Norman Ollestad


A Memoir of Survival

My father craved the weightless glide. He chased hurricanes and blizzards to touch the bliss of riding mighty waves and deep powder snow. An insatiable spirit, he was crazy for the storm. And it saved my life. This book is for my father and for my son.

On my dad’s back, Topanga Beach, 1968

I am harnessed in a canvas papoose strapped to my dad’s back. It’s my first birthday. I peer over his shoulder as we glide the sea. Sun glare and blue ripple together. The surfboard rail engraves the arcing wave and spits of sunflecked ocean tumble over his toes. I can fly.



FEBRUARY 19, 1979. At seven that morning my dad, his girlfriend Sandra and I took off from Santa Monica Airport headed for the mountains of Big Bear. I had won the Southern California Slalom Skiing Championship the day before and that afternoon we drove back to Santa Monica for my hockey game. To avoid another round-trip in the car my dad had chartered a plane back to Big Bear so that I could collect my trophy and train with the ski team. My dad was forty-three. Sandra was thirty. I was eleven.

The Cessna 172 lifted and banked over Venice Beach then climbed over a cluster of buildings in Westwood and headed east. I sat in the front, headphones and all, next to pilot Rob Arnold. Rob fingered the knobs along the instrument panel that curved toward the cockpit’s ceiling. Intermittently, he rolled a large vertical dial next to his knee, the trim wheel, and the plane rocked like a seesaw before leveling off. Out the windshield, way in the distance, a dome of gray clouds covered the San Bernardino Mountains, the tops alone poking through. It was flat desert all around the cluster of peaks, and the peaks stood out of the desert as high as 10,000 feet.

I was feeling especially daring because I had just won the slalom championship and I thought about the big chutes carved into those peaks—concave slides, dropping from the top of the peaks down the faces of the mountains like deep wrinkles. I wondered if they were skiable.

Behind Rob sat my dad. He read the sports section and whistled a Willie Nelson tune that I’d heard him play on his guitar many times. I craned around to see behind my seat. Sandra was brushing out her silky dark brown hair. She’s dressed kind of fancy, I thought.

How long, Dad? I said.

He peered over the top of the newspaper.

About thirty minutes, Boy Wonder, he said. We might get a look at your championship run as we come around Mount Baldy.

Then he stuffed an apple in his mouth and folded the newspaper into a rectangle. He would fold the Racing Form the same way, watermelon dripping off his chin on one of those late August days down at the Del Mar track where the surf meets the turf. We’d leave Malibu early in the morning and drive sixty miles south to ride a few peelers off the point at Swami’s, named for the ashram crowning the headland. If there was a long lull in the waves Dad would fold his legs up on his board and sit lotus, pretending to meditate, embarrassing me in front of the other surfers. Around noon we’d head to Solana Beach, which was across the Coast Highway from the track. We’d hide our boards under the small wood bridge because they wouldn’t fit inside Dad’s ’56 Porsche, then we’d cross the highway and railroad tracks to watch the horses get saddled. When they came into the walking ring Dad would throw me on his shoulders and hand up a fistful of peanuts for lunch. Pick a horse, Boy Wonder, he’d say. Without hesitation he’d bet my horse to win. Once a long shot named Scooby Doo won by a nose and Dad gave me a hundred-dollar bill to spend however I wanted.

The mountaintops appeared higher than the plane. I stretched my neck to see over the plane’s dashboard, clasping the oversized headphones. As we approached the foothills I heard Burbank Control pass our plane onto Pomona Control. Pilot Rob told Pomona that he preferred not to go above 7,500 feet because of low freezing levels. Then a private plane radioed in, warning against flying into the Big Bear area without the proper instruments.

Did you copy that? said the control tower.

Roger, said pilot Rob.

The nose of the plane pierced the first tier of the once distant storm. A gray mist enveloped us. The cabin felt compressed with noise and we jiggled and lurched. Rob put both hands on the steering wheel, shaped like a giant W. There was no way we were going to get to see my championship run through these clouds, I thought. Not even the slopes of Baldy where my dad and I had snagged a couple great powder days last year.

Then the gravity of the other pilot’s warning interrupted my daydream.

I looked back at my dad. He gobbled down the apple core, smacking his lips with satisfaction. His sparkling blue eyes and hearty smile calmed my anxiety about the warning. His face beamed with pride for me. Winning that championship was evidence that all our hard work had finally paid off, that anything is possible, like Dad always said.

Over his shoulder a crooked limb flashed by the window. A tree? Way up here? No way. Then the world turned back to gray. It was just a trick of light.

Dad studied me. His gaze seemed to suspend us as if we didn’t need the plane—two winged men cruising a blue sky. I was about to ask how much longer it would be.

A bristle of pine needles streaked past the window behind him. A shock of green, clawing open the mist. It was snowing now. Then a spiky limb lunged at the window. An evil ugly thing that Dad was unaware of. It sucked all life from the cabin, scorching the scene like a photograph eaten by fire. Suddenly my dad’s face was blotched and deformed.

Time seemed to decelerate as if lassoed by a giant rubber band. Fog pressed against all the windows and there was no up or down, no depth at all, as if the plane were standing still, a toy hanging from a string. The pilot reached down with one hand and spun the knee-high trim wheel. I wanted him to spin the dial faster—we’ll climb faster, away from the trees. But he abandoned the trim wheel and steered the giant W with both hands, jerking us side to side. What about that dial? Should I spin it for him? A branch out the window caught my eye.

Watch out! I yelled, curling my four-foot-nine, seventy-five-pound body up tight.

The wing clipped a tree, sending a thud into my spine, and the plane twisted ass-backwards. We bounced like a pinball off two more trees—metal ripping, the engine revving. I was fixated on the trim wheel. Too late to spin it now….

We slammed into Ontario Peak, 8,693 feet high. The plane broke apart, flinging chunks of debris across the rugged north face and hurling our bodies into an icy chute.

We were sprawled amongst the wreckage. Our bodies teetered on the 45-degree pitch threatening to plunge us into an unknown freefall. Exposed to freezing snow and wind, we dangled 250 feet from the top—the distance between life and death.

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