Randolph Wagner: ‘Twas the night before Christmas … and the kids were lost in a snowstorm on Mt. Alyeska

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(Editor’s note: A Christmas Eve memory by a lifelong Alaskan, worth reading aloud tonight.)

By RANDOLPH WAGNER

“….the horse was lean and lank, misfortune seemed his lot he got into a drifted bank and we got up sot.”

In the winter of 1981, I was installing snow-making equipment at Alyeska Ski Resort.

As a single parent with twin six-year-old sons, I was constantly adapting to the rapidly changing world of youth. My solution was to teach them how to ski.

I was proud they could get on and off a chairlift. The beginners Chairlift 3 is located at the bottom of the mountain, in full view of the lodge. The lift attendants were experts at safely loading and unloading skiers. The ski patrol was present. The boys were safe, and the lift crew knew them.

I was working nearby at the bottom of Mt. Alyeska and could watch them on trails and Chair 3. Wow — they were doing just great tackling every run in the beginners area, which was well lit. It was easy keeping track of them.

Busy? No, “outrageously busy” better describes ski resorts on Christmas Eve.

On the busiest night of the year, snow prayers were answered and maximum snowfall was in progress. All was well. It was snowing big silver dollar flakes falling so fast your ski tracks disappeared in minutes. Employees were working hard, getting most everything is order. The parking lots were filling up, the parties were starting, the sun was gone, and mountain lights kept a few runs open.

My sons knew where I was — I was working near the big Chairlift 1 that went to the top of the mountain.

The ski patrol was closing down the upper runs and “sweeping” each one to verify no one was on them.

At the top, the “round house” held the huge wheel for the lift and the unloading and loading ramps. There, you got off the chair to ski down, or you could get on the chair to ride the lift down.

About this time it became time to “get the kids.”

I searched the beginners area, the day lodge, the main lodge, the shops, bakery, the child care center, and was getting anxious. I hiked back to the cabin and, with no sign of them, called all that I knew.

This was getting serious. I notified everyone and got the same response: “It’s Christmas Eve, they’ll show up. You know how kids are these days.”

Rats!!

The mountain was completely closed.

My focus was on the many people coming to the lodge, the parking lots, the condos. I was wondering, asking, looking, again and again and agin. Yet nothing, absolutely nothing. It was getting very dark.

When I went to punch out on the time clock at Chairlift 1 hut, the lift operator looked an me and said, “Whoah! You need help what’s your problem!”

I explained the situation.

He said “Wait and minute. There were these two little kids who came over and hopped on the lift behind my back, and yelled ‘It’s ok we know how to get on and off! I looked around for parents or friends and no one was there.'”

The lift operator had assumed they had someone ahead who would meet them at the top. In those days, if you were lost, everyone met at the top or bottom of the lift.

A phone call to the top alerted a few staff, who responded no one had seen two unaccompanied children in the area.

They had got off earlier and headed down the lit trail under the lift. It was the only trail open, steep with increasingly deep powder, a racing trail with near zero visibility. They were having trouble but made it to the midway station.

Chair 1’s midway station is where folks get off if they don’t want to go to the top. You could not load there to ride down. The attendant convinced the boys to load up and return to the top where they could then ride a chair to the bottom. Back to the top they went.

And, of course, they got off at the top, rather than riding the chair back down.

Finally, communication was made and they got back on the lift to happily ride to the bottom, where they were met with a ecstatic father who rushed up to hug them — without thinking about the moving chair lift, which they gracefully jumped off as it flattened dad. They yelled “Dad! You told us never to get in front of a moving chair!”

Safe at last, we regrouped and proceeded to a dinner party at Polka Dan’s place in Girdwood near the highway and railroad tracks. It was a great party, and I was bragging about how daring my sons were.

This Christmas Eve party was complete with a one-horse open sleigh. The rides were about 20-30 minutes long. Wes and William finally got their turn. The trail used was along and on the railroad track due to the heavy snow.

After a while, a train came by. Someone said, “I thought the train wasn’t running tonight. Where is the sleigh?”

Oh no — now what? Where are the kids?

They made it back that night. The sleigh had broken and what would you do if you were six years old? Walk the horse back to the barn, of course! They weren’t lost. They knew where they were (about 30 minute walk away).

When they finally talked to their mom in the Lower 48 that evening and told of their adventure, they finished by saying, “… it was just like the Jingle Bells song, mom … the horse was lean and lank, misfortune seemed his lot, he got into a drifted bank and we got upsot … but we got it off the railroad tracks just before the train came by!”

Christmas Day was lesson time. Together with we skied the whole mountain, learning how to get down most slopes, where and when to meet up, ski patrol safety, and we redefined a Merry Christmas.

Life is a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of man, as a whole, experience it. Avoiding danger is no longer safer in the long run than exposure. Merry Christmas!

Born in Alaska before statehood, Randolph Wagner has spent decades as a real estate agent for properties in Anchorage, Alyeska, Girdwood, Wasilla, Palmer, Fairbanks, North Pole, (and now) in Glennallen, Copper Center, Kenny Lake, Chitina, McCarthy, Gulkona, Tolsona, Tazlina, Gulkana, Lake Louise, Willow Lake, Pippen Lake, and Eastern Interior Alaska.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I miss the freedoms and parental trust and confidence I experienced growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s. This story is a marvelous recollection and demonstration of how very capable humans can be. Great job in giving them an early foundation that enabled them to handle with aplomb some twist and turns that Christmas.

    It’s tough raising an independent child now, when surrounded by bubble wrapping busy bodies. Life is risk. We learn to handle risk thru practice and experience.

  2. Correction:
    “Life is a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men, as a whole, experience it. Avoiding danger is no longer safer in the long run than exposure.”

    This is a quote from Helen Keller

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