The early morning was dim, shadowed by light grey clouds drifting over the vast mountainous landscape. Irregular rock formations and limited tree growth littered the steep terrain, draped by the dense snow cover, making progress slow and erratic.
Adeline Beltz, a young and highly distinguished university graduate, was in pursuit of her Master’s Degree. She was studying Snow Hydrology, the composition, dispersion, and movement of snow and ice. Along with her close friend and prominent professor, Lea Keil, whose exploration in hydrology had lead to a number of discoveries, they had initially scheduled this expedition later in the week. However, the developing weather pattern had diverted their attention. Intent on furthering studies in their respective fields, they had taken their research high into the Alps, loaded with analyses equipment and gadgets.
Their guide and temporary assistant, Armin, was responsible for guiding them up the tortuous mountain pass. He was familiar with the whole area and in particular, this current path which he had ascended on a number of expeditions. He was well known and recommended by most scientists who had used his services for the intimate knowledge he possessed of the summit and the surrounding mountain range.
Pausing in the thick snow which constantly hindered their progress, Adeline dropped her hands to her knees and bent over in exhaustion. Panting, she inhaled the frozen air which seared her lungs. The air was thin, a result of the high altitude. Her cheeks and face burned from the abrasive wind which relentlessly leached the warmth.
Glancing up ahead, Lea too, had succumbed to fatigue and the snow’s enveloping capabilities. Armin, glancing backwards, promptly ceased his advance. After all, it was his duty to monitor their progress. He was much fitter than they and better adapted to the extreme climate.
“This intense heavy snow overnight is rather unusual,” Armin anxiously surveyed the route.
“The snowfall accumulation was expected to be above normal,” said Lea, trying to extricate herself from the knee-deep snow.
“How could you tell?”
“The excessive water vapour in the atmosphere and stronger up-drafts, which essentially condensed into cloud water or ice particles,” she explained.
“Increasing the likelihood of snow formation and in turn heavy snowfall?” finished Armin, surprising them both.
“Correct, there’s more to you than meets the eye,” exclaimed Lea.
“Not that much, besides its simple enough,” he shrugged off her compliment.
“Perhaps,” she studied the terrain surrounding them.
“Shall we continue?” Armin turned to the ascent.
Adeline and Lea adjusted the equipment they were carrying, before following close behind him. They concentrated their attention on the surrounding area and unusual sky above, rather than the narrow path Armin had created as he moved up through the large open glacier, pasted along the massive mountain side. They were heading towards a peak which reared up quite far ahead. The climb was long and arduous. The snow thickness had progressively worsened as they moved further into the glacier. Soon the snow level had risen enough to force Armin to a halt having sunk below his armpits. Unable to move any further, he was forced to manoeuvre his way back along the path he had made. He paused, waiting for Aveline and Lea to catch up and then guided them along the steep and slippery ridge instead, monitoring their every step.
Though more dangerous, this was much faster than the route he would usually use but he had confidence in leading them over. Reaching the other end without so much as a slip or scare, they moved back into the thickening snow before taking a short break. Armin glanced down into the massive basin around which they had just ploughed. He was able to distinguish a vague line along its rim, the path they had taken. It was clear that the snow was far thicker than usual towards the centre.
Glancing at Lea and Adeline, who were gaping into the humongous ravine below, he indicated that this may be a good place to rest. The rocks were steep and jagged throughout, rising above the cape of snow which had filled the cracks. Slicing through a section of the mountain and splitting its way right down to the base, the chasm continued into the open valley in the far distance. Armin had always compared it to the teeth of a shark.
Adeline and Lea had removed highly specialised scientific field tablets, linked to the satellites orbiting above them. They began running numerous diagnostics and tests of the weather around them, as they had done all the way up the mountain side, analysing the radiances in various wavelength bands to determine climatic temperatures. Their focus was the variations of atmospheric pressure around the mountain, wind speeds above and below it, as well as fluctuation of humidity. All of which affected the atmosphere and climate alike.
Adeline was particularly interested in possible cryoseisms, otherwise known as ice quakes or frost quakes, usually a result of sudden cracking in frozen soil or rock saturated with water or ice. Other such notable forms included non-tectonic seismic events, originating from sudden glacial movements. One or more of these could trigger brief and severe tremors lasting several minutes. Amongst the learned circles there are differences of opinion regarding the frequencies of these as well as effects of global warming.
She positioned a portable digital seismometer to record any seismic activity which may occur, for onward transmission of data to their research centre. Lea on the other hand, was focussed on the unusual readings appearing on her tablet. Analysing the information sent a lurch of excitement throughout her body as initially she had been struggling to translate or form a logical explanation.
Studying the light grey clouds overhead, she noticed the mysterious formation evolving before her very eyes. As the clouds drifted over them, they began to ripple and swirl in abnormal patterns, developing a highly unusual phenomenon and uneven effect beneath the clouds. This was due to the high level winds shaping their appearance, cold stable air below and warmer less dense air above.
“Aveline, take a look at this, quick,” she whispered, her eyes fixed above.
Abandoning her tablet, Aveline straightened up and followed her gaze, “This is amazing!”
“It is, almost like – ,” she began, deep in thought.
“Undulatus asperatus,” Lea finished, having assessed the data before her.
“Undulatus asperatus?” repeated Armin, also gazing upwards.
“It’s the name given to this rare cloud formation,” explained Lea absent mindedly.
“How are they formed?”
“An elevated layer of warm air over a cooler layer of air, causes the wave action at cloud level. But the specifics on how the clouds develop and evolve are still being explored,” answered Lea.
“We should document this all before it fully forms, it can be help our research.” Aveline began to unpack various types of equipment.
“We should, but let’s not set it up here. We might get more data at the summit.”
“Agreed, but at least we can set up some recording devices to catch its early stages,”
“It’s going to take a while to get up there, you sure it won’t blow over?” asked Armin watching the metamorphosing formation.
“It depends, that’s why we need to set up a few things first,” insisted Aveline.
Armin, having never experienced such an unusual phenomenon was both curious and very wary. Observing his surroundings with heightened senses, he noticed the slight draft originating from the valley below, flowing up the mountain side through the massive ravine, before drifting over the summit. Surreptitiously glancing around, he tried to analyse the environment, but could not see any other cause for concern, yet he could not shake the feeling that something was not right.
Deciding that the signs were not apparent enough and that there was no visible threat of danger, Armin moved ahead while Lea and Aveline repacked their equipment. They exchanged a look of excitement at the significance of the opportunity which had presented itself, and hurried after their guide, closely monitoring and documenting their assessments. They followed the flat ridge in a direct line which lead all the way to their destination, moving as quickly and safely as possible along the narrow path which had minimal snow cover due to the gradient and wind flow.
Eventually they made it to the base of the summit which had earlier appeared so distant. Lea and Aveline assembled a few more devices to capture this unknown data for later studies. Armin had continued observing the surroundings and was becoming more alarmed. The unusual cloud cover had darkened substantially, the prevailing winds up the mountain had strengthened. The temperature seemed to have decreased although he could not be sure whether or not it was due to the increase in wind. The weather was becoming threatening and dangerous.
“Lea, this looks like a storm’s building up,” Armin finally expressed his concern.
“Indeed, although Undulatus Asperatus tends to dissipate without a storm actually forming,” came the confident reply although she did glance up at the menacing sky.
“Is it possible for a storm to develop?” he persisted.
“Yes but unlikely, it’s completely normal to be like this.”
“Alright then, I’ll prepare the climbing ropes,” Armin’s reluctance increased.
Lea gave him a nod of assurance as he moved off towards the low cliff face. His experiences of past events roamed through his mind. He recalled the many abrupt snowstorms, virtually appearing out of nowhere, despite positive weather forecasts. Having never experienced such phenomena, he allowed himself to rely on the knowledge of the Scientists and chose to ignore his gut instinct. He knew his duty was to ensure their safety and he would have to take appropriate action in the event of anything further transpiring.
He quickly set up the roping while Aveline and Lea made their way towards him. Ensuring the functionality of key devices, he attached short ropes between them, reminding them of a few safety features. Once completed, they began their final ascent to the low cliff. Armin leading with caution, keeping an extra close eye on both of them. The distance increased between them and the ground below. He was as surprised at their climbing abilities as they were of his knowledge of snowfall.
Some minutes later they clambered into a large crevice at the peak of a small plateau which afforded them some protection from the weather. It was time for a short break to avoid over exertion and sweating which would ultimately lower their body temperature. Armin turned his attention to Aveline and Lea, studying them for any unusual signs which one would generally overlook. He was very familiar with such effects having experienced them a number of times. He again noted the increase in wind and lack of visibility. Watching suspiciously for a moment, he resolved to keep a very close eye on the developing weather patterns.
Having made his final checks, he returned his focus to the climb. As they neared the ledge, he again noticed the worsening weather. The wind had increased substantially and with it the sudden appearance of snowfall. Although he was accustomed to this at the summit, it came as an unexpected shock after the relative calm below. He now felt the full blast of the winds snatching at his face.
Helping Aveline and Lea over the cliff edge, they all stood and gazed at the summit just ten meters above them. Suddenly they were not so anxious to complete the journey. Both Aveline and Lea had become as alarmed as Armin at the sudden intensity of the wind. They immediately began removing their equipment to survey the unstable surroundings. Lea wanted to monitor these unexpected changes in wind speed and temperature.
“This is sudden,” she had to raise her voice.
“Wind speeds are rising to twenty miles per hour,” confirmed Aveline.
“Perhaps we should get back down,” warned Armin.
“I want to know what’s causing it,” Lea insisted.
“I don’t, nor do I want to get caught in it,” Armin’s alarm system was in overdrive.
“It’s almost like… ,” Lea ignored him.
“Thundersnow,” interjected Aveline.
“Thundersnow?” asked Armin in confusion.
“Another rare occurrence, similar to a thunderstorm, but with snow falling instead of rain and in addition graupel or hail,” explained Lea, now concerned, realising the danger at their altitude.
“We should document this,” said Aveline desperately.
“We don’t have much time, but we should leave something to capture its effects.” Lea unclasped the carabiners attached to their harnesses and much to Armin’s vexation, the two spread out over the large plateau, deploying their most advanced devices, keeping clear of any steep edges or any edges in general. Watching them intently and becoming more anxious about their situation, Armin busied himself preparing for their descent. Despite seeming ages but in actual fact, barely five minutes later Aveline and Lea began their return. Conditions had deteriorated rapidly and they had accepted the necessity to descend, fast.
As they drew nearer to Armin, the Whiteout overcame them. A weather condition in which visibility and contrast are severely reduced, resulting in loss of all reference points and leaving those caught completely disorientated. The increasing wind speed and falling temperature had begun to slice through their clothing, cutting to the bone. They faced the real risk of hypothermia.
Aveline and Lea raised their hands above their heads to quell the frosty snow being tossed into their faces. They moved slowly with their heads bowed, shifting through the thickening snow. Unable to focus on her path ahead and with the constant blowing wind, Lea lost her balance and sank into the snow. Reacting quickly, Armin attached his rope to a snow picket he had driven into the ground, before making his way towards her. He attached and secured a carabiner to her harness. Safely joined together, he called his intention before he began making his way towards Aveline.
Aveline, arms raised before her, lost her balance. Unable to regain her stability and bearings, she stumbled and was thrown off her feet after an unanticipated gust of wind, solid and vicious, smashed into her. Crashing across the ice, she flung her hands out to anchor herself and stop the uncontrollable slide. As she slithered to a halt and dashed the snow from her face, her stomach clenched in horror. She was at the cliff edge.
“Hang on!” roared Armin. He had seen her unexpected fall and frantically fought his way towards her.
Surging with adrenaline, she quickly reached for her ice axe mounted on her back. But before she could use it, the ground beneath her began to give way. Instinctively she tried to haul herself out. Casting out her arm in a final effort to save herself, she felt Armin’s hand grab her fingers.
Suspended by both shock and fear, her eyes locked on the cliff edge, she watched Armin’s outstretched empty hand and distraught face recede as she began to fall. Her life was suspended. Despair threatened to paralyse her. Drawn by the force of gravity, her descent seemed to quicken, steered by the violent wind. It was a magical feeling, that of being weightless as she was tossed about by the the buffeting gusts.
Aveline gazed into the enveloping whiteout which had engulfed everything above her. She glimpsed a blinding white light piercing through, arcing and striking a point above, most likely the summit. In that split second, she recognised it to be lightening which bore a greater destructive potential than typical lightening as there was more of a chance of positive polarity, a known factor of Thundersnow.
The sudden reduction in speed and violent change in wind direction forced her against the cliff wall. She was slammed into a pointed rock, which had protruded out and upwards. Catching the edge of her backpack and striking her ribs against it, she gasped in shock as her lungs decompressed completely. The pain was instantaneous and virtually unbearable. Spinning around once, her endless fall was broken as she landed on her back in the unyielding snow. Her eye sight blurred, darkness engulfed her as she slipped into a semi-conscious state.
Moments later she awoke to an intolerable ache in her chest. She clawed wildly, an attempt to tear out the pain but instead forced in air as she gasped, further exacerbating the agony. As her body craved more oxygen, she found herself less able to cope. She realised the problem and knew how to relieve it. Struggling to unclasp the straps of her backpack, she finally shrugged it off. Gritting her teeth in determination, she rolled over onto her side and began to spill out its contents in search of the medical kit.
On location she yanked it out, removed her glove and squashed it under her body before groping for the chest decompression needle. Struggling to breathe she began to panic and realised the onset of an anxiety attack. Grabbing a thick pen-like object, she quickly pulled it out and broke it open, spilling its contents onto the snow. Seizing the long broad needle and small catheter, she thrust her hand under her constricting clothing.
She slid icy fingers over her ribs along the anterior axillary line under the arm pit, above the coronal plane. She had to find the point midway between the centre of the clavicle and the lateral end, between the forth and fifth rib. She held the chest decompression needle tightly in her hand, using her forefinger as a guide while she probed for the entry point. Without hesitation she pushed the needle into her chest. The relief was instant as the trapped air flowed out. Gasping deeply, she felt the frozen air burn through her body, replenishing lost oxygen.
Laying on her back and still in pain, she identified the broken and cracked ribs. This was the least of her problems. Her body had already begun loosing a tremendous amount of heat, paving the way for hypothermia. As the shock faded and shivering increased, she realised that she needed to find shelter from the current storm which was becoming progressively worse, life threatening. The snowfall had increased considerably.
Withdrawing the decompression needle, she carefully inserted the catheter and secured it as best she could before sealing her clothing to prevent any further heat loss. It was now imperative to manage the pain and find shelter. Grabbing the first aid kit again, Aveline shook loose all the contents before plunging her hand in to grope for the syringe with eight milligrams of morphine.
Pulling back her sleeve as far as she could, she carefully located a superficial vein on the elbow pit, inserted the needle and slowly pressed down the plunger. The painkiller burned as it coursed through her veins and into the blood stream. While waiting for it to take effect she became aware of slight burning sensation on her forehead. Touching it lightly with her hand, she felt warm liquid oozing from a small cut. Blood. Unconcerned, she pulled down her sleeve and fastened her glove. As soon as she felt the medication begin to take effect, she hauled herself to her feet.
After checking her clothing to reduce heat loss, she tightened up her hood and moved into the thick snow. Shifting along the cliff side, searching for shelter, Aveline took care not to stray far as the whiteout would easily result in loss of direction the ferocious blizzard. She could feel the frigid winds slicing through her clothing and knew she was a prime candidate for hypothermia.
The minutes stretched with no sign of the storm abating, and no form of shelter. Aveline’s stressed body began to buckle. All thought and focus deteriorated. She no longer moved with purpose and swayed clumsily. Losing her balance in the thick snow, she collapsed. Disoriented and weak, she ceased to battle the forces of nature. She simply let go of all resistance, smiling weakly at the face of her fiancé floating before her, entreating her not to give up.
The abrupt and calamitous flash snowstorm had mobilized search and rescue teams across the mountains. Dozens of distress flares had been lighted up throughout the slopes and beacons secured to mark their positions. The climbers who had ascended were undoubtedly in danger and needed help very soon. Close analyses of the weather situation warned rescuers of the severity of risk and exposure which search parties would face, if the extreme weather conditions were to further deteriorate. Much depended on the abilities and training of even the top qualified personnel.
After the initial emergency distress sounded, lead search and rescue officer Dietrich Jaeger and his team were one of the first to react. They were renowned for their high success and low mortality rate over the hundreds of missions they had carried out. Their efficiency, experience and dedication set them way above many of the other teams and they were known for purposely endangering themselves and taking high risks in order to save the lives so dependent on them.
The four-blade Sikorsky S-92 search and rescue helicopter, powered by twin GE CT7-8A turboshaft engines, capable of 2,520 shaft horsepower (shp) each, was waiting. Dietrich and his team of four climbed in, sealed the doors and took their seats. The engines roared as they all strapped in and prepared for the dangerous mission ahead. Contacting flight control for authorization to proceed and assessing their controls, the flight path was determined taking into account storm severity and economy. On receiving acknowledgement from the tower, systems were engaged and lift off began.
Dietrich’s attention was concentrated on a mobile GPS device which he used to traverse the effects of the storm over the marked beacons. Assessing the severity, altitude and distance of each one, he highlighted them all in sequence, effectively black-marking two that they simply could not reach. The beleaguered climbers identified in these two inaccessible positions would have to rely on their own instincts, until the storm cleared up enough for them to be rescued since the weather which they were experiencing threatened the stability and flight of any helicopter.
Dietrich linked his surveillance to the pilots’ navigation sequence. The flight plan was immediately altered to the new route he had set. He concentrated on the satellite surveillance, while carefully monitoring the weather patterns. It was, after all, his duty to ensure the safety of his own team, while they focused on the safety of those to be rescued. This included leading the entire operation and this particular case, watching the movement of the harsh storm into which they were flying.
The first two rescue beacons were registered to a group of climbers which consisted of a seasoned and experienced guide and two highly acclaimed scientists. They were situated no more than fifty meters away from the lower altitudinal summit and exposed to heavy winds and freezing temperatures as well as reduced visibility, the result of whiteout. Their conditions would only worsen as the massive storm continued to swirl over them.
Dietrich monitored their estimated time of arrival as they moved at a speed of about 280km/hr. Just over five minutes away although he would have to consider reduction of speed in light of the extreme weather. There was significant increase in danger due to the unpredictable nature of the storm as well as altitude and the prevailing winds.
He glanced across at the Seigel brothers, Axel and Leith, both highly skilled in their respective fields, medical first aid and survival experts. They had remained by his side through almost every deployment since he had enlisted. Although exceptional, the two pilots Lisette and Rhodes had not been with them as long, having joined the team when he was awarded command of the helicopter. Their loyalty was simply unparalleled and never faltered, even in the worst situations they had endured. Dietrich trusted them completely and had won their total respect. This team was a force to be reckoned with.
As minutes ticked by the Sikorsky S-92 began to vibrate with minor turbulence, a clear indication of their approach to the periphery of the storm. Dietrich ordered his team to prepare and remain vigilant. This was their second operation performing multiple rescues which were scattered over a wide area of terrain. The first had been a success, despite the loss of one casualty who died minutes before their arrival.
As instructed, the three of them began organizing their equipment. Securing harnesses tightly along with the carabiners to the rings, they completed their preparations and donned snow shoes with crampons, heavy jackets and waterproofing clothing. Large backpacks complete with first aid kits, climbing and survival equipment was hoisted onto their backs. Thick blankets, stretchers and medical supplies were the final additions before readying themselves for deployment. Moving towards the sliding passenger door from which hung the rope for their descent, they grasped slings attached to the roof, both for stability and traction to prevent their crampons slipping.
Holding his mobile satellite device, while keeping an eye on the closing distance and fast moving weather, Dietrich could feel the force of the wind affecting the helicopter. The turbulence was increasing. Visibility was reduced forcing them to rely on the their flight instruments.
“Dietrich, these conditions are getting tricky,” Rhodes reported.
“I can tell, keep a close eye on it,” noting the behaviour of the chopper.
“If this gets any worse, we’re going to be forced to abort,” warned Lisette.
“Then you make that call when you have to,” replied Dietrich.
“There’s something different about this storm,” he frowned, observing its formation on his mobile satellite device.
“Like what?” Axel felt the aircraft bucking.
“Like it has a hidden agenda, I’ve never seen this before,” Dietrich was puzzled.
“Alright, we’re coming up to the first two beacons,” stated Lisette.
“But thermal imaging is not picking up anything on or near the summit,” said Rhodes.
“Keep a look out, there has to be something,” Dietrich replied, scrutinising his own device.
“I think I see someone, but they have no heat signature,” said Rhodes after a moment.
“That does not mean they’re dead. Lisette, see if you can get us closer,” Dietrich said.
Suddenly the Sikorsky instruments howled in distress. Heavy turbulence nearly sent the helicopter into an uncontrollable spin. Lisette’s extensive skills and training stabilized the aircraft. With Rhodes’ help, they managed to regain control, despite the increasing wind speed and thick snowfall which was definitely beginning to affect its performance.
“Shit that was close, Dietrich we can’t fly in this,” said Lisette, shaken.
“Alright, lets prepare to abort,” he said, convinced by the sudden scare.
“What about who ever is down there, they might still be alive?” insisted Axel.
“They may already be dead and we unnecessarily endanger ourselves,” argued Dietrich.
“We’ve done it before, besides its just a matter of dropping down and collecting them,” reasoned Leith.
“You know its not as simple as that, anything could happen.” interjected Lisette.
Dietrich paused, very aware of the worsening danger. But he could not abandon those in need especially when they were so close. Search and Rescue had become the focal point of his life, saving as many people as he could, despite the fact that it was impossible to save everyone. He tried to analyse this storm, to figure out what was so different from a normal snowstorm, the violent and swirling winds, icy snow falls, sudden ferocity of lightening – it did not make sense.
“Lisette, can you hold it stable for a moment?” he asked quickly, still pondering.
“I can try, although it won’t be for long, not if there’s another gust of wind,” she replied.
“Keep it as steady, we’ll be as quick as we can,” he decided, glancing at Axel and Leith who exchanged knowing looks.
“Okay,” she said as Axel slid open the passenger door against the winds which buffeted them.
They all held on tight, while Lisette and Rhodes stabilised the aircraft. The frozen and abrasive wind tore at them, forcing thick dense snow into the helicopter. Dietrich suddenly felt this was against his better judgement but the harsh wind quickly whipped away his indecision. Axel swiftly secured the helicopter strope to lower them to the white carpet below. He locked eyes with Dietrich, indicating them to proceed.
“No matter what happens down there, do not endanger yourselves. If the storm becomes overbearing, abort. Do you understand?” he instructed, while Axel attached their harnesses to the ropes between them which were also attached to the aircraft.
“We understand, Dietrich, be careful,” shouted Lisette as she fought the controls.
“I will see you in a moment,” he lowered his snow goggles, while Axel glanced reassuringly at his brother.
They both leapt out the door into the unforgiving storm. They almost lost the thumping of the rotors. As they made their rapid descent, the storm engulfed them from both sight and sound of the helicopter. It was only then that Dietrich realised the severity of the storm which threatening to overcome them. Unable to see either the helicopter or the ground, he focussed below, feeling the continuous thrashing of the rope. In no time at all, they crashed into the thick snow. Quickly recovering, they moved off with the rope from the helicopter still attached to their harnesses, to stop them straying too far and for quick ascension.
Adrenaline surging, Dietrich began searching, barely able to see further than his hands. Soon he began to panic. There was no sign of any climbers. He was about to abandon the search, for all their safety, when he felt the urgent tug of the rope attached to his waist.
He grabbed it and trekked across to Axel, who appeared to be wrestling with somebody. Hastening, he quickly realized what the tussle was about. The victim, a female in her late twenties sporting a gash on her forehead, appeared to be attempting to undress herself. This condition, known as paradoxical undressing occurs during moderate to severe hypothermia. A person becomes disoriented, confused, and combative. Removing clothing increases the rate of heat loss and generally leads to death. An explanation for this behaviour is a cold-induced malfunction of the hyothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates body temperature which leads to the muscles contracting, peripheral blood vessels become exhausted and relax, leading to a sudden surge of blood and heat to the extremities, convincing the person to undress.
Dropping down beside him, Dietrich helped Axel clothe the girl. Shouting over the loud rush of the wind, he tried to penetrate through her disoriented state and calm her. After losing a few precious minutes with unsuccessful persuasion, he unwound a rope which was attached to his harness and clipped the carabiner to her. Axel helped him secure her in preparation for the airlift – when disaster struck. They both heard the alarms from the helicopter, screaming through their ear pieces.
“Oh my god, Dietrich I can’t hold it,” screamed Lisette in obvious distress.
“Abort!” he bellowed as the terror flooded his body.
Dietrich and Axel struggled to see through the storm and could just make out the bright red safety lights, spinning wildly out of control. Limbs locked in horror, Dietrich suddenly realized that the helicopter strope was still attached to them. With split-second reaction he unclasped the carabiner attached to their rope, only to have it ripped from his grasp. Helpless, he followed the red lights of the helicopter falling away from them at a rapid pace. His ears rang with the blood-curdling screams of terror from his fellow team members before they were silenced by the collision when the aircraft slammed into the mountain- side.
Dietrich and Axel both felt the shock-wave of the crash. It rumbled through the snow beneath them. Rooted to the ground they gazed blindly towards the spot where the helicopter had disappeared into the whiteout, hopelessly seeking any sign to guide them towards their team mates. The last sight the Sikorsky S-92 was imprinted on their minds.
They were suddenly aware that the rumbling they had experienced moments earlier, was growing louder. The ground had begun to shake, and a distinct and heavy rushing mingled with that of the howling wind rumbled towards them, louder. It was coming for them.
“Avalanche!” bawled Dietrich.
As a result of the whiteout he could not take his bearings which meant that he could not select a route to flee and avoid the wrath of the oncoming disaster. He was also aware from the satellite images that there was a high cliff over which they could be swept. Their fate appeared to be set in stone. There was no escape. Slim as it was, the best option for survival was to move as far out of the way as humanely possible.
Supporting the girl between them, Dietrich and Axel hauled her along in their attempt to flee impending catastrophe. With no immediate alternatives, Dietrich fumbled in one of his external jacket pockets, located and activated his emergency Avalanche transceiver. A last ditch attempt to ensure every outside possibility of rescue. Dietrich held tightly onto the girl, bracing for the solid force to come, and prayed.
The early morning was dark and frigid at the breaking of dawn. Distant light on the horizon seeped through and illuminated the endless wave of ominous clouds drifting over the vast mountains. Shepherded by the wind which swept the menacing shadows, engulfing everything below, visibility throughout was reduced. Fluid eddys scoured the massive frozen terrain, sculpting and shaping the aerodynamic appearance as it dragged over the snow, displacing textures and redefining shapes, transmuting formation and natural contours.
The ferocity of the storm had gradually deteriorated overnight, depositing several feet of snow in its wake. The surrounding conditions had mellowed into a calm and soothing breeze, while the daunting skies continued to intimidate the ground below. The silence had subdued the surrounding terrain which lay dormant in anticipation of the approaching morning, which would undoubtedly bring its own surprises.
Feldwebel Reiner Krüger and his companion Fritz, a bold and daring purebred German Shepherd dog, had in the early hours of the morning been deployed up the snowy mountain range. They were accompanied by numerous volunteers of the Bundeswehr to assist the beleaguered search and rescue teams. All searches had been hampered by the intensity of the ferocious storm which had endangered nearly a hundred civilians and three search and rescue teams. Initial distress signals had not been repeated and many were feared dead however the search parties were driven by determination and intent on recovering those who had been trapped and unable to reach safety. Every minute was valuable, possibly the difference between life and death. There was always hope.
Among the team were ten well trained search and rescue canine units, each capable of searching one hectare in approximately thirty minutes and finer searches in one to two hours. This compared to twenty foot searchers, with probes, covering the same area in about four hours. Finer searchers would take twenty searchers about twenty hours. The canines were gifted with about two hundred and twenty million scent receptors, their handlers with about five million. They were essential in the search to scour the dense snow, along with Probe teams and transceivers, the only other alternative to locating any survivors.
Having begun their search early, Reiner and Fritz moved through the thick snow independently, scanning the last known areas of climbers. The rest of their team had fanned out over a large distance. There were many teams covering other areas of the vast mountain range, searching in the known locations of possible survivors. Smaller teams concentrated on activated emergency transceivers. The light was subdued so all areas were traversed using state of the art LED head lamps and torches, with which the canine units were also equipped.
During the past two hours Reiner and Fritz had not been successful. The concentration was intense as they struggled against the interminable conditions. The steep incline which they were forced to negotiate was risky as there was a likelihood that an avalanche could occur as a result of the loose and newly settled snow. This was something they could not afford but not entirely avoidable. Both Reiner and Fritz were equipped with avalanche transceivers, in the event they too, were endangered.
Before long Fritz came across a scent and bounced off in pursuit. Familiar with his companion’s characteristics, Reiner encouraged him before alerting the other members of the team. He focused his attention on Fritz as they both continued on up the slope. The constant fight against the thick snow significantly reduced their speed but Fritz, enthusiastic as always, battled the elements. It was more difficult for him to move through than it was for Reiner but the strengthening scent motivated him more than ever. His vibrant leaps propelled him through the snow but, in doing so he also caused the loose snow to slide. At that moment Reiner realised the very thing he had feared and anticipated.
Between them they had triggered the onset of an avalanche. Reiner shifted into overdrive. As he ploughed through the burdening snow ahead, swerving as far from the disintegrating snow as he could, he alerted all his fellow team members, forewarning them of the impending disaster. They were not in direct danger. Ensuring the rope between them did not tangle, he encouraged Fritz as he gained ground.
Reiner felt the vibration of the snow as it gave way and soon the great slide began. Adrenaline pumped, granting him the ability to catapult himself across the path of impending danger. He and Fritz launched themselves over the flowing snow which threatened to swallow them, dashing away the relentless force dragging at their legs. Reiner thrust himself above the slow drifting menace, feeling it slide away from beneath his feet despite efforts to suck them into obscurity.
Relieved that Fritz had made it out of the danger zone, Reiner took one last leap. His legs were swept out from under him, landing him on his stomach. Sliding down, he spun around onto his back as Fritz’s teeth sank into his thick jacket, yanking him backwards. With his companion’s timely help Reiner regained his equilibrium and watched in relief as the snowfall they had triggered flowed away from them, engulfing the few large rocks and shrubs they had climbed past on their ascension.
“Thank you boy,” he panted as he grabbed Fritz’s harness for better traction.
“That’s a good boy,” he breathlessly clambered up beside his companion and stroked his head.
“Feldwebel, are you okay?” called a voice through his ear piece.
“I’m fine Aurel,” he responded.
“That was close,”
“Sure was,” he replied.
Awed at the incident which had just unfolded, Reiner paused a moment to watch the receding snow, hearing the baleful rumble roll up and spiral around them and the entire area. Glancing around his surroundings, he glimpsed a few members of his team warily approach him. The two handlers were lead by their German Shepherds, who both indicated they were tracking.
“Feldwebel, Heinz has caught scent of something,” called out Aurel.
“It might be what Fritz was following, be careful of loose snow,” responded Reiner.
Inhaling a deep breath of cold air and analyzing the situation they had so narrowly escaped, Reiner heaved himself to his feet and encouraged Fritz to continue following the scent he had sensed. As he carefully assessed the area cleared of the recent snow, he searched for anything which could lead him to a survivor. He feared that if there had been anybody trapped, they could have been swept back down with the snow slide. The likelihood of survival was slim and in any case there was nothing he could have done to save them.
He focused on the search and scrutinised Fritz’s behaviour. Reiner then noticed that Heinz and the other German Shepherd were digging into the snow. Quickening his pace and encouraging Fritz, Reiner used the downward incline to join them. On reaching them Reiner removed a compact spade which was attached to his backpack. Skidding to a halt near Fritz, he began digging with him as the other two handlers followed suit.
The snow was well settled and difficult to penetrate. It was not long before they came across a blue jacket. Assuming the possibility of the victim suffering from some form of injury, they were careful not to strike too close so Reiner began digging around the body to prevent any accidents, tossing the snow downhill away from them. After a moment of careful clearing, with the gentle help of Fritz, Reiner finally uncovered the man’s head, facing down and tilted to the side. It was clear at that moment. The face was frozen solid. Tinted with a white sheen, glassy and waxed.
Reiner placed his fingers on his neck, just to be sure, before letting out disappointed sigh. Nothing more could be done for the deceased. Reiner straightened up and congratulated Fritz on his efforts. He turned to Aurel who shook his head. He had also found a body beyond help. The expression on the soldier behind him mirrored their reactions for the body he too, had recovered was no better. Yet the three canines had not finished their duty. They had continued to sniff and scratch in two other locations. Their handlers quickly followed suit. Sadly, their efforts were wasted as the two other bodies were also beyond help.
“There’s nothing more we can do here,” said Reiner disconsolately.
“Feldwebel, what about the bodies?” asked the soldier behind Aurel.
“We’ll mark this position, tag the bodies so we can come back for them,” replied Aurel as he glanced over his shoulder.
“Lets move, come Fritz,” said Reiner.
Together they moved off, back towards where the snow slide had started. Aurel placed a transceiver among the five bodies to assist recovery of the bodies later. Once he had done so, he moved on with Heinz towards Reiner, while the other soldier continued tracking with his canine. Their surroundings had become increasingly brighter as the sun struggled to pierce the clouds.
Although somewhat disappointed and angry, Reiner knew there would be few survivors yet the more he thought about it, the more he had hoped otherwise. Clearing his mind to raise his spirits, his thoughts drifted to his best friend and partner from whom he had been separated for the past few days. Many happy hours had been spent on these slopes with another expedition postponed later during the week since unforseen circumstances had sent him out on a training exercise. They, too, could have been caught in this unexpected disaster. Reiner regained his focus and concentrated attention on Fritz, awaiting him a short distance ahead for instructions.
Encouraging him, they both pushed through the snow. Driven to forge ahead, he recovered momentum and motivation. As they both scoured the large area on the mountain side, the early and welcoming morning sunlight split through the obtrusive clouds, fighting its way through, pouring onto the smooth white snow. Its warming colours flowed over the mountain a short distance away, towards a rising steep cliff before vanishing. Reiner took comfort in the sun’s temporary appearance, a sign of strength in its ability to break through the suppressive clouds.
Fritz’s behaviour changed as he came across yet another scent. He pursued with vigorous scratching at the snow with Reiner close behind, supporting him. Reiner, after watching Fritz for a few moments, alerted Aurel and began digging. The further they dug, the deeper they sank. Aurel and Heinz soon joined them and it was not long before they cleared a familiar red jacket.
This body was clothed in the search and rescue uniform. He was clearly from one of the teams which had been reported missing the previous night. Unfortunately, as with the others they had found, he too had succumbed to the harsh clutches of the storm. Displacing a large amount of snow which had covered him, resulting in a large square crater, Reiner and Aurel were eventually able to extract the frozen individual and remove him from the hole. The name tag on his jacket read, “Axel Seigel.”
Saddened once more, Reiner attached a tracking transceiver to the victim before returning to his feet to continue his mission. Indicating to Aurel that they should move on, Reiner turned to find Fritz, frantically pursuing yet another trail. This one appeared to lead towards the point where the sun had momentarily spewed over the snow at the base of the cliff. Taken aback by Fritz’s determination and unexpected drive, Reiner wasted no time in chasing after him, volubly encouraging him further, clutching his compact shovel in a tight grip.
The space between them lengthened quickly but Reiner did not slow him. He sensed a deeper excitement as he followed Fritz who was barely keeping his nose close to the snow, instead moving at a faster pace, leaping in large bounds through the snow. Reiner’s eyes swept the area, seeking any clues which may assist. He was restricted by the deep snow which Fritz seemed to sail through without any impediment.
Concerns about another avalanche surfaced and Reiner tightened his grip on the rope between them. He called Fritz and struggled to reach him as the snow hindered any progress. Intrigued by Fritz’s behaviour and trusting his instinct without hesitation, Reiner alerted Aurel through his ear piece. There was quite a distance between them but on Reiner’s call, Aurel’s response was immediate with Heinz taking the lead just as Fritz had earlier.
After moments of bulldozing his way through the relentless snow, Reiner glanced up at his companion to find that he had begun digging wildly into the snow. Reiner hastily ploughed on. Sliding beside Fritz he, too, began to scoop out shovel loads of snow, keeping a watchful eye to prevent himself from plunging in too deep. He did not want to cause further injury, if there was someone below. With each dig and thrust, he shifted a large amount of snow but could not contain the strange sensation tingling through his veins.
Aurel and Heinz soon joined him, quickly displacing piles of snow around the area in which Fritz had been digging. It was not long before they came across another bright red emergency jacket, another individual from the search and rescue. As they cleared more around it, Reiner began to notice something strange. This victim was not buried as deep as the previous body they had found, and, it was not the only one there. They had uncovered two people tightly snuggled up together.
Reiner suddenly stopped and as he did, so Fritz paused. They watched carefully as he could have sworn one individual moved. Reiner slowed his actions and carefully wiped the snow from around the jacket, uncovering a man’s head. The movement was real, taking Reiner and Aurel by complete surprise. They calmed the victim and continued clearing the snow around him.
Assuring him that he was in safe hands, Aurel urged him to hold on while they continued to dig them out. Reiner stopped briefly to call in for urgent medical evacuation. Numerous emergency helicopters were on stand-by not too far from their location and these were the first two survivors that had been located. Reiner and Aurel suppressed their excitement while trying to free the two from their snow grave.
The man tried to free himself. He was muttering incoherently and in a panic. Words such as, “help,” and “safety,” were discernible but he was obviously suffering from delusion, sometimes caused by moderate hypothermia. At least, this was Reiner’s initial assumption, until the man began to gesture towards the other victim still buried. Nodding his head in understanding, Reiner tried to pacify him as they lifted him carefully out of the hole. They needed to assess his condition to determine the severity of his exposure but before they reached any conclusions, “Officer Dietrich Jaeger” according to the name tag on his jacket, impatiently gestured them to attend to the second victim.
Leaving Dietrich in Aurel’s safe hands, since he was in possession of advanced medical training, Reiner dropped back into the hole to remove the second victim. The alert had reached more of the soldiers from his team who were making their way towards them so he was able to turn his attention to the remaining body. He was able to determine where the head lay as a result of Dietrich’s position. He began clearing snow as fast and carefully as he could, but this individual did not respond.
Reiner concentrated on clearing the area around the head of the second victim, before pulling away part of the fabric covering her face. He caught a brief, suddenly very familiar glimpse of her features. The frozen blood on her forehead diverted his attention as he was concerned that she taken a blow to the head. He was reluctant to move her until she had been properly assessed. He gently drew back the thick material covering the rest of her face. It was at that moment when he froze in shock. He felt as though he had been shot, winded and knocked unconscious.
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Adeline Belts, a university graduate studying snow hydrology, is invited to climb a summit in the Alps, by her renowned professor, Lea Keil. Little do they expect the tragedy about to unfold. Dietrich Jaeger and his rescue team risk everything to reach any survivors on the mountain and pursue their objectives despite the odds against them. Reiner Krüger and his faithful German Shepherd companion Fritz, are part of the volunteer rescue operation who are called to assist in the aftermath of the consecutive disasters affecting the climbers that fateful afternoon. Little does Reiner know that this day will drastically alter the course of his future. Who will survive this catastrophe? Will the lives of these individuals ever return to normal after this disaster? Thundersnow is a novella based on fiction drawing from facts revealing the true effects of an unexpected phenomenon, leading to a sequence of horrific events and consequences. Action, adventure, drama and suspense will keep your attention riveted from beginning to end.