Snow Panic

by John Crisp

Early in my youthful years (I’m still in my youthful years - this was only a little over thirty years ago), I was working at my office in the Student Union, when I thoughtfully noticed that the whole student body seemed to be bogged down, sinking in the mire of studying for semester finals. The collective mood was somber - almost depressive. There were red eyes, bleak stares, and two-legged carcasses dragging themselves back and forth across the campus, trudging through the early December snow to end-of-semester classes. Finals week loomed on the horizon like a grizzly bear waiting to attack.

As student body president, my job included, among other things, keeping my finger on the pulse of campus morale, organizing and scheduling various campus activities, booking concerts and special speakers, and exhorting the student body about once a month in the daily chapel services. Being a creative and adventurous character (even back then), there were many opportunities to test my developing skills in various on and off-campus student activities (official and otherwise). I determined to find a way to remedy the cold, dreary, somberness that was slowly getting a strangle hold on the collective mood of my fellow students. To that end, I set about to organize a “snow picnic” for all students, as a brief, fun interlude to lighten the spirits a bit before finals week “hit.” I had to do some major persuading, exhorting, and arm-twisting to get things rolling on short notice. Meeting the needs of my fellow students was part of my job, after all.

The first poster announcing the “Snow Picnic” went up in the Student Union near my office. One student, looking over my shoulder as I pinned the poster to the bulletin board, misread the words aloud as “Snow Panic” - that should tell you how blurry-eyed he was. I liked his “misreading” better than my original, and promptly took down the poster and re-typed it to read according to his humorous misread. Posters soon went up in the Student Union, dorms, gym, library, hallway bulletin boards, and lounge areas, proclaiming the up coming “Snow Panic.” Meeting time - after dark. Place: Student Union. Instructions: wear warm clothes, coats, hats, gloves, snow boots - and bring your roommate and lots of enthusiasm! I didn’t publish “where” we were going on this trek - that was done to create suspense and provoke conversation! Students were to simply follow the vehicle in front of them.

This was to be a night event off-campus that would require a caravan of students in their cars trekking through snow packed winding back roads into ranch country - many miles from any town. I was the designated navigator for the large group, riding in the lead vehicle - an old school bus. Only I knew where this convoy was heading (not even the driver knew), and how to get there and back again was my responsibility. Maybe the mystery of it all, and the “hey, where’s everybody going?” spirit, is what got almost every student on campus on-board for this once-in-a-lifetime event. Even students that planned to stay in the dorm and study all night were unceremoniously extracted from their textbooks by friendly force and hornswaggled into going on this wild adventure. Wild adventures into the unknown always have the tendency to create their own self-sustaining contagion, especially among large groups of young people short on sleep or good sense. I’m sure this kind of thing could never have been pulled off on short notice with today’s liability concerns, but this was back then - in the good old days!

Let me back up a bit in time to give you some relevant context. The afternoon before the highly anticipated event, I took a couple of friends out to the site to set up the tubing runs on the snowy slopes - and to try them out firsthand. Some big tractor tire inner tubes from the farm, along with some donated truck tire inner tubes, were pumped up with air and thrown into the back of my Dad’s pickup truck, and off we headed down the snowy back roads to our targeted destination. Our plan was to create a super downhill tubing run that was big enough, high enough, fast enough, and harrowing enough to provide an unforgettable adventure for our fellow students, staff, and faculty.

In the summer time, these 100-foot high rocky bluffs were home to fossils, scorpions, rattlesnakes, and tarantulas. It was also my favorite hang gliding launch area - but those stories (and there are some wild ones!) will have to wait. These big Kansas hills were located in open range country (no fences) - so cattle had the right-of-way, not cars or pickup trucks. In wintertime, the place was a wonderland of steep snowy slopes, crevasses, canyons, and ravines, waiting to be conquered - which was just what we intended to do!

Now imagine if you can, standing atop a 10-story building, looking down on a frigidly cold night to the streets below. That’s about the right height. The people below look only slightly larger than ants; the cars - like Matchbox toys. Hold that thought firmly in your mind and you’ll be somewhat acclimated to what happened next.

Here’s how things were to be done: at the highest point on the bluff, you make an all-out running dive and jump onto your rubber-made steed with a couple of other fellow victims and push off and over the precipice, with a hearty “GERONIMO!” for the audio effect that echoed off the canyon walls. What you experienced next was about a five-story plunge, strategically designed to help your “vehicle” gain the necessary momentum. Then came a sudden, short, level area to break up the monotony of the otherwise steeply angled slope. The effect of hitting the level spot was you did something like an “accordion compression,” with your anatomy being slammed into the inflated rubber inner tube. Then while holding on for dear life, you abruptly bounced up and shot out into the cold of space for about 3-4 seconds; your body rising wholly against your will above and off the big tube by about 1-2 feet in additional altitude during this flight of fancy. When the momentum and the fancy fizzled out, you then reconnected (usually) with the thin rubber piece you were only briefly acquainted with previously, and plummeted headlong another four stories down the bumpy chute to a second and final launching area where the separation from the tube was more pronounced, and where you seldom ever re-connected with rubber. If you somehow landed together with your comrades on top of the inflatable rubber dingy, and rode it out to the end without falling off, you got extra points. If you could do it all without screaming, there were more points awarded. If you could come up with some droll bit of humor about your mangled body parts or awkward landing position without cracking a smile, then there were bonus points. We continued to work on the points system over the course of the afternoon. If you still had the stamina to climb back up the hill and do it all over again . . . well, we wondered aloud about your mental stability. Once we got the snow packed down after our initial runs, things really started getting exciting! The speed picked up considerably on the first downhill leg, now that the slope had turned into a sheet of ice on top of the snow. We felt like we were cruising at supersonic speeds. You could watch the guy ahead of you yell, but then it took a few seconds to hear the sound of his voice as the scream passed you! The rocket launch into space was now higher and farther, and after a few more runs we were even beginning to see stars! And the following gravity induced drop-off was quite “accelerating” - and I’m not referring to the scenery! NASA might’ve been envious to see our test course.

Anyway, after a few more runs we were all satisfied that the course was properly set up for the next unsuspecting victims. We smiled and laughed aloud at the thought. Fortunately, there were no other students, staff, or faculty present to witness the glow of our self-satisfaction at a job well done. The advantage of planning to do this kind of thing at night with a large group will become readily apparent to the reader. Victims that are led in the dark to a 100-foot precipice are much less likely to bolt for the parking lot or put up much resistance if they can’t discern the fact that they are now standing atop a 10-story equivalent bluff, especially if they can’t see all the way down to the bottom of the ravine, seemingly miles below them. “Ignorance is bliss,” is the old saying.

Later that evening, at the appointed hour, a mass of students, staff, faculty, and others without their faculties, suddenly materialized and gathered at the Student Union, all appropriately bundled up and talking excitedly. Shortly thereafter, a long sequence of headlights was observed winding through the countryside, bumping over the cattle guards, passing through the rolling hills and snowy valleys to Dead Man’s Hill (only recently named that same day). Excitement, anticipation, giddy exuberance, and perhaps some foreboding elements were present, depending on 1) one’s personality type, 2) how long the victims had been packed together like sardines in the caravan, and 3) how long certain individuals present had known the organizer of the event. 

Before our wilderness journey through the night began, I had loaded a 55-gallon barrel and several chunks of firewood into the bus for a makeshift portable campfire, to be set up at a lower elevation for hand warming purposes. I also remembered to purchase a large quantity of instant cocoa, Styrofoam cups, and several bags of marshmallows - the big fat kind. And I brought along some dorm-donated wire coat hangers that are generally considered important expedients for all such advanced level escapades.

Upon arrival, I rounded up all hesitant stragglers and proceeded to lead the whole expedition up the winding path to the peak of Dead Man’s Hill. When we arrived, I purposely directed the group’s attention in the opposite direction of the tubing run, toward the eastern sky, where the moon was shining brightly. I identified various constellations, indicated compass points, cardinal directions, and how to tell time by the stars - “buying time” for my co-conspirators, who were busy readying the launch vehicles on the backside of the precipice. We had purposely chosen the relatively gentle slope to create a path to the peak for the group to ascend, so as not to tip off any victims to the reality of the sheer drop-off on the other side. Watching our breath in the cold night air, I announced the purpose for which we had come to this location. My associates signaled that all was in place and ready. The Snow Panic was officially “ready to launch.”

Everyone was lined up and ready to go. I now exhorted the students to courage, boldness, and daring, with the promise of a great ride and the opportunity to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime memory-making event. Our chosen motto: “To boldly go where no man has gone before!” (except, of course, in our earlier afternoon excursion). Some of the previously hesitant stragglers were now beginning to wonder if the “lifetime thing” was going to be substantially shortened by their up coming ride. But, strangely, no one headed back to the bus in the dark. It’s one of those things I guess, where people like to stand around and gawk at unfortunate accident victims, like it was a spectator sport.

After the first volunteer quartet of victims realized too late that their vehicle was not equipped with a steering wheel or brakes, they screamed like a bunch of ax murder victims all the way down the tubing pike (probably doing it just for the overall psychological effect it would have on the remaining would-be participants). [Editor’s note: I hate it when that happens - it ruins the element of surprise!] After a few moments, we lost sight of their vehicle as it and they disappeared in a plume of flying snow over the second launching pad, and we could barely make out their scattered carcasses at the edge of the last ravine. When this happened, several female students gasped audibly and covered their mouths - their eyes bugging out in ghastly horror in the moonlight. Moments later, a good number of faculty members who now were absolutely sure they’d left their faculties behind, stepped out of the line and immediately volunteered for refreshment duty. Hot chocolate was being brewed down at the campfire for its known therapeutic effects on winter sports injuries, and older, wiser persons were apparently needed as supervisors for this task - or so their story went. By the volume of hot chocolate they were busily brewing up, I surmised they expected there would be large numbers of “incoming wounded” arriving shortly.

Still, there were an amazing number of students who considered the possibility of hospitalization (or worse) as perhaps better odds than facing the aforementioned grizzly bear, and decided to participate in this “mother-of-all” tubing runs. They figuring it couldn’t be any worse than surviving finals, and it might even be fun - something no one has ever claimed about finals.

When everyone had made as many runs as were deemed survivable by more experienced pilots, my sweetheart (now my wife, Ramona) and I hopped onto the last tube for the finale. During our subsequent downhill speed run, we briefly achieved several historic firsts in our relationship: 1) weightlessness in space, 2) our first cross-country duet, and 3) our first brief separation from each other and planet earth simultaneously. We arrived at the bottom end of the ravine more or less intact, having lost our vehicle somewhere during the last leg of our journey. We survived the ordeal with only minor bumps and bruises, but did do a brief inventory of anatomical appendages before we headed back up the hill, to the hoots and hollers of a throng of spectators.

A few happy songs around the campfire, an impromptu full-scale snowball fight, lots of steaming hot cups of cocoa, and six packages of flaming marshmallows later, we noticed a definite morale boost among the student body. This feeling of breathless euphoria lasted for several hours. [Editor’s note: ‘Course there’s nothing like a few hours of numbing cold wind chill and wet snow in every crevice of your body to make you forget where you got hurt, until the next morning, when you roll over in bed and feel like you were drug through a rat hole backwards.]

The final cleanup before going back to campus included chipping out various artifacts from the scattered debris field of hats, gloves, mittens, scarves, shoes, watches, keys, glasses, and other assorted pieces of apparel and personnel. We figured the blood spots would eventually melt away, as would a few stray molten marshmallows and a couple of patches of yellow snow near the aforementioned launch areas. Final score: a large number of “survivors,” a big bunch of happy campers, no broken noses or bones, no leftover marshmallows, and no students missed the bus going home. And everyone totally forgot about the upcoming finals for a few hours - exactly fulfilling the intended purpose of the event. Ah, the sweet smell of success . . . or was that burnt marshmallows, I never could tell the difference.

The fact that I’m telling you this story now, proves it was a memorable event. It left an impression on most of the student body as well, in more ways than one. The impressions in my body didn’t heal over for several weeks, and I suspect others would concur with that analysis. But the whole event did bring about a profound change in the collective morale on campus that year, and became a sort of landmark event and reference point of comparison for future events. It’s still a great “ice-breaker” at class reunions decades later. “You remember the winter of ‘77 when crazy Crisp led us all out into the boondocks for the Snow Panic?” “Yeah, I sure do . . . and I’ve got the marks to show for it, too! See this scar right here . . .”

John Crisp is the founder and pastor of the Grace Bible Church in Americus, Kansas.  He is a 6th generation farmer, who, together with his wife Ramona, own and operate Shepherd’s Valley CSA farm - a farm that has been on the cutting edge of sustainable and organic practices for over 25 years. John teaches a variety of classes integrating the Bible and spiritual principles with nature, organic gardening, and livestock management practices.  John and Ramona practice what they preach - living a simple, frugal, agrarian lifestyle, seeking to honor their Creator.