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Whiteout

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The camera fades in to a wall of blinding, pure white, tinged with blue.

Suddenly, a boot in crampons emerges forward to press against a solid wall of ice. Deep, controlled breathing echoes in the camera, and the go-pro swoops quickly side to side before looking down at a body strapped with a harness to a rope belay.

We realize that the person is within a huge crack in the ice, slowly, carefully, stepping against the ice wall to move farther down into the crevasse. The go-pro is strapped to their helmet, our only view into the emerging scene.

Up above, back on the surface of the glacier, a dog frantically barks. We hear parts of the perilous ice crumble and fall as the man moves.

Voice, through a radio: “The dog just alerted. Any sighting?”

The man’s voice, breathing hard: “A trail of blood, yes. No sighting yet on the patient, but I know he’s down this way. Lower me down deeper. Fifteen more metres.”

The radio: “You’re already at the depth threshold for just two spotters. Wait until Gerold arrives with his backup to go deeper. He’s two minutes out.”

A sudden, wrenching moan echoes from beneath the man in the crevasse.

The man grasps the rope: “Patient is alive! I’ve got audio. Patient is alive. Give me the fifteen.”

Voice over the radio, reluctantly: “Copy. Lowering.”

The man on the belay starts descending farther into the crevasse. The camera searches desperately for a hint of the moaning man, peering down deeper into the shadowy ice.

Then, after a few silent seconds, the go-pro catches sight of an ungloved, bloodied hand peeking out of the deepest crack.

Rescuer, in German: “Hello? Hello, I’m here to help you.”

The hand twitches, and another guttural, screaming moan echoes from the ice.

Rescuer: “I am here to help you. My name is Sherlock Holmes. Do not move. I am here to help –”

A voice, from up above, suddenly shouts: “Sherlock!”

The rescuer, Holmes, sucks in a breath and quickly looks up. Barely visible through the crack thirty meters above his head, a sliver of sky can be seen, with another man being lowered from a hovering helicopter on a winch, swaying dramatically in the fierce winds.

Holmes, whispering: “John. . .”

The man on the winch screams while looking down into the crevasse: “Sherlock, wait until I touch down! Don’t fucking go deeper until I’m there!”

Below him, the other man continues to moan.

The go-pro gazes up at the man being lowered through the sky for one more moment, then looks back down at the patient’s bloody hand emerging from the ice. Sherlock moves deeper into the crack, using his ice pick to clear away loose snow until he can reach for the patient’s hand.

Holmes, again in German: “Stay calm. I will help you. I will hel—”

Suddenly, a piercing crack rips through the ice, and Sherlock grunts as he falls, tumbling deeper into the crevasse and buried by a massive wall of ice and snow. The rumble of ice is deafening for three full seconds.

When the avalanche stops moving, the go-pro is completely buried in snow. All we can see is grey and white. Sherlock gasps for breath, struggling to move.

Distantly, up above through the meters-thick ice, a single voice can be heard echoing down into the caved-in crevasse.

It is the voice from the man who had been lowered from the helicopter before.

The voice screams: “Sherlock!”

Holmes, faintly, just before the go-pro cuts out: “John. . .”

 

--

 

A bright red helicopter bursts into view from a wall of fog and cloud. The camera tracks it as it soars majestically through the sky, revealing a full view of the glittering Matterhorn peak just behind the tail.

The title card appears as the violins swell: “The Horn.”

Helicopter blades echo, mixed with a blaring siren.

It fades to black.

 

--

Text on the screen fades in: Three days earlier.

Interviewer, off-screen, with a feminine voice in a crisp German accent: “So, tell us, what is your favorite thing about this job?”

The camera focuses on a pair of tan hands tracing the smooth edges of a thick carabiner.

A voice, off screen: “Um. . . Well, actually, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that before. Not in fifteen years.”

Interview: “You’ve worked for Air Zermatt for fifteen years?”

The fingers holding the carabiner twitch: “Be sixteen next week, I believe.”

Interviewer, chuckling: “That’s a lot of collective time spent up in helicopters, isn’t it?”

A raspy, off-screen laugh: “That, and even more time spent arse-deep in snow, if you added it all up.”

Interviewer: “And you’ve worked as a Paramedic that whole time?”

We slowly pan up from the hands to reveal a bright orange zip-up uniform with a Caduceus patch sewn on.

Voice: “Yeah.” The arms shrug. “Most of the guys I started with have all up and passed me training to fly, and they’re all decades younger, but. . . this is right for me. Where I’m at now.”

Slowly coming into focus as the camera pans, the face of a man looking off into the distance through the sunny hangar. He’s in his late forties, with a salt and pepper stubble beard, combed back silver hair, and deep blue eyes, surrounded by wrinkles from squinting over the snow. He licks his lips, and there’s a secret smile on his face. The sewn-on name patch reads “J. Watson.”

Watson: “Your first question, though. Fuck if I can give a single answer to that. I mean, I’m in the most gorgeous place on earth, with the very best team. Flying over the fucking Alps every day, right? Taking the training I’ve done my whole life to help people. I don’t call it saving lives, but . . . yeah. To help people. To do something about it.”

He pauses again, and his eyes light up as he glances at the interviewer. His gaze briefly lowers towards her body before quickly looking back up.

Watson: “You want my honest answer?”

Interviewer, warmly: “Of course, John.”

Watson: “Honestly, there’s something about the ice, you know? Being out there, on the most remote rescues, when you’re far away from the ski lifts. The ice is beautiful, endless. It blinds your eyes, burns your skin. It’s like a pearl on fire. And you’ve only got so much time to stand on it before it swallows you up – literally kills you with its own hands. And it’s a clock between who’s going to lose it all first, you or the patient. And that is the only reason why I’m here, doing what I do in this place: the patient.”

Interviewer: “That’s all very poetic. You’ve given this some thought before?”

The camera cuts to a slow-motion clip of Watson looking out the window from the helicopter, slow violins in the background. The chopper sways dramatically in a sharp turn above the alps, and the white and blue of the Matterhorn peak reflects in Watson’s eyes through the window glass. He turns to the pilot next to him, Sam, and laughs as he responds to some words through his headset mic.

Watson’s voice, off-screen: “Those moments right before you touch down onto the ice, when the skies are clear, and you’re just waiting to burst into action. When you’re all silent in the helicopter. It gives you time to reflect, I guess, before you’re there on the side of the mountain, and you’re with the patient, and your mind is all focus, completely blank of anything else but the task at hand.”

The camera cuts back to Watson in the hangar. He runs a hand through his hair, and his eyes look a bit lost. In the background, a mechanic climbs up the side of one of the helicopters and starts doing repairs.

Interviewer: “And it’s true you were a doctor in the British Army before, yes? So you’ve seen some action there, to prepare you for these high stress moments?”

Watson blinks and shifts in his seat: “Right, er, yeah, but that was, God, so many years ago now –”

A sudden alarm blares, echoing through the hangar. Watson immediately bolts upright, drops the carabiner to the floor, and tosses the clip-on mic back towards the camera. The camera follows, running, as Watson jogs towards the supply room by the line of bright red helicopters.

Watson: “What do we got?”

Greg, hefting his pack on over his unzipped uniform, replies in French: “Didn’t receive the details yet from the radio call. All I know is an accident near Rothorn.”

Watson frowns, and the camera zooms in as he kneels to quickly shove extra medical supplies into his pack. He, too, replies in French: “It’s been warm today on that side of the peak. If it’s near Rothorn, then it’s probably a crevasse, no? Someone fallen in?”

They run out to the helicopter waiting for them on the helipad. Dominic sprints from another wing of the hangar to join them, paramedic bag in hand. The engine roars to life as Greg leaps into the pilot’s seat and fires up the engine. A cloud of snow blurs the air, and the thwack of the chopper blades echo.

Dominic: “Let me guess, Watson’s already guessed it’s a crevasse, yeah?”

Greg laughs into his headset, and Watson shakes his head as the helicopter lifts into the air.

Greg, in English: “Wouldn’t be our Watson if he wasn’t ready for the end of the world at all times.”

Watson: “Yeah, yeah, everyone make fun of me the next time we have a Code Blue and all of you only remember how to treat a pinkie sprain. Cushy toddlers.”

Dominic leans forward from the back: “Ah, man, you’re just sad you don’t get to bicker around the whole mission with your fellow Brit. This mission is far too boring for him.”

Greg, switching between English and French: “Sad about that? Seems to me Watson should be jumping for joy.” He glances at Watson: “The way you and Holmes go at it, you’d think your families have been at war for generations.”

The camera catches an odd look on Watson’s face, visible behind his headset, before he reaches up to put his sunglasses on. Then, he smirks.

Watson: “Careful, Dom, or else you’ll end up on the short list of ‘people I love to bicker with’. Ask my old Army mates – that’s not a place you want to be”

Greg, slapping Watson’s knee: “Aw, Watson, you just don’t want to admit you prefer a Frenchman and a Swiss over your own countryman –"

A radio call suddenly comes in, cutting off the conversation.

A scratchy voice, filled with static: “Viva Echo Sierra One Nine?”

Greg: “Echo Sierra One Nine Viva.”

Radio voice, in German: “Update for you on Rothorn. Female patient: eight years of age, possible broken femur with broken skin.”

Watson sighs and shakes his head out the window while Greg replies to the radio. Dominic reaches up from the back and claps Watson on the shoulder.

Dominic: “See, man? No crevasse. No Holmes. Quit worrying.”

Watson purses his lips: “Shouldn’t have an eight-year-old out in these conditions. . . Not with the weather changing like it has today.”

The camera view switches to an angle outside the helicopter, attached near the whirring blades. Wind blows fog and snow dramatically against the lens, and the visibility is almost too little to clearly see the outline of the peaks.

An off-screen voiceover, in French-accented English: “We are not supposed to wonder about what has happened, why the patients have gotten where they are.”

The camera pulls away from the helicopter as it flies off over the glaciers, reflecting the glinting ice. We cut to Greg Lestrade in a cozy house, bending over a kitchen table and cutting up fruit with a knife.

The voiceover continues: “That – to wonder – is not my job. We keep the mountain open, this place for people to come and experience the thrill, the nature, and if people come, some of them will need our help. It is just how it is.”

Four children, ages five to fourteen, flood into the room, followed by a woman with long brown hair, who puts her hand on the top of his back. She speaks something into his ear which makes him laugh, and they share a brief kiss while a kid steals a grape from the table.

Cut to Greg giving his interview from the pilot seat of a helicopter in the hangar: “My entire family, my father and grandfather, great grandfather, they were all mountain guides in the French alps. I have grown up with them – the mountains and the beauty of it. The adventure. But also . . . with the danger. The death. All of that, I have been exposed to. It is an accepted part of this world, and this job.”

Camera cuts back to the warm kitchen, where Greg sits down at the breakfast table with one kid on his lap. He’s dressed in half of his work uniform, the top of the red jumpsuit unzipped down to the waist.

Voiceover: “When it’s a child, though, of course it affects you. It is hard not to experience the emotions. To keep them away until the mission is over, and has succeeded. Until you have done your job.”

We cut back to the mission helicopter, with Greg in the pilot’s seat. Watson is beside him as co-pilot, commenting on the terrain and where they could land while he bends over to look out the window. Greg flashes him a quick nod. They are all business as the helicopter tilts to make a sharp turn, avoiding the cable wires of the ski lift.

Greg’s voiceover: “We are all affected of course, and me even especially, since I have my own kids. Same as the other guys at the company with kids. But my job is not down there in the snow, trying to save them. My job is to transport the people who can – to fly the helicopter as quickly and safely as possible, and then, once I have dropped off the paramedics, it is out of my hands. Once I learned to do that, to understand my duty, it all became a lot easier. I focus on the flying, and I deliver the equipment and the crew. That is my best job.”

A woman’s voice, off-screen, as Greg prepares the chopper to land on a patch of open snow near a crowded ski lift: “I always feel better when I know Greg is on a mission with John – when their shifts align.”

The camera cuts to the woman from the kitchen, sitting staring out the window over the mountains and cradling a cup of tea. It is Molly, Greg’s wife. Kids can be heard laughing in the background.

Molly: “Most of those guys, they all grew up here near the mountains, in Zermatt or one of the other towns. They’ve seen the tragedies, some of their family or friends, and so they’ve got this respect for the mountain. And with John, from the military, he understands that risk as well.”

She sighs, then smiles as one of the kids in the background loudly laughs. But her face quickly falls.

Molly: “But for Greg, it’s always bloody hard when it’s a kid who’s hurt, you know? John is better about all that. I mean, he cares, of course he cares, but. . . he doesn’t have a family, I don’t think. Actually, I don’t know much about his life, to be honest, but, the men at work -- they are his family, from what I’ve seen all the years I’ve known him. It’s easier for him to hold it together, and I know Greg feeds from that energy when he’s waiting back in the helicopter. It helps him – John’s calm.”

Interviewer: “Is John the most competent paramedic on the team?”

She grins slyly: “They’re all competent, it’s sort of a requirement for the job. I think they would murder me if they found out I ranked them.” She sighs: “But, yeah, I always feel better when I know they’re working together.”

Cut back to the helicopter landing in a whirling cloud of snow. Watson leaps through the burst of white and runs towards a group of people kneeling in the snow in the distance. Dominic is on his heels, carrying the stretcher.

Watson, into his headset speaking to Greg: “We’ll be fifteen minutes to get her stable to move. Hang back on the lower slope and I’ll call you.”

Greg, pulling the chopper back up into the air with a wave: “D’accord.”

The camera follows Watson kneeling in the snow beside a young girl. He shifts his body to block her face from the wind blown up by the departing helicopter.

Watson, to the parents: “You all speak English?”

They shake their heads no. The mother is crying into her ski jacket.

The father holds back the little girl’s hair, and speaks in German: “She was skiing down the hill, and then the fog came in, we do not know –”

Watson cuts him off gently and speaks to the girl in German: “What is your name, little one?”

The girl, sniffling: “Freda.”

Watson smiles at her as Dominic reaches for the leg, twisted at a wrong angle in the blood-spattered snow.

Watson: “Hello, Freda, we’re just going to move away some of your snowpants so we can look at your leg, yeah? Can you point to where it hurts?”

The camera continues to follow Watson and Dominic treating the girl, cutting away some fabric of her pants to view the lower portion of the leg. It focuses on Watson’s face to cut away from the gore of the exposed bone, and we witness intense focus, with his blue eyes riveted calmly down at his moving hands. We see his lips moving, possibly speaking to Freda, and his eyes brighten when we hear her laugh in return.

We pan back to see Dominic helping Watson set the covered leg in a splint, then they move her from the stretcher into the warm bag for transport to the helicopter. The roar of the wind drowns out their voices as they work.

Voice-over, off-screen, one we recognize as the other head paramedic, Patrick: “It’s those first few moments when you are in the snow that are the most critical. If you hesitate, if you wait too long to stabilize the patient, to get them back in the helicopter, hypothermia can set in. Even with just a broken bone, it is a race against the clock. You are racing against death.”

We continue following the movement of Watson’s gloved hands as he assesses the broken bone, still speaking calmly to Freda. Dominic hovers over Watson’s shoulder, carefully watching.

The radio interrupts, blaring.

Greg’s voice, in French: “John, I’m losing visibility. If I don’t come get you now, I might not be able to again for longer than you’d want.”

Watson motions to Dominic to run back to the clear landing area to help Greg touch down.

Watson: “Copy, Greg. Come now.”

We watch Watson bend over to shield the girl from the snow kicked up by Greg landing, then he lifts the stretcher with Dominic, and they run her back to the waiting helicopter. Watson leaps inside just as the helicopter starts to take off again after securing the stretcher, then he lifts a hand to wave as Dominic runs back to stay with the family.

Greg, into his headset, speaking to Dom: “I’ll send Robbie to get you and the parents. Should be in twenty – they’re coming from Visp.”

Dominic’s voice: “Ah, sure, I’ll freeze my balls off in the storm you were so worried about. No problem.”

Greg laughs.

We cut to Watson in the back moving quickly as Freda’s eyes droop closed in the warm bag. He inserts an IV into the back of her hand and starts to administer pain meds, then reaches up and quickly wipes away one of the tears rolling down her cheek.

The chopper suddenly lurches, and Watson grabs the metal side to steady himself.

Watson, in English, ostensibly so Freda cannot understand: “Fucking hell, Greg, trying to force her bone back outside her skin?”

We cut to Greg smirking in the pilot’s seat: “Afraid of a little turbulence? Surprising, that.”

We cut to a wide shot, tracking the helicopter as it soars down the face of the mountain towards the hospital in Visp, framed by the storming sun peeking through the grey clouds. Along the distant slopes, ski lifts and skiers travel across the mountain like tiny ants.

Interviewer, off-screen: “Do you see yourself as a hero?”

Cut to Watson, wiping a towel over his hands. It’s clear they have just come back from delivering Freda to the hospital, and a few specks of blood stain his uniform sleeve. His hair is damp with sweat from his helmet. In the background, in the hangar kitchen, Greg, Dom, and Gerold can be seen laughing while setting out plates for food.

Watson, speaking down to his hands: “No, no, I’ve never thought that.” His jaw tightens: “You know, what you saw here, today, that was a successful mission, right? Everything went smoothly. No mechanical problems, no failure to touchdown, the patient was ok and delivered to hospital, all of that.”

Interviewer, warmly: “I’m sensing a ‘but’.”

Watson smiles, then leans back against the wall and unzips the top of his uniform jumpsuit. His white shirt underneath is soaking wet, and he wipes a forearm once more across his brow

Watson: “You know, these other guys I work with, the ones who grew up here around the Alps . . . their whole families for generations have lived around the mountain. They grew up with the mountain guide rescue teams way back in the day, carrying the bodies down the mountain on foot. And then they saw the advent of the helicopters, looking up at the flash of red in the sky that meant a rescue. And they all thought, because they’ve told me, that those guys in the helicopter must be heroes. That they wanted to be them.”

The scene cuts to a dramatic, slow-motion view of a helicopter soaring across the peaks. Below it, swinging on a winch, can be seen the tiny speck of a rescuer with a patient on a stretcher, being pulled up through the sky, illuminated from behind by the rays of the late sun.

Back in the hangar, Watson sighs: “But you grow up, and you get here, and you realize it’s not being a hero at all. It’s just . . . it’s just a job. It’s an amazing job, and it helps people, but it’s just a duty. And there are some days when you finally touch down at the site, or you winch down to the snow, and the patient isn’t . . . isn’t there anymore to save. They’re gone. And you think, could we have flown faster? Should I have sprinted faster from the chopper? Should I have still tried CPR? All those doubts – what you could have done to save them. Those days . . . it doesn’t feel like being a hero, it feels like –”

Greg, in the background: “Watson, quit with the flirting and come and join us to eat!”

Watson flips him off around the corner, then shrugs apologetically to the camera.

Interviewer: “We spoke with Molly last week about your working relationship with Greg. You seem very close. Is he your favorite person here to work with?”

Watson, starting to clip off his mic: “We’re all a team here. None of this would work if we weren’t a close team.” He grins, but it doesn’t fully reach his eyes: “But, you know, I do love working with Greg. He’s the most competent pilot we have – he’s even surpassed Gerold, who trained him. We all agree. I trust him with my life.”

Watson hands over the mic and turns to go. The camera lets him.

As he enters the kitchen, there is a bright smile across his face, and Sam slaps him on the back as Patrick gives him a warm nod.

Patrick: “I’ve heard from town that your young patient is out of the surgery. They said if you had not made the choice to stabilize the leg as you did that the break would have been much worse.”

Gerold speaks over a full mouth: “We’ll add it to the training, for Dom and the rest of the trainees. It was a great idea, that.”

Watson nods his thanks, then ruffles Dominic’s hair.

Watson, to Dom: “Speaking of trainees, how are the frozen balls, huh?”

We stay on Watson as he turns away from the rest of the laughing team to scoop himself some stew from the stove. There, where no one can see, the camera suddenly catches a look of sadness across his face. He stares down at his hands for a moment, and his shoulders hunch.

Then, he jumps, and his hand shoots to his uniform pocket. He pulls out a mobile, swiping open the screen. The camera stays still as Watson reads whatever message has just come through, and a warm smile suddenly glows across his face. He looks quickly over his shoulder, then types out a short message and slips the phone back into his pocket.

When he turns back to the table, his smile is genuine. He joins the conversation as Sam relays the results of their controlled avalanche survey that morning.

Interviewer, whispering off-camera as we watch the calm dinner scene: “It just occurred to me he did not really answer my question - who is his favorite to work with?”