in the rear of the van, but it might as well have been at the resort for all the chance that Chet had in reaching it. He held his freezing fingers near the fire, putting more pages from the manual into the makeshift fireplace.
Continuing to search, Chet found packets of taco sauce and ketchup in the glove compartment. Under the seat was a half-eaten pretzel. "Beggers can't be choosy," he muttered, putting it to the side for later consumption if needed.
Using the rearview mirror, Chet checked the seat behind him for more goodies. He would have liked to have ripped the seat open for more cover, but there was no way to reach back that far. He could use the broken stickshift to reach the bag of potato chips he could see.
The agony when Chet would forget his injuries and move too fast or too far was overwhelming. At first, the Irishman tried to be stoic, but soon he realized that no one could hear him scream. It didn't help with the pain, but it seemed to make him feel better to express it.
Time passed, how much Chet wasn't sure. It seemed like days, it seemed like minutes, but soon the darkness was returning and still no one had been heard up on the road.
"Looks like I'll be here another night," Chet said aloud. The sound of his own voice was strangely comforting.
Chet continued making water from the snow as night fell again. He began ripping the upholstery from the seat around him, using the stuffing to pack under his makeshift blanket from the roof.
The temperature was still dropping, the snow becoming so thick that it was beginning to cover the VW van. Although it was becoming colder, the snow was also insulating the vehicle. It and the small fire that generated heat in the van helped keep Chet from freezing.
Unfortunately, his feet were not so well protected. The floorboards had ripped open, his right foot hanging through the hole. He knew there was a good chance of frostbite, but there was nothing he could do as he couldn't reach down to cover his feet up. "Can't dwell on what can't be helped. Gotta stay workin' on surviving another night."
Chet dozed off, his fire slowly dying. He would hear voices and jerk awake, listening intently to the night, only to realize that he was dreaming. So it went during the second night in the ravine.
Another day passed, Chet eating slowly from the packets of sauce, spread carefully over his stale pretzel. It wasn't much, but after being without food for two days, it tasted like ambrosia to the firefighter.
Twice he heard cars and shouted for help, but they were too far away and moved too quickly for him to be heard.
Chet began to wonder if his girlfriend had even reported him missing. It was possible that she might have assumed he had stood her up and never said a word. If that was true, it wouldn't be until he didn't report to work that anyone would begin to suspect that he was missing and possibly in trouble.
Throughout the day, Chet dozed off, only to come suddenly awake, his heart pounding. He became weaker and weaker, the pain becoming unbearable. His shivering was draining and irritated both his head and his hip by the constant movement.
Alone and scared, Chet felt his eyes filling with tears. "Oh, God, please don't let me die here."
Once he was calm again, Chet used the broken stickshift to feel around under the car seat, hoping to find something else that might be helpful to his situation. He was rewarded by a can of V-8 rolling out from under the seat. It took him some time to maneuver it to within his reach.
The thick mixture of tomato juice and other vegetables was the best thing Chet could remember drinking. He savored every drop, sipping carefully. When he finished the can, he poured melted snow into the can and drank the contents.
Night came once more. Chet began to wonder if he would ever be found.
When the shouts came, Chet was certain he was dreaming again. Dull-eyed, he watched the flicker of flashlights among the trees and shrubbery. As the sound of cars and people came closer, he thought he could hear his favorite Pigeon, John Gage. "Hey, man, I really'd rather dream of women than you, Gage."
He soon realized that the noise didn't disappear like it usually did. Taking a chance, Chet began shouting for help. He also started hitting the stickshift against the metal parts of the van. "Hey! Somebody, help me! Hello?"
"Chet?" The noise sounded like a barely controlled fall, but the voice was unmistakable.
"Gage! Down here!"
"I'm comin', Chet! Hang on, I'm comin'!"
The van rocked as Johnny slammed into it.
"Watch it, Gage!"
Johnny stuck his head in the window and grinned. "Hey, buddy, how ya doin'?"
Chet grinned back. "Been better. Think you could pinch me? I wanna make sure I'm not dreaming."
Johnny lightly pinched Chet on the arm before shouting orders for over his shoulder for the equipment he would need. "You're dreaming of me now, Kelly? That's a scary thought."
"Tell me about it. Johnny, I think my hip is broken."
Johnny felt carefully around Chet's lower torso. "Yep, I'd say that's a possibility."
The actual extraction of Chet from the van was a blur of pain and blackouts for the injured man. By the time he could process what was being said to him, he was in Rampart General Hospital.
Head Nurse Dixie McCall was leaning over him, smiling. "Welcome back, Chet."
"Nothing gets by Kelly," came Johnny's voice from the other side of the room.
Chet slowly turned his head, pleased that there was no pain. The paramedic was leaning against the far wall, his arms crossed. "Rampart's a long way...from the wreck."
"The local hospital wasn't equipped to fix your hip, so we volunteered," Dixie explained.
"Okay. What's the damage?" Chet swallowed deeply. "My...feet?"
"Some minor frostbite, no permanent damage. You'll be going to surgery in about an hour to correct your hip. You have a mild concussion as well. All in all, you were lucky."
Chet relaxed, sighing. "Thank heavens."
"Thank Johnny," Dixie said.
"Uh, Dix, that's okay. I think we should..."
"What do you mean, thank Gage?"
"Dixie," Johnny tried again.
"When your girlfriend called him to find you, Johnny insisted that she call the local cops. When they refused to take it seriously, he went up there himself to search for you. You'd probably still be up there if he hadn't gone out on his own."
Chet looked at Johnny who grinned sheepishly and shrugged. The prone firefighter nodded back.
"Men!" Dixie stomped off. "I will never understand you two. I'll be back to get you prepped for surgery in five minutes."
"Gotta run, Kelly. Leave the nurses alone." Johnny pushed himself off the wall. I'm glad you're going to be okay, buddy.
"Afraid I'll cut you out? Catch you later, Gage." Thanks for looking for me, pal.
The two men smiled at each other, content with the subtext conversation that only they would understand.
Note: This is based on a true story regarding West Virginia Volunteer EMT Robert Ward who survived over a week in freezing temperatures before being found by his department just as he was about to give up.