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A Snowmobile and a Prayer

After falling into an icy crevasse, a snowmobiler relies on hope and faith to get a rescue.

Opening the blinds early that morning, I wondered if I’d be able to catch a glimpse of Mount Baker 40 miles away. The 10,000-foot peak dominates the Nooksack River Valley. At least it does on the days when you can see it. Western Washington isn’t known for its clear skies. Even in late May, clouds can sometimes shroud the landscape for weeks at a time. But that morning, the view looked postcard-perfect.

All spring Chad Gruizenga, a part-time employee at my company, Pacific Pumping, had been after me to join him for a snowmobile run on Mount Baker. “I know you’ve got the world on your shoulders, Marv,” he’d say with a smile. “But you need to put it all down for a day and just have some fun.”

Chad had a point. But I had a company to run, plus my wife, Rachelle, and our three kids to worry about. Keeping things operating smoothly at work and at home took most of my time. I didn’t resent my responsibilities. I liked being in charge, but I barely had time for church on Sunday, so I really didn’t have time to go out and play.

Finally, though, I’d given in to Chad. That day we bundled up and hit the range of glaciers that make up much of Mount Baker. By 10 o’clock, we unloaded a pair of Ski-Doo High Marks—large, powerful snowmobiles that can go as fast as 80 miles per hour—from my pickup truck just south of the mountain. We fired them up and tore down the trail like a couple of kids set loose from school on a snow day.

Halfway to the glaciers I started sweating profusely in my helmet and ski jacket. It was getting really uncomfortable. I motioned to Chad to stop.

“This sun is hot. I think I’m gonna stow some of this gear.”

“Good idea,” said Chad. “We can pick it up on the way back.”

Chad and I tucked our gloves and helmets away behind a big hummock of snow that would be easy to locate on our return trip. I was about to ditch my jacket too, but at the last moment stuck it under my seat instead. The compartment there was empty except for a can of Mountain Dew, and the ride home later might get chilly. Soon we hit the glaciers and started to climb. Far above us, we could see wisps of steam rising from Sherman Crater. The crater was several miles up, but in the dazzling white terrain it looked just a stone’s throw away.

Not many snowmobilers venture all the way up to the crater. Too dangerous. The higher you go, the greater the threat of crevasses—deep cracks in the ice that can swallow a snowmobile and rider whole. Crevasses are especially hazardous when they get covered by a thin crust of snow. To travel that high on the mountain meant risking an encounter with one of these camouflaged traps—and that kind of foolhardiness definitely wasn’t my style.

Yet as I squinted at that distant column of steam, I couldn’t help thinking how much fun it would be to see it up close. After all, this was a day for cutting loose.

“Hey, Chad,” I yelled. “Come on. Let’s make a run for the crater.”

Chad grinned. “You read my mind.”

Engines roaring, we charged side by side up the glacier. My ears popped as we climbed the slope into the thin mountain air. After 20 minutes of hard riding, Chad waved for me to stop.

“I think we need to turn back,” he said. “It’s too far, and I’m getting nervous about crevasses.”

Chad was the daredevil. As his boss and his senior by more than a decade, my role was to be the sensible one. But not today. I looked him right in the eye. “Hey, I thought we were gonna have some fun.”

Chad rose to the challenge without hesitation. “Now you’re talking. Let’s do it.”

Chad shot off and I revved up to follow. As my treads bit into the snow, I felt the sled sink a few inches. That was no big deal. A sled this heavy often dug in a little before grabbing. I revved again and sank farther. What the . . .

The engine screamed. Bluish ice walls flashed by. I let go of the handlebars and started free falling. Then I smashed onto something rock hard.

Stunned from the impact, I lay totally still. I’m in a crevasse! I must’ve stopped right on top of one.

I’d landed on a narrow ledge of ice. To my left the crevasse continued down—seemingly forever. About 15 feet above me my snowmobile was jammed lengthwise between the narrow walls.

If that thing breaks loose, it’ll take me with it. I’ve got to get out of the way.

The second I budged, my shoulders exploded with pain. But I had to move from under that sled. Inch by inch I worked my way along the narrow shelf of ice. In a few minutes I was clear.

Now what? Sheer walls stretched up to a small chink of blue sky—maybe 60 feet above. The surface is too rough for Chad to trace my tracks. He’ll never see the spot where I fell in.

“Help! Help!” I screamed, my voice echoing weirdly in the vast icy chasm. Then I stopped, realizing just how pointless it was. Crevasses are known to play tricks with sound. My voice would travel straight up, then die when it hit the surface. Even if Chad got help, someone could be standing 10 feet from the opening and not hear me.

I’m going to die down here! I panicked. They’ll search for a few days, but eventually they’ll have to give up. I imagined the mountain patrol coming to our house and Rachelle answering the door. “We’re doing everything we can, ma’am. But you have to understand, people who fall into crevasses are rarely found….”

I was supposed to be the one in charge, the one who took care of things. But now I was trapped. And I had all the time in the world to think about the pain my disappearance would cause.

Lord, I know I’m probably done for. I realize I brought this on myself, but I can’t bear to think of what my family is going to go through.

As I prayed, I kept my eyes on that tiny patch of sky far above me. It looked no bigger than a postage stamp, but it seemed to hold the whole world—my job, my friends and most of all, my family. As long as that hole is open, there’s hope. But the snow’s going to cover it over before long.

Slowly, the little window of sky took on the deep blue of afternoon, and the walls of my ice chamber grew dimmer. My mind slowed. I’d been shivering uncontrollably for a long time, and hypothermia was probably setting in.

I looked up at my snowmobile, still wedged between the walls of ice. I remembered my jacket and the can of Mountain Dew under the seat. With the warmth from the jacket and the calories from the soda, I knew that I could keep going a little longer.

I’ve got to make it to the sled. I’ve got to try to stay alive!

My shoulders still throbbed, and the ice walls were sheer and slick. If only there were some footholds. I slipped my folding knife from its case on my belt and chipped away at the ice in front of me. A few minutes later I had a hole big enough for my toe.

In half an hour I’d managed to chisel and climb my way all the way up to the sled. I threw my weight against it. It was solidly wedged, so I climbed on. The seat compartment was jammed shut. I sliced open the vinyl and reached inside. Moments later I had my coat on and was gulping down the Mountain Dew. I felt a little strength returning.

I looked up at the patch of sky. I had scarcely gotten any closer to it, and from there on upward the walls were too far apart for me to climb.

This is it, Lord. Soon it’ll be night, and the hole will close over. I’ll be sealed here forever. There’s nothing more I can do. You’re completely in charge.

As I prayed those words, a funny thing happened. The terrible feeling of powerlessness that had tormented me all afternoon suddenly vanished. I knew that no matter what happened to me, Rachelle and the kids would be okay.

God was with them, as he was with me. If it was his will that I get out of there, then I would. God had always been the one in charge, not me. I’d somehow just allowed myself to forget it. With that realization, an incredible sense of peace overcame me.

I closed my eyes and quickly slipped into a deep sleep.

I awakened to absolute darkness. The hole must have closed over. But as my vision slowly adjusted, I began to make out something up there above me. Stars! It’s still open.

“Marv? Marv, are you down there?”

Flashlight beams began playing along the walls of the crevasse.

“Yeah! I’m here—I’m here!” I croaked feebly. Exhaustion and dehydration had done a number on my vocal cords. What if they couldn’t hear me?

“Here, here!” Again, all I could manage was a pathetic half-whisper.

Then came three indescribably wonderful words: “We hear you!”

A rescue worker with a flashlight lowered himself by a rope into the hole and rappelled down to me. In a moment we were face to face. “You are very lucky, my friend,” he said.

“No,” I said, “I’m very blessed.”

A sling was fastened beneath my arms, and I felt myself rising from the icy pit I had thought would be my tomb. Soon I’d be back to my old life, but with a difference. I’d never again forget who, at every moment, is really in charge.

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