Christian Welton shoved his ski pole up the snow cave's air vent. He'd spent much of the night clearing snow from the shaft. Not that he was complaining. This cramped shelter on Mount Hood had saved his and his cousin's lives.
He glanced at Owen Slayter, who lay inside a sleeping bag. A foam pad kept the bottom of the bag dry from the snow beneath. The right side of Owen's face was swollen, bruised and cut. Dried blood coated his mouth. Superficial injuries.
Owen needed to be in the hospital with his multiple fractures. A helicopter rescue would be the fastest way off the mountain, but that hadn't been possible due to the weather.
Until help arrived, Christian would do whatever it took to keep them alive. That meant making sure Owen didn't go into shock or become hypothermic.
The inside temperature was approximately thirty-two degrees, practically balmy compared to the biting late-November cold. Christian listened, but couldn't hear anything outside the snow cave. He preferred the eerie quiet to the roar of wind as the storm unleashed its wrath yesterday.
For all he knew, Mother Nature had taken pity upon them, and the storm had passed overnight. A break in the weather would allow a rescue mission to be launched.
Time to find out if their luck had changed.
Christian slid off the raised sleeping platform. He wanted to see blue sky. He'd settle for gray as long as the wind and snowfall had died down.
At the entrance, he removed one of the backpacks covering the opening. Hope vanished in an instant.
Talk about an arctic hell. Seventy miles per hour winds, freezing temperature and zero visibility. He pushed aside the other backpack and peeked out. Each breath stung his lungs.
Disappointment shot straight to his cold toes. Helicopters wouldn't be flying today. No one would dare risk these conditions in the air or on foot.
Dammit. Christian's blood pressure rose to match his anxiety level.
Stupid dead cell phone battery. The thing was worthless. Useless. He hated not knowing what was going on down below or when help might arrive. If only
Don't go there.
He had to concentrate on what was in his control. Anything else would only aggravate him more. Maybe upset him enough to make a bad decision.
Outside the cave, he struggled against the wind. He wiped snow from his neonorange based skiscrossed in an X to mark the snow caveso they would be visible to rescuers either from the air or ground should the weather suddenly improve.
Christian ducked inside the cave. He covered the entrance with the backpacks.
A chill shivered through him. His legs shook. He slapped his thighs with gloved hands.
What he wouldn't give for a steaming cup of hot cocoa right now. No whipped cream, but little marshmallows floating on the top.
Christian glanced at his cousin. Fantasizing wasn't going to get it done.
Time to melt some snow. Both he and Owen needed water to drink. Eating snow decreased body temperature and would allow hypothermia to set in quicker.
Carbon monoxide poisoning from using Owen's stove inside the snow cave wasn't a big concern to Christian. Space between the packs, the vent and the wind outside allowed enough air movement and ventilation inside. But he still cleared the vent a couple times while the snow melted to make sure. He didn't want to take any chances.
With enough snow melted, he turned off the fuel then filled a water bottle. He climbed to where his cousin lay, careful not to sit too tall or he'd hit his head. Christian had been in such a rush to carve out the cave and get Owen out of the storm that he hadn't made the cave that big.
"Thirsty?" he asked.
As Owen blinked open his eyes, a grimace formed on his face. "Storm pass?"
His cousin's voice sounded hoarse, raw, like a wild animal. An injured, dying animal.
Christian's insides twisted.
Not dying. Owen was hurting. That was all. He'd groaned in pain through the night. Given his injuries a normal response. Both of them would get off this mountain and be climbing again. Not this season for Owen, but eventually he'd be back at it with Christian at his side. Or rather on his rope.
"The weather still sucks." Christian was a firefighter, used to running into burning buildings and saving people, not having to wait for someone to rescue him. He hated not being able to do more than keep his cousin warm and give him water to drink and energy bars to eat. "But people know where we are."
Owen cleared his throat. "OMSAR will find us."
He sounded stronger, confident they would be rescued.
Christian respected what OMSAROregon Mountain Search and Rescuedid. Helping others when things went wrong appealed to him at a gut level. It was one reason he became a firefighter. He also loved being on a team where everyone watched each other's back and were equals.
Christian wasn't an equal of OMSAR. The mountain rescuer volunteers' skills far surpassed his own. He couldn't wait for them to arrive and get Owen out of here. But this storm would stop even the hardest of the hard men.
Still Christian knew Paulson and Thomas would get here when they could. They weren't only mountain rescuers, but firefighters. Part of the brotherhood. As soon as it was safe, they'd be here. No doubt Thomas would give Christian an earful, as usual. This time, however, he would gladly listen.
"Yes, they will," he said finally. Once the weather improved, OMSAR would know exactly where to locate them. Christian had given the 911 operator their GPS coordinates before his cell phone died. "Even if OMSAR doesn't make it up here today, we have all we need. Sleeping bag, bivy sacks, food, fuel for the stove and my wonderful bedside manner."
One side of Owen's dry and cut lips lifted in something that half resembled a smile. "You sound more like a mountaineer than a rock climber."
Christian straightened. His head brushed the ceiling. "That was the point of this climb."
"Then we succeeded." Owen had been climbing mountains since high school. Christian preferred rock climbing, but Owen thought it stupid to live on Mount Hood and not be able to climb it. Since spring, the two had climbed together throughout the Cascades. "I've always learned more from my failures."
"Then I should be an expert alpinist when we get down."
Owen laughed. Coughed.
Christian wished he could do more to help his cousin. Maybe there was something. When the rescuers arrived, they would need room to work. He reached for the shovel. "I'm going to make this place bigger. It's claustrophobic in here."
"Most snow caves are," Owen said. "Don't bother. You soaked through your clothes digging this out. You can't get your spare ones wet, too."
"If the snow settles"
"We won't be here that long."
Christian wanted Owen to be right. At least he was more alert. Talkative. Both were good signs after a restless and fitful night.
A little tension released from Christian's tight shoulders. "No worries. Remember, I'm one of Hood Hamlet Fire and Rescue's finest. Strong. Brave."
"Full of it." Owen winced. He squeezed his eyes closed then opened them slowly. "Save the firefighter shtick for the pretty ladies. I got one word. Hypothermia."
"That would suck."
"Damn straight," Owen agreed. "If something happens to you, there won't be anyone to brew water and feed me."
"Yeah, letting you go thirsty and starve wouldn't endear me to your parents."
"Grandpa would be really mad at you, too."
Their grandfather, the patriarch of the Welton clan, would never forgive him. Christian was persona non grata anyway and would remain so until he moved home and embraced his role at Welton Wineries. That wasn't going to happen because of the terms his grandfather attached to whatever carrot he dangled. If Christian ever returned, he wanted it to be on his terms, no one else's.
He forced a smile. "Grandma wouldn't be too happy, either."
"And my sisters. And yours."
Owen's teasing was another good sign, but Christian couldn't deny the truth in the words. He dropped the shovel. "Okay, I'll wait."
Taking care of Owen was the most important thing Christian could do. His family, especially his grandfather, might even see that becoming a firefighter had been a smart decision. Not simply a way to put off working at the winery.
"Thanks." Owen closed his eyes again. "Welton Winery will go on now."
"Yeah." Their grandfather claimed the future of Welton Winery rested in Christian's and Owen's hands. Never mind Christian had other goals that didn't include just the winery and living in the Willamette Valley. But familymake that his grandfather'sexpectations overruled individual dreams. Or so they were taught to believe. "Whether we want it or not."
Owen took a slow, deep breath.
Christian cleared the air vent again.
"Sorry for getting you into this." Owen sounded weaker once again.
"Hey, we're in this together." Christian had suggested they climb. His cousin had picked the objective. "No cutting the rope. No blaming each other. No losing it."
No matter how long they were stuck or how bad things got up here.
Things were bad up here. Driving winds limited visibility. The temperature remained in the low teens. The conditions weren't fit for man or beast. Yet here she was.
Leanne Thomas sniffled, her nose runny from the cold temperature. Her breath sounded against the ski mask covering her face. A layer of ice covered her goggles and clothing. Ice probably covered her pack, filled with forty-odd pounds of gear and medical equipment.
But the only other place she wanted to be right now was higher on the mountain. At 10,500 feet to be exact. The approximate location...