Thomas Calabrese….This was the second extreme blizzard to hit Mammoth Mountain in the last three years. What made this one so bad was that it completely fooled the weather forecasters with its intensity and how rapidly it descended on the Inyo National Forest. Many of the skiers were caught on the slopes and in a matter of minutes; it went from light
flurries to blowing in blinding sheets, with accumulation of more than five inches per hour. The ski patrol and lodge staff were able to get all of the people safely off the mountain, except for two brothers who were reported missing by their girlfriends.
Michael and Kevin Heflin were expert skiers, having learned the sport as boys, but they were also extreme risk takers who liked pushing things to the limit and beyond. They wanted to do one last run down Powder Chute before coming in, so when the ski patrol made an announcement for everyone to return to the lodge, they hid behind a maintenance shack at the top of the mountain.
Michael was nineteen and two years older than his brother and was the more reckless of the two. He pulled out a bottle of Captain Morgan Private Stock Rum from his pack and took a long swig then handed it to his brother. “This will warm us up.”
Kevin looked at the blowing snow and nervously responded, “We need to get the hell out of here. This is getting really bad.”
“Relax, we’ve skied in worse than this,” Michael smiled, “One more for the road,” and took another swig from the flask then handed it to his brother who finished the remainder of the alcoholic beverage.
The combination of high altitude, alcohol and cold weather was bad enough, but when you add in zero visibility and gale force winds, it was a recipe for disaster. The two brothers didn’t even see the red tape that warned skiers of the steep cliff and they crashed through it and tumbled into the canyon below.
Thirty minutes later, three men in single file pushed their way through the waist high snow at the top of the ridge. The powerful gusts of wind, some reaching as much as sixty miles an hour, battered them and sprayed the powder in every direction until the men felt like they were in a vortex of white. This was Mountain Rescue Team One with tens of years of experience between them and smart enough to respect the immense power of Mother Nature especially when she raged like this.
“What’s that noise?” Joe Hasslebeck asked.”
“Somebody must have dropped their IPOD,” Earl Josephson guessed.
“I can barely hear it, is that the Marine Corps Hymn playing?” Walt Conrad listened intently, “It is! Who records military music when they go skiing?”
“A Patriot,” Joe responded.
“We have a decision to make very quickly or we’re going to get stuck up here!” Earl yelled out, “I’ve been living in these mountains my whole life and I know a bad storm when I’m in one.”
“I can barely see three feet in front of me!” Walt Conrad added, “We’re going to have to trip over these boys to have any chance of finding them.”
Joe hesitated to leave the two brothers behind, but he knew that it wasn’t feasible to stay any longer especially with the storm blizzard increasing in intensity, “Call it.”
Walt put the radio inside his parka and screamed out above the howling wind, “This is Search Team One, we’re coming down! No sign of lost skiers.”
Sheriff Ben Elliot was in the ski lodge with Kelly Austin and Lisa Madden, the girlfriends of the two brothers when he got the radio call, “Affirmative, Search Team One,” He wasn’t about to second guess their decision because he knew that their judgment was based on dozens of successful rescues.
The two girls were frantic when they heard the news, “You can’t just leave them out there!” Kelly pleaded.
“We don’t want to, but we have no choice” Sheriff Elliot led both of the girls to the large window and showed them the severity of the storm, “Take a look, pretty bad huh?
Kelly nodded weakly,
“Well it is much worse at the top,” Sheriff Elliot replied. “If the search team is coming down, it is because they don’t have a choice. These are brave men who willingly put their lives on the line to save others, but they also have families that they want to come home to. ”
Lisa was more stoic and realistic, “If it is too dangerous for the search teams then you’re saying that there is very little chance that Michael and Kevin will survive…is there?”
Sheriff Elliot hesitated at first then responded with measured words, “They could have found some shelter and warmth if they were lucky. Anything is possible.”
“Possible, but not likely,” Lisa said.
“”Let’s just leave it at possible and say a prayer. It is out of our hands.”
Michael and Kevin would be at a severe disadvantage against the storm even if they had their full wits about them, but they were weak and could not make reasonable decisions. Death seemed inevitable when the two brothers found themselves up to their necks in snow and unable to extract themselves. They were just about ready to lapse into unconsciousness and only minutes away from severe hypothermia when out of nowhere two powerful hands pulled them out of their frozen graves. It looked surreal, but the unrecognizable rescuer seemed to be walking on top of the snow with the two brothers on his shoulders.
Kelly and Lisa slept restlessly by the giant fireplace in the lobby of the ski lodge and when sunrise came up the next morning, the storm had passed and the sky was crystal blue. Snow drifts were up to the second floor of the building.
Sheriff Elliot entered, “The visibility is clear enough for us to get a helicopter in the air. I’ll keep you posted.”
Kelly’s cellphone rang, “Yes ma’am…we’ll contact you the moment that we hear anything.”
When Kelly disconnected, Lisa asked, “Was that Michael and Kevin’s parents?”
“They’re trying to get here, but all the roads are closed.”
“There’s really nothing they can do except sit around and wait like us,” Lisa said.
“Do you want to be the one to tell them to stay home?” Kelly asked.
“I guess not.”
The helicopter made a dozen passes over the ski runs during the morning hours, but saw nothing and finally returned to the Sheriff’s office when it ran low on fuel. Search and Rescue Team One members were in the locker room discussing their failed attempt at bringing the two brothers down safely.
“They might have to wait until spring thaw to find the bodies,” Walt Conrad said.
“We can’t save them all, I know that, but it doesn’t it make any easier when we have to leave somebody behind,” Joe sighed.
“I don’t know what we couldn’t have done differently,” Les added, “It is what it is…let it go.”
“Remember the last time we left somebody behind?” Joe reminisced.
“I sure do, I’m not likely to ever forget that,” Les added.
“That was a completely different situation,” Walt said.
“Sometimes when I’m up there, I think I see or hear things,” Joe didn’t know exactly how to explain himself.
“Like when we heard the Marine Corps hymn playing in the blizzard?” Les said.
“I never told anybody this, but not too long ago, I was coming down Powder Chute and somebody was mirroring my every move,” Walt volunteered.”
“Big deal, do you think that you’re the only good skier on the mountain?” Joe retorted.
“They were so close that it was like I was making too sets of track with one pair of skis,” Walt hesitated for several seconds, “but nobody was there.”
“We’re a team so I guess that if one of us is crazy, we might as well all be,” Les said.
Three years earlier:
An avalanche came crashing down the mountain and swept several skiers over the same cliff that Michael and Kevin Heflin crashed over. In a matter of minutes rescue teams including Search Team One were on site and digging for survivors.
Marine Corps Captain Charles Morgan was on Powder Chute at the time and saw the avalanche. He approached the first responders, “Need some help?”
Captain Morgan began digging at a feverish pitch and did not stop until all the skiers were found. He then helped the Search Teams get everybody back up the steep canyon face and now he was the only one left down there to save. The storm had worsened and a rope was lowered, but at that precise time another avalanche engulfed him. The search teams frantically rappelled back down and worked for hours, but never found the heroic Marine.
“We’ve hiked down that canyon two summers in a row when it is completely dry and have never found his body …not even one clue,” Walt said, “You’d think we’d find something.”
“Now you’re beginning to sound like the people who say that the mountain is haunted,” Joe commented
Les replied, “Unless you’ve got a better explanation, I’m sticking with haunted.”
Back at the lodge, Bill and Emily Heflin finally arrive after a long and exhausting drive from Oceanside where they were delayed for hours by road closures. They were distraught and emotionally exhausted as Emily rushed to embrace the two girls and literally collapsed into their arms.
“No words on the boys?” Bill asked with no great hesitation.
“Sorry sir,” Lisa softly answered.
Bill Heflin broke down in tears just as Sheriff Elliot entered, “I was informed that you had just arrived.” Before he could continue, his cellphone rang. He was confused at first when he didn’t recognize the ringtone which was the same song that the rescue team heard up on the mountain ridge, The Marine Corps Hymn. Sheriff Elliot answered the phone, “Yes,” and listened for a couple minutes with this incredulous look upon his face. When he finally composed himself, “Are you absolutely sure? Okay, we’re on our way. Notify Search Team One and tell them to meet me there.”
Sheriff Elliot disconnected the call then turned to Bill and Emily Heflin, “We need to go.”
When Sheriff Elliot arrived at Mammoth Mountain Hospital with the family and girlfriends, Search Party One was already waiting for him at the entrance.
“You wanted to see us,” Joe said.
“Maybe you can tell me what’s going on?”
“We’d like to go in Sheriff,” Emily Heflin said impatiently.
The group entered and Sheriff Elliot approached the nurse at the desk, “You called?”
Doctor Matthews overheard the request, “I know why you’re here, follow me.”
Doctor Matthews led the group down the hall and when Bill and Emily saw their two sons lying in beds in the hospital room, they rushed in followed by the girlfriends and embraced the two boys.
Sheriff Elliot turned to Search Team One, “You didn’t tell me that you brought the boys here! I almost told the parents that they were still up on the mountain.”
“We didn’t,” Les responded.
“Didn’t what!” Sheriff Elliot snapped back.
“We didn’t bring them in, we left the mountain right after we called you,” Walt explained, “that’s the truth.”
Sheriff Elliot asked, “Doctor, may I talk to you in the hallway?”
Doctor Matthews followed Sheriff Elliot to a place out of earshot of the parents. “Do you remember who brought these boys in?”
“Wasn’t it one of your men?” Doctor Matthews responded.
Sheriff Elliot re-entered the hospital room and approached the beds, “I’m sorry to interrupt this reunion, but do you remember what search team brought you in?”
Michael Devlin, “It wasn’t a team, it was just was one guy,”
“One man was able to get both of you off that mountain?” Sheriff Elliot was in disbelief.
“He just picked up like we were nothing,” Kevin added.
“Did he say anything or tell you who he was?” Sheriff Elliot inquired.
“No, nothing like that?” Kevin answered.
The nurse entered with two backpacks and handed them to the Sheriff, “I believe that these belong to the boys.”
Sheriff Elliot felt something in the pack and looked inside. He stared at it for several seconds before pulling it out and holding it up for the members of Search Team One to see. No one knew what to say when they saw the empty liquor bottle with the label Captain Morgan.