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By Gorman Woodfin
The 700 Club
CBN.com - For the McLeans, skiing was the ultimate way to share the holidays together as a family. But on one Christmas outing, the dangers of bitter cold and hidden, snow-drenched trails promised only a desperate fight for survival.
It was Christmas Day 1989. The McLean family decided to go cross-country skiing in the Laurel Mountains in Pennsylvania. Pastor George McLean and his wife Sonya thought it would be a quiet, relaxing family outing with their two sons, David and Mark, and two of their sons' friends.
"As we got back on the trail and were enjoying it and just getting engrossed with the snow coming down and we were singing Christmas carols, I mean, it was a winter wonderland," says George.
George thought his family would only ski for a couple of hours and then go home. But because it was Christmas Day, the trails -- all 70 miles of them -- were empty, and they were totally alone. After hours of enjoying the snow, George realized it was getting late.
"All of a sudden, I realized, 'I don't know how far we've gone, but we've gone quite a ways back in here.' And then I looked up and checked my watch at how long we'd been gone already, and there wasn't time enough to get back."
They couldn't backtrack because the snow had covered their trail. Pastor McLean thought if they kept going forward, they would either come to a main road or the trail would take them back to the ski rental office. But George knew that they were not prepared for hours in sub-zero weather.
"I just remember that the dampness and the cold were just going through the clothing you had on and penetrating your body, and it was just sucking the life out of you," recalls son David. And there was no relief. You didn't even want to bend your hands for the pain."
"I remember my feet were so numb, my hands were so numb, I kept thinking, 'If something doesn't happen, we're going to get frostbite and lose some limbs,'" remembers Sonya.
George estimates that the family was up on a mountain some 2- to 3,000 feet in elevation for a total of about 13 hours, with seven or eight of those hours spent in the cold after dark.
But it wasn't just the incredible cold that was problematic. The McLeans were also in a treacherous area to begin with.
"We were in a dangerous area in the mountains for someone even experienced, because there were times when hunters many times have died because they became lost and didn't know where they were and did not make it through," says George.
Sonya also realized her family was in grave danger exposed to the elements.
"As it became dark and as the snow was coming down, I really knew without God's intervention that some of us would die -- perhaps all of us would die -- and that we would not survive that night on that mountain. And a few times I went to my husband without the boys and their friends hearing me, and I said, 'Are we going to survive through this if they don't find us?' And he said, 'I don't think so.' He said, 'I don't think we could stay here all night.'"
Pastor McLean finally stopped the group and they tried to start a signal fire. His son David had some matches.
"We weren't really finding anything dry enough to start a fire, and we'd taken anything that we had, brought some branches back, started up the matches. The wind would blow the match out or the snow coming down, and match after match, minutes went into hours. After two hours not being able to start the fire, we gave up," says George. I said, 'We cannot.'"
With only three or four matches left, Sonya talked George into trying one more time.
George only remembers that someone found some dry leaves to help start the fire. Then everyone emptied their pockets and billfolds of anything they could find. They used bits of paper and business cards and even some money was put in the pile.
"Kevin, a young man who had lost his wife (he was a younger man and she had become ill and she died), he had a picture of her, and with tears in his eyes he said, 'This is what I've got to give because she loved me. You know, she'd want me to survive through this.' Took that picture and he put it down there," George recalls. "We prayed one prayer again. 'Lord, please help us. We're going to take the last two or three matches we've got and strike them.' We struck one of them, it went out; another went out. We took another one, and the little leaves that we had there and the things we built caught fire. I mean, it was a very small fire, but it motivated me enough to get down again and go clawing out in there to try to find another branch or twig or anything and bring it back. And we gradually added to that and built this signal fire. At least we got a fire going, and it was what we called a miracle fire."
During the race to build the fire, Sonya fell and was injured and everyone was feeling the deadly onset of frostbite.
"We thought at some point after hours, late into the night now and getting so cold, that we thought we heard the sound of some engine in the distance, and then it subsided and sometime later again we heard another sound and it got closer," says George. "We looked out in the forest and all of a sudden, coming out of that blackness, was this bright light. And it came through the forest, and it was a ranger on a snowmobile. And they couldn't believe we were back as far as we were."
The rangers and the McLeans felt the rescue was a Christmas Day miracle.
"I, fortunately, had some matches, and all the falling we did, everything else was wet, and I don't know how the matches that were right in my pocket of my coat stayed dry. And the rangers were just amazed that we were able to get a fire going," George says.
"They acknowledged that for them to have found us -- there were eight trails and we were on the seventh trail (they had already gone through six trails and we were on the seventh trail) -- they acknowledged that us coming off of that mountain with nobody hurt seriously had to be a miracle," Sonya says.
Injuries were minimal. Several were treated for minor frostbite. Because of her fall, Sonya was hospitalized for six days, but David McLean and his dad felt God reached out to them that dark December night.
"And I remember the light coming through the darkness, and intense darkness, and that light came through, and that was the most beautiful light I'd ever seen in my life," remembers David.
"If you'll just look to the Lord and look to God and call out to Him and open your heart to Him, just like that light came through in that forest, that light'll come and He'll shine in your heart and He'll shine in your life and He'll show you the way," says George.
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