Monster Behind The Masks

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Chapter 12


What a planet we live on. Picturesque!

That’s what struck me at the top of the challenging run I was about to tackle. I admired the horizon. Majestic snow-capped peaks were plotted around. I felt small in comparison. Below lay the distant valley, where our rented alpine apartment was located. From this distance, it resembled a Lego piece.

I soaked in nature’s wonders—then pushed off. I hurtled down the snowy mountain. Cassidy’s skis proved to be a good luck charm, rather than a bad omen. I floated, performing badass turns through the soft bumps.

Over a snowy crest, I spotted Pierre taking a rest while drinking the surreal beauty. Coming to a quick stop beside him, I sent a heap of snow over his skis and sprayed his face. A smile became visible as he scraped the snow off. Skiing was the best medicine for both of us.

“Just like riding a bike, hey babe?” Pierre was at his personal best. The fresh air and exercise brought out his happy smile. The nervous energy of losing our girls seemed to fuel his rhythm on the slopes, as he bashed the bumps with no less agility than a teenager.

“I feel great, and look at you, showing off for your petit fils, hey?” I playfully punched him on the shoulder as he smiled into the sunshine. Spools of sun washed his face. The wind picked up, offering gentle and swift snow twirls between the twin peaks.

“Our boy has no fear, gotta say. But he also has no form.” Pierre laughed.

I followed Pierre’s eyes, which were focused up the trail. Admiration lay in them. “Here he comes! We should ask if he wants us to take a video.” Pierre suggested, pride softening his tone.

But Jared didn’t stop. “Wow, you’re both ripping it up!” the boy screamed as he blasted past us, his open jacket rippling in the wind.

The flow of my mountain mojo was steady at first, rusty from neglect. But by day three in the French Alps, I was confident in all the steeps again. Jared flew down a steep 45-degree edge, jumped off a cornice and landed into a narrow, steep gorge somewhere beyond our field of vision.

The wind strengthened. What started as gentle snow twirls turned into fierce snow drifts coming off the steepest ridge, then again, a minor snow slide. Intense, then subtle. Suddenly, the smaller slide appeared to trigger the entire slope.

“Holy crap!” yelled Pierre. “Anna, did …did you hear those explosives going off all night?”

“The dynamite blasts? Sure, even after stuffing earplugs deep into my ears.” I instantly remembered last night’s Les Arcs newsflash over the TV:

Heavy snowfall is good news for skiers! Our avalanche control team will be working all night to assure your safety! Potential instability has been forecast over Aiguille Rouges, so take precautionary measures…”

Aiguille Rouges. That’s where we’re skiing now. Jared turned down the steepest lip.

Pierre piped in, “I heard more than dynamite, there were choppers overhead bombing the mountain, working to redistribute heavy snowpack up there.” He pointed to the highest elevation, to a huge mound of snow hovering precariously on the highest peak—just above where Jared went.

A ski patrol came flying from nowhere, “people, listen—you’re off-piste here. We need you to move towards the ski-lifts. Please start moving left toward the Combe des Lanchettes area.” His gaze moved upward, at the mass of snowpack Pierre mentioned. By now the wind was mighty, tossing ice pellets into our faces.

“But…but our thirteen-year-old grandson skied down that way!” I shouted, pointing at the steep bump run directly off the heavy snowpack hanging off the upper slope.

“That area’s closed! Nobody should be skiing there!” The ski-patrol barked, not getting the point, bound in bubbly winter clothing with his eyes darting from slope to slope.

“It wasn’t closed when he turned down that way!” Rage found my voice as fear festered in my gut.

Other ski patrols posted ‘Closed Area’ signs all along the ridge of the steep narrow valley Jared had skied down.

“Oh my God, why didn’t you people close it sooner?” I screamed at the ski patrol, my fists clenching and heart racing.

Other ski patrols gathered, and in unison backed up the lone guy getting cursed by two frightened people who have already lost their daughters to horrific tragedies.

Like a pack of wolves, they each roared at us, “you must move towards safety! Please, ski left towards the lifts. Now!”

I watched in horror as a huge wall of snow broke loose from the highest peak. It crashed down across the slope towards the ridgeline we stood on. My stomach sank. Before reaching us, it veered towards the slope Jared skied. It moved with haste and aggression, taking with it rocks, ice and heavy wet snow. It wouldn’t stop, and nothing could stop it. Gasps and cries echoed in the air.

It was as if a zipper was being ripped open. Then came a loud hissing sound, like air released from a bag and a blanket dragged across sand simultaneously.

Someone tugged at my jacket, “Anna, come on, we have to move fast!” Pierre was dragging me, yanking me, our skis crossing in a tangle of frantic madness. “Come on, Bebe! We need to go!” he panted.

I screamed with all I had in my lungs and as loud as my vocals would permit, cupping my hands to propel my words as far as possible, “Jared! Jared!”

Now my survivor instinct kicked in and I skated with my skis, pushed off with my poles as hard and fast as conditions allowed. The avalanche rumbled in my ears, crashing down the steepest vertical terrain toward where our grandchild so bravely entered. I repeatedly turned around as if I’d see Jared pushing through the violent snow drift.

But there was no Jared. There was nothing but a total white-out of thundering, ruthless, never-ending rolls of heavy snow.

We sat in the ski lodge, our appetites stolen by stress. Time ticked slowly. Minutes were long and filled with anxiousness. An hour dripped by without any news of survivors—or fatalities for that matter. It was painful watching the three TV screens, with coverage alternating from national to Les Arcs News.

France 24 Live headline:

No known fatalities after avalanche hits popular French ski resort

Les Arcs News headline:

A spontaneous avalanche hit Les Arcs. Search and rescue teams have been working in droves, clearing the area of debris

One screen showed rescue dogs sniffing out the snow. God almighty. Where’s Jared?

Pierre paced in front of the TV screens, attempting to walk off his worry. But there weren’t enough miles in the world. His steps seized and his head swiveled as someone said, “I heard the impact of the snow against the trees slowed the avalanche down a little at the entrance of the lower half of Aiguille Rouge…”

Someone else responded, “That’s what I heard, the snowdrift slowed at the mouth of that steep trail used during the Albertville Olympics.”

The trail Jared went down. I cast my gaze towards Pierre, who listened intently. There’s hope!

Les Arcs News continued:

A structural failure in the snowpack triggered a slab avalanche. It’s been impossible for rescue helicopters to get close to the gorge most affected. What we do know, is that the avalanche had possibly engulfed five skiers. They may be trapped.

My heart sank; I gripped Pierre’s hand. He remained wordless but squeezed so tight my hand numbed. Dear God, you took my daughters, please don’t take my grandson.

We sat, silently. Two hours passed. Three hours. Nothing. Every new hour brought the possibility of information and restored my hope. But by the end of that hour, my hope fizzled away, hour by hour.

The voices from the TV screen seemed mechanical, a blur, the BBC reporter announcing, “According to regional emergency officials, several snowmobiles are running up and down the trail of the scene. No victims have been found…”

A voice shrieked aside me, “The warning level was raised to a five earlier this morning, and they had that entire area closed! Why the fuck did they reopen it?”

I shook off the negativity, knowing as a lifelong skier, we cannot hold the ski resort liable. I just prayed. That’s all anyone in these unfortunate situations can do.

My cell pinged earlier, and I ignored it thinking I had no wish to hear from friends right now. Something made me check messages. There was a text. From Jared!

Grand-mere! Grand-pere!

“Oh my God, Pierre, look! With trembling hands, I flashed the cell phone in front of him.

“Well, answer, damn it!” he ordered. All eyes in the ski lodge fell on us.

I texted Jared back:

Where RU? Are U ok?

The boy responded:

I’m the only one with cell reception, there’s 5 of us

That’s it? I frantically tried to call Jared’s cell, and it went straight to voicemail. I texted:

Where R the 5 of U?

No response. I took deep breaths, hoping it would stay my patience. Now time moved even slower. I watched my cell obsessively. Every sound, no matter how loud or quiet, had me jumping, checking the phone. But nothing.

A young man attired in a starched blue shirt with a Les Arcs Paradiski label wandered by and I practically knocked him down with nerves. He spoke briefly with a guest before I could say my piece: “Excusez-moi, mon petit-fils de 13 ans a été pris dans l’avalanche, et m’a envoyé un texto! Il est avec 4 autres skieurs.”

Excuse me, my 13-year-old grandson got caught in the avalanche, and just texted me! He’s with 4 other skiers.”

His eyes widened. He burst out, “A-t-il dit où ils sont?”

“Did he say where they are?”

My desperate voice squeaked, “Non! J’attends une réponse!”

“No, I’m awaiting a response!”

He answered, eyebrows dancing wildly on his forehead. “Oh mon Dieu, continue de vérifier ton téléphone et j’irai prévenir la patrouille de ski. Vous devez également informer le bureau principal.” His index finger flew in all directions.

“Oh my God, keep checking your phone and I’ll go notify ski patrol. You should also notify the main office.”

I frantically raced to the office. I barged through the entrance, sending the doorbell into a frenzy. Cold air rushed in behind me. A young woman stood behind the counter, blonde and petite, wearing a smart and warm but colorful uniform. Her eyes instantly shot to me, followed by a frown that suggested an empathy to my concern. She spoke in English as if my years residing in the states had transformed me into a Native American. “Do you know someone that might be trapped in the avalanche?” She jumped straight to the point, aware of the current crisis.

“My 13-year-old grandson. Listen, he texted me ten-fifteen minutes ago, said there were five of them—.”

The woman’s entire body jerked upward to attention. Her mouth opened wide before words scrambled out. “Where? Where did he say they were?” A slight smile tilted her lips. Was she excited? Hopeful? Optimistic? I couldn’t tell if it was due to some selfish desire to have her fifteen minutes of fame by being interviewed on the news, or from genuine concern.

“I don’t know! He only said there were five of them.” I watched as the woman played her keyboard, fingers whizzing and clicking as her eyes remained fixed on the screen, heavy on focus. Without prying her sight from the screen, she asked, “What is your grandson’s name?”

“Jared. Jared Beauvais.” I questioned how this information could help her—unless ski patrol could go out calling his name.

“What time was it when Jared texted you?”

Now, this made sense.

“Oh, I don’t know” I pulled out my cell phone in search of a time-stamp. “At 1:45 PM he texted me.” It was now 2:15 PM. Shit! Time was slipping through my fingers.

She hesitated, seemingly calculating a time in suspense, an unknown moment within an uncertain outcome. Her eyes widened as she nodded. “This sounds promising. It was three hours ago when a few witnesses, including our head ski patrol, counted five skiers turning down a backside route from Aiguille-Rouges—just before the avalanche hit.”

“That’s where Jared skied. So…so are the snowmobiles still running along the trail looking for stranded skiers?” My heart thumped like a sledgehammer. Pierre appeared from behind, wrapping his arms around my shoulders. I was momentarily lost in his embrace, feeding on a false sense of comfort and security. My eyes rolled around the rustic wooden counter and the window aside it, offering a picturesque view of the snowy mountains. Would I ever be able to ski again? Would I ever look at a powdery mountain the same again?

“There’s….” She stopped talking, an unsettling frown forming.

“There’s what?” Asked Pierre, his hold on my shoulders tightening.

“A…a blockage on the trail. The sliding snowpack got stuck at the narrowest part of a gorge, which is good for slowing the avalanche down—but the snowmobiles have been unable to move down further to search for survivors.” Her eyes darted around as she ran fingers through her golden locks, brushing stray hairs from her face.

“But…but they have to get down there somehow, did you hear my wife? Our grandson and four others are down there!” Pierre’s hold tightened even further, as my stomach fizzled with worry. His chin sat on one of my shoulders. He trembled with fear, afflicted with the same great concern as me, that we may lose even more family.

I appreciated how she twisted her words as only the French can. It gave me a familiar, comforting feeling. “Sorry if we’re pushy. We lost our daughters to tragedy, and are frightened of losing our only grandchild.” I explained, reigning back a full-on emotional breakdown. I fought off images of our grandchild’s funeral, or yet more inner turmoil and crippling sorrow. We can’t lose him too. We just can’t.

Scary words heard throughout my life as a skier came to the surface of my mind: After half an hour, the survival rate of avalanche victims drops to 50 percent. At 45-minutes, it’s less than 30 percent.

My intestines tangled with dread.

She locked into our eyes, nodding even more. “I assure you our emergency responders are doing everything possible. It’s a delicate situation—the slightest disturbance can bring the snowpack crashing down further. Nothing upsets the balance of snowpack more than a snowmobile—well, that or a skier.” She delicately explained, face softening and tone gentle and reassuring. But no matter how light her words, the words themselves and their meaning were anything but comforting.

That’s not what we wanted to hear. Yet I was relieved there were no TV screens in this office. The headlines were only stirring up more worry.

The brochures and magazines of happy skiers spread across the counter like Christmas decorations suddenly arose a rage within me. I irrationally wanted to launch them at the lady. I couldn’t discern if this was from impatience of the crippling fear of losing yet another child. Either way, I suppressed my outburst. It wouldn’t help. Instead, I continued breathing and tugged at the straws of hope.

“Is your grandson an experienced backcountry skier?” she inquired. It was then I noticed her nametag. April.

“No! He learned to ski on a tiny mountain in California—”

“Why was a minor who is a novice skier taken down dangerous terrain?”

So much for not sounding pushy. I was getting pissed, that outburst bubbling closer and closer to the surface. “Jared is a solid skier. And we weren’t even skiing backcountry.”

“Actually, the east face of Aiguille-Rouges is considered out-of-bounds. If your grandson was one of the five skiers seen turning down that steep, bumpy run, he indeed was skiing outside of avalanche control.”

Pierre took my hand in his. I opened my mouth to speak but then shut it, worrisome that once the words flew, I wouldn’t be able to control them if rage took hold. We hadn’t skied for twelve years, we hadn’t skied the French Alps for over twenty. And one big difference with the ski resorts in the USA compared to France—is that no trails are marked here.

An all too familiar emotion of guilt filled my heart, accompanied by flashbacks of that horrid day outside of court long ago:

Is it true the parents are at fault for letting their 12-year-old-daughter skateboard on a narrow street with no sidewalks in inclement weather?

No! No! No! I chased the thought away, and only said, “We do not need to validate letting our adventurous grandson lead the way to where he felt he could ski.” My words were firm but controlled.

Now April couldn’t speak, yet her eyes spoke volumes. “I…I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to sound insensitive.” She toyed with the collar of her uniform, clearly uncomfortable.

We glared in silence. The woman was merely doing her job: protecting the Les Arcs image. Mother Nature hampered by Human Nature is no match for ski resorts, whether from lack of snow or too much snow mixed with rapid warming. It’s too unpredictable.

I was ready to ask Pierre if he wanted to walk back to the main lodge with me. There could be an important news update that we were missing. When suddenly, derailing my thought, April’s two-way radio squawked to life.

“Venez à la réception, vous y êtes? Plus de.” The male voice spoke with unbridled urgency.

Come in front desk, you there? Over.”

April unclipped her walkie-talkie from her belt, “Bien reçu. Vous obtenez mon message sur le garçon adolescent? 10-12, les parents avec moi. Plus de.”

“Roger that. You get my message about the teenaged boy? 10-12, the parents with me. Over.”

The radio crackled with high winds, the ski patrol’s voice coming through punctuated with static; “Bien reçu, fizz, fizz, fzzzz… Je ne peux pas dire si boy…fizz, fizz, fizzzz…lunettes et équipement…fizz, fizz, fizzzz…”

“Copy that, fizz, fizz, fizzzz…can’t tell if boy…fizz, fizz, fizzzz…goggles and gear…fizz, fizz, fizzz…”

We froze in our spot. I felt nauseous. April’s head turned our way. She pressed the talk button again, sensing our obvious interest in the conversation, “10-1. Tue es en rupture. Sur.”

“10-1. You’re breaking up. Over.”

A few minutes passed, mimicking the feel of an eternity. Then April’s radio squawked to life once more: “10-2. Deux mâles trouvés enterrés, les deux employés. Cinq survivants invités comprennent un enfant mâle, deux femmes adultes et deux adultes mâles. 10-38 Bas Aiguilles Rouges. Sur.”

“10-2. Two males found buried—both staff. Five guest survivors include one male child, two female adults and two male adults.10-38 lower Aiguilles Rouges. Over.”

One male child. My eyes filled with tears. I clasped a hand over my mouth. Pierre squeezed his shut, while clutching my free hand, the one that wasn’t curled over my mouth. He left, scurrying back towards the lodge as if he couldn’t stand it anymore.

April stood motionless, unmoving until her radio came alive again: “Réception vous me recevez? Sur.”

“Front desk, do you copy? Over.”

She snapped to attention, “10-4. S.A.M.U. déjà là. Besoin de mains supplémentaires? Sur.”

“10-4. S.A.M.U. already here. Need extra hands? Over.”

As April awaited further response from the ski patrol, I slipped a note over the counter. I had nervously written: Please ask if the kid is Jared. If so, tell him we love him. My handwriting was squiggly with emotion but I was confident it was readable.

I realized how hot I was in my snow clothing. I yearned to tear off every layer and dive into a cool shower. The adrenaline and terror had caused my temperature to skyrocket. But now I had greater things to worry about, such as the safety of my grandchild.

She didn’t press the talk button to ask the question, yet I realized she was awaiting a response from the mountain crew. Her radio beeped into action again, “Négatif. 75 patrouilles s’étirent. Nous sommes couverts. Sur.”

“Negatory, 75 patrols probing down the stretch. We are covered. Over.”

That was reassuring. 75 patrols. That’s plenty. Come on Jared. Make it back to us.

“10-4. Le garcon est avec toi?. Sur.”

“10-4. Is the boy with you? Over.”

An immediate response, “Négatif. Un enfant mâle envoyé sur le toboggan. Fracture de la clavicule. Nous avons un héros. Sur.”

“Negatory. One male child sent down on a toboggan. Broken collarbone. We have a hero. Over.”

Both April and I opened our mouths yet couldn’t speak. A hero? Who? Jared? Pride added to the already generous mixture of emotions coursing through me.

I said to nobody in particular at the front desk, “Thank you for everything, I gotta run.”

As I sped between buildings towards the main lodge, a strong gust of wind blew into my face. I stared at the parking lot mid-run and saw a scattering of ambulances, police vehicles, and fire engines. Chaos was in full swing. People buzzed around like crazed bees. Everyone rushed, weighed with the pressure and fatal consequences of one mistake. Sirens, engines, chatter, wind, and general discord filled the atmosphere. Ski patrols still roared up the mountain in snowmobiles, probing for any more buried skiers. A Helicopter hovered just above, chuttering into the air, propellers a black blur above its metal body.

Pierre came from the lodge, running in my direction, “Bebe, Jared’s on TV!”

My stomach dropped. “Oh my God!” I moved towards the lodge, but he stopped me.

“No, he’s over there, let’s go to him!” He pointed to the mountain base near a chairlift. A small crowd was gathered around a toboggan, including two reporters wielding tablets and a hunger for tragedy, decked out in sharp suits. As we approached, the reporters were leaving, presumably having been shewed away like annoying felines. We stared at Jared’s face. His eyes were closed, with an expression of discomfort. He held onto his left shoulder. The male child with the broken collarbone?

I knelt beside him. “Jared, we’re here. We love you.” Those words almost came with a complimentary serving of tears, but I stayed that impulse.

The boy’s eyes fluttered open as he attempted to lift his head. Wincing, he murmured, “I hurt. A lot. But see the totally rad sled I rode in?”

Boys will be boys, I couldn’t help but think.

Pierre took Jared’s hand, “Hey big guy, you hung in there!” he replied, likely in an effort to sound light-hearted.

Wind howled amongst our conversation, along with the hysteria unraveling behind us.

Jared smiled at his grandfather, mumbling, “Actually if it wasn’t for Dusty, I’d be buried alive.”

“Dusty? Who’s that,” I asked, cringing at the thought of Jared trapped in snow-like concrete. I shoved that thought aside and focused on the present. This cherished moment. My grandchild is alive!

“The avalanche trained rescue dog, she’s a big German Shepherd.” He explained, with magic in his eyes, as if he’d just met Lassie.

“The hero we heard about!” Oh, so it was the dog, not Jared. Either way, he was alive, that’s all I wanted.

I turned to see Pierre exchanging health insurance information with other patrols, including the medical permission slip Josh had given us. Josh! I needed to contact the boy’s father.

“Tell your grandparents, Jared. Go ahead, I permit you bragging rights.” The voice came from behind. I turned to a man in a black ski jacket emblazoned with a big yellow cross. The ski patrol continued, “Turns out, our rescue dogs and ski patrols aren’t the only good Samaritans of the snow,” he smirked.

At this, Jared’s red, puffy face lit up, “Dusty sniffed and found me, and she helped dig me out with the ski patrols. They carried me to the warming hut and told me not to leave. That’s when I called you Grand-mere. But then…then I saw her.”

“You saw…” I held out the word ‘saw’, waiting for Jared to finish the sentence.

“I looked out the hut door, and from afar saw a shadow cartwheeling down a snow-white sheet, tons more snow was crashing down—”

The ski patrol interrupted to explain, “The blockage at the gorge broke loose while the mountain crew probed for skiers—”

Jared jumped in again, the two cutting each other off with nervous energy. “Then I thought I could see a purple glove sticking out of the snow about 50 yards away. I was dizzy and in pain but scared someone was buried. So I stumbled through the snow, then touched the glove and could feel fingers! I hobbled back to the patrol hut, grabbed a cool plastic shovel and dug her out! Well, her head anyhow, so she could breathe.”

“With a broken collarbone, mind you. This is one special young man here.” The ski patrolman kneeled beside the sled and looked like he wanted a high-five, but Jared’s face contorted in pain. “He saved the life of a 52- year old woman. If her face was buried for even five minutes more, she would have died of asphyxiation.”

So, he was a hero. Jared. My Jared. My incredible grandson. I planted a kiss on my grandson’s forehead, “So we have two heroes today, you and Dusty. I’m so proud of you Jared, I love you.” I looked up at the man and noticed the “National Ski Patrol” label over his front pocket. “I’m sorry, we have many heroes today, and thank you…what’s your name?”

“Paul. They call me Paul the Patrol,” he answered with an air of comedy.

Jared laughed through the pain, “They should name you Paul’s Paw Patrol, since you said three of the rescue dogs are yours.”

“Oh, so you’re the one April was speaking to on the walkie-talkie?” I asked.

“Ahhh…not me. We have a few Pauls’ on patrol.”

Pierre returned to the sled saying, “We have all the medical insurance papers set. And Jared—something for you!”

Two ski patrols came to each side of the sled, one knelt down and presented Jared with an award medal. He gently placed the ribbon with a silver Les Arcs token around Jared’s neck. “We hereby award you ’Outstanding Young Adult Skier.’ Thank you for your bravery.”

Tears froze on my smiling face. I was far more concerned with the fact Jared was alive, than the hero stuff. But, triumphs are triumphs. “So…so the woman he dug out is okay?”

“She was unconscious when airlifted to Bourg St. Maurice Hospital, but is recovering well. Speaking of, we need to get you checked into the hospital young man. That clavicle fracture was not likely as bad until you shoveled snow as heavy as cement. We’ll keep you strapped in that cozy sled, and lift you into the ambulance.”

Jared laughed about nothing, giddy and punch-drunk. It occurred to me he was drugged up with painkillers. “Can we ride with him?” I asked.

Pierre quickly added, “I pulled our rental up close to the medical services vans. We need our own wheels, Bebe.”

We carried our ski equipment down to the car. While loading up I realized how famished I was, too nervous to eat for hours. My appetite came rushing back after being gifted with the knowledge that my grandson was safe. I pulled our uneaten lunch from the back, consisting of roasted chicken in a jus, couscous, a baguette and red wine. Comfort foods for the road.

Soon we were following our happy hero to the hospital, laughing from relief like two young lovers.

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