Read Clear to Lift Online

Authors: Anne A. Wilson

Clear to Lift

 

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About the Author

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For Mom and Dad

 

Acknowledgments

To my editor, Kristin Sevick. You spoiled me with an all-day, live editing session for this book, a rare gift, which of course made the novel infinitely better. I can't thank you enough for taking the time with me.

To my agent, Barbara Poelle. So much awesomeness here, I'm not even sure where to begin. Thank you for your patience with me in all things.

Thank you, Seth Lerner, for creating such a gorgeous cover. Thank you also to my publicist, Emily Mullen, Bess Cozby, and the entire Tor/Forge team! And to my copy editor, Terry McGarry, thank you for your wonderfully thorough work.

To my extended military family. Once again, I turned to you for your expertise, and you responded without hesitation. To Major Jon Sablan, USMC (Ret.), fellow skid pilot and also my next-door neighbor in Bancroft Hall at the Naval Academy. Thank you for your help with all things Huey and Marine Corps. To Chief Petty Officer Jack Ruskin, USN (Ret.), a gifted SAR corpsman with a wicked wit whom I had the honor to fly with in Fallon, Nevada. You were beyond helpful when discussing “sexy” SAR scenarios! To Captain Sara Joyner, USN, thank you for sharing your F/A-18 expertise and knowledge of the Fallon Range Training Complex.

To the members of the Longhorn squadron—both past and present—stationed at Naval Air Station Fallon, who continue to uphold a long and storied tradition of excellence in high-altitude, technical mountain rescue.

To the selfless men and women who volunteer in SAR units across the country—in particular, the folks from Mono County, California—thank you.

I have to thank the crew who flew with me during the actual flood rescue that inspired the last scene in this book. Don Benson, Marty Naylor, Vince Wade, and Tom Spradlin, you guys rocked the “Devil's Own Fury”! And a special shout-out to Dean Rosnau, Mono County SAR team member, one of those we rescued that day, but only because this selfless individual risked it all to save the lives of others.

To Bela and Mimi Vadasz, mountain guides and founders of Alpine Skills International based in Truckee, California. You taught me and my husband, Bill, so much. You have no idea how much you influenced the words in this book. Bela, you left this world far too early.

To Sharmin Dominke, my authority on search-and-rescue dogs. Thank you for your help. For questions about Labrador retrievers, I turned to my brother, James Hotis, and his wife, Lisa Carlgren, and their sweetheart of a dog, Cash.

To Alison Smith, my roommate at the Naval Academy. The main protagonist was named for you.

To the band who has inspired my writing from the beginning—the always awesome, ridiculously talented Muse. I always turn to you.

To my parents, Ruth and Tony Hotis, for their love and support that is always and unconditionally there. Thanks also, Dad, for the Spanish language help! Love you immenso!

To my sons, Adam and Isaac. I love you beyond measure.

And to Bill. Always.

 

1

Agitated snow tumbles and whirls across the cockpit windshield. I strain to see through it, to make out three figures clinging to a vertical wall of ice. Two are unmoving, dangling like rag dolls from the ends of a climbing rope. One, wearing a bright yellow jacket and neon-orange gloves, scampers up from below, gripping two ice axes, feet and hands a flurry of movement, scrambling up, up, up, over two hundred feet above the ground, and without a …
rope
?

“He doesn't have a rope!” I say, squinting to be sure.

Although, wait. Maybe … it's an optical illusion. We
are
flying at ten thousand feet, skirting the edge of a rock buttress three thousand feet high.

Yeah, right, Alison. You know why you can't tell …

“You sure about that?” says Commander Benjamin “Boomer” Marks, the aircraft commander for the flight. A former offensive tackle for the University of Wyoming, he still packs every pound of his football-glory-days girth.

“No, sir, I'm
not
sure. Why? Because I can't see a flippin' thing! Which is what happens when you fly in a freakin' snowstorm! Which, by the way, goes against every—”

“You mean, this insignificant nothing of a snow squall? The one we've been flying in for all of fifteen
seconds
? The one that'll pass just as fast?”

“But what about—?”

“The deicing system is on, Malone. And look,” he says, motioning with his head to the outside. “It's past history, anyway.”

The snowflake assault abruptly fades to nothingness.

“See? Already through it.” He flashes an I-told-you-so grin as we transition into improbably clear air, albeit in the midst of disturbingly unsettled weather—the clouds hanging heavy, threatening.

We're doing a low-speed flyby, like we always do when called to a rescue, but at least now we have an unrestricted view of the fast-moving, agile climber, who apparently does
not
require a rope when scuttling up a frozen rock face hundreds of feet above the ground. I lean in my seat as far as the straps will allow, peering into a narrow couloir—a steep tunnel of snow and ice—that splits the east face of the formidable Mount Morrison.

“That is some serious risky shit,” says our ace crew chief, Beanie, otherwise known as Petty Officer First Class Billy Hilfenbein. “Soloing the Death Couloir? Jesus, Will.”

“Will? Who's Will?” I ask.

“That loony!” Beanie pokes his head between the cockpit seats and points to the climber in yellow. “Lieutenant Malone, meet Will Cavanaugh, one of the best all-around mountaineers in the world.”

“Like literally the world, ma'am,” our star paramedic, Hap—officially Petty Officer First Class Hap Gentry—says. “The guy should like wear a cape or something.”

“Is he new, Hap? I've never heard of him.”

“He left for the Himalaya right after you checked in, ma'am. About four months ago, I think.”

“Best climber on the Mono County SAR Team,” Beanie says.

I watch, transfixed, as Will ascends Spiderman-like, quick and sure, negotiating the last few feet to the first victim.

“Rescue Seven, Mono County Sheriff, over.”

“Mono County Sheriff, Rescue Seven has you loud and clear,” Boomer says. “Whaddya got for us, Jack?”

“Just an update,” says Jack Smith, head of the Mono County Search and Rescue Team. He briefed the rescue scenario with us via radio during our transit—two climbers stranded, hit by rockfall—and reports now from the base of the mountain, where he waits with the rest of the ground crew, watching with binoculars, over six thousand feet below us. “As you can see, Will's almost to the first victim. He passed the belayer on the way up, who's conscious, possible broken arm. But the belayer thinks the lead guy is worse off. He's been in and out of consciousness.”

“Roger that,” Boomer says. “We'll plan for the lead guy, first. We're rigged for rappel.”

And then to me. “Ready for the controls, Alison?”

I bring my gloved hands to my mouth and give a quick blow of hot air—god bless, it's cold—before placing them on the flight controls. “I've got the controls.”

“Rescue Seven, Whiskey One,” a voice crackles on the radio. It must be Will. “I'm at the first victim now. He's thirty-five years old, awake, alert, oriented. He was hit by rockfall and caught by his rope when he fell. He's hanging right side up. Man reports loss of feeling from the waist down. Suspect spinal injury. After we get him off, I'll down-climb to the second victim, over.”

“Whiskey One, Rescue Seven copies,” I say. “Inbound.”

I roll the aircraft to the left, rotor blades thwacking the air—thwack, thwack, thwack—continuing to arc around, until I arrive in a hover about forty feet away from the rocks, fifty feet above Will. I orient the helicopter parallel to the rock wall, sensing the winds more intimately now that I'm at the controls. Crap. I hate the winds in close quarters. Add to this, mushy flight controls, the result of not enough air particles at this altitude for our rotor blades to grip, and it means the aircraft is slow to react to my inputs. Crap and
crap.

At least you're not flying in the snow. Could be worse.

Wait. Don't say that.

“Okay, ma'am,” Beanie says. “Ready to slide right?”

“Ready.”

“Clear to slide right thirty, right twenty, right ten … right ten … Ma'am? I need you to slide right ten.”

“Beanie, isn't this close enough?”

I'd swear the rotor tips are less than ten feet from the wall now. No way we can slide farther.

“No, ma'am, we're gonna need to get closer.”

My mind whirs. Rotor clearance limits. Ten feet of horizontal clearance required for the main rotor. Same for the tail rotor.

“Sir, I don't know if we can do this. I don't think we're in rotor clearance limits.”

“There
are
no limits,” Boomer says.

“What? It's ten feet! It's—”

“In training, yes. If it's the real deal, the only limits are your own.”

“Please tell me that's not a Bruce Lee quote.”

“I'm paraphrasing.”

I peer out my side window at an unmoving face of black granite that is
right there.

“I hate to break it to you, Malone, but you're rock-steady in this hover,
and
you have the ability to do this. Not to mention, the guy with a spinal injury down there would appreciate the help.”

“Ma'am, why don't we try it right here to start?” Beanie suggests. “Once Hap's on the rope, he can try to swing over to the victim.”

“Let's try that,” I say, copping out completely. Coward.

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