Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels
- Age: 12 to 15
- Grade: 7 to 10
- Reading age: 12 to 15
Will their wilderness skills be enough to survive the dangerous Rocky Mountains?
First a Canadian Rockies avalanche kills their parents. Then Children’s Services threatens to separate them. That’s when the three Gunnarsson kids decide to run away into the mountains and fend for themselves until the oldest turns eighteen and becomes their legal guardian. Not many would dare. But Jon, Korka, and Aron’s parents ran a survival school.
Turns out their plan is full of holes. When food and equipment go missing and illness and injury strike, things get scary. They’re even less prepared for encounters with dangerous animals and a sketchy woods dweller. On top of that, grief, cold, hunger, and sibling infighting threaten to tear them apart, while the search parties are closing in on them. Do Jon, Korka, and Aron really have what it takes to survive?
About the author
Award-winning author Pam Withers has written numerous bestselling sports and adventure books for teens, including four for Orca Book Publishers: Camp Wild, Breathless, Daredevil Club and . Pam is a former outdoor guide, journalist, editor and associate publisher. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, with her husband and tours North America extensively. For more information, visit www.pamwithers.com.
- Short-listed, Chocolate Lily Award
- Commended, CCBC's Best Books for Kids and Teens, Starred Selection (Fall 2022)
Excerpt: Mountain Runaways (by (author) Pam Withers)
Edge of Willmore Wilderness Park in west-central Alberta, Canada
It’s the family’s last day together, but nobody knows that yet. Nobody knows anything except that they’re all tired after a full day of February snowshoeing on the mountain above their log house, and that the mist is floating down, wrapping all five in a shroud. They can’t even see their tiny mountain town of Peakton below.
Jon’s snowshoes crunch to a stop as he squints through the blanket of white. His father’s face, ruddy as his wool scarf, turns to Jon and his siblings, Korka and Aron.
“So, kids, what do we do when visibility is bad?” Dad asks. “Stay put,” Jon says with full confidence. As if he even needs to be asked. At seventeen, he knows more than most of the adults who file through his parents’ two-week wilderness-survival courses. “Or —”
“— use a compass if there’s still a sightline left,” his younger sister, Korka, finishes for him, flipping her thick blond braid back with gloved fingers, her blue eyes sparkling. At fourteen, she annoys Jon with her constant attempts to prove herself.
The two watch Aron plop down in the snow with the angelic smile of an eleven-year-old. It’s his way of saying that when you’re fogged in, you should stay where you are. And who cares about weather, anyway? If you’re with the only four people who matter to you in the world, all is well.
“Good, kids,” their mother, bundled in a parka, says in her enthusiastic teacher’s voice. “And why do we not just continue to march forward?”
“Because without a compass —” Jon begins.
“— we’ll end up going in a circle without meaning to,” Korka finishes.
Aron rolls onto his back and kicks one leg up in the air like a baby moose trying to right itself, chuckling as his snowshoes send white stuff flying.
Their mom interprets: “Because we all have one leg slightly longer than the other, which means no matter how hard we try, we can’t walk in a straight line without a sightline or compass.” She leans down to tickle Aron through his padded snow vest. “Good answer, my young Viking.”
Jon watches Aron wrap his mittens around her ankles and tug her off-balance, sending her into the snow beside him. She screeches with laughter, and they create synchronized mother-and-son snow angels. Warmth radiates through Jon’s chest. It’s always good watching Aron come out of his shell.
“We have a compass,” Korka declares, folding her arms and frowning at her dad like she’s keen to get home.
She’s always got places to go, things to do, Jon reflects. Fog’s not about to slow her down.
Jon, on the other hand, is happy to linger in the soup. Not only does he love an outdoor navigation challenge, but up here, there’s no phone reception. That means he doesn’t have to listen to whiny apologies from his date from hell at the Valentine’s Day dance the previous evening. Maybe today’s fog can obliterate the recurring flashback of the high school gymnasium strewn with crepe paper and the echo of her harsh words as she dumped him, shouting over the racket of a musically challenged band.
All he’d suggested was ditching the dance and going to the local café for a bite. Okay, maybe he put it too strongly. He’d felt so claustrophobic in the overwarm, overlit, jarringly noisy gym that he insisted they get out of there. She seemed to take it the wrong way, like girls always do.
“No way. We came to dance. Stop ordering me around. Like you did last week when you dragged me up a slope on a stupid, freezing ‘walk.’ We’re done. Go find a girl who likes a bossy tyrant.” After another fifteen minutes of arguing, she stalked off.
When he looked for her to apologize, he found her in a dark corner making out with some other guy.
So, being wrapped in a heavy cloud pretty much suits his mood. Besides, the last thing he wants is to get home and be yanked into his father’s home office. “You’re the oldest, and the most responsible, the one with a good head for marketing and numbers,” his dad likes to say. “We need you to help run the survival school as soon as you graduate.”
In a few months he’ll march across the stage at Peakton High School. But for now, he’s hopelessly clinging to his own plan for the future. He knows his parents can’t afford to send him to college, but they only shake their heads when he begs them to let him get his emergency medical technician — EMT — certification this summer, a course he’s been studying for every minute of his spare time. An EMT job could earn him decent money, and he’d be able to save lives in the great outdoors that he loves so much.
“Sorry, Jon,” his dad has said a million times, frowning. “The survival school needs you, immediately. More work, less play when you graduate, son. It’s all about earning enough to feed the family.”
Jon sighs. The family. A family enveloped in fog at the moment and, unknown to his younger siblings, in debt.
“Let’s turn around already!” Korka demands. “I want to get home in time for my Krav Maga session!”
“Hmm, not till you demonstrate something you’ve learned from that martial arts class,” Dad says with a smile.
“It’s not technically martial arts, Dad. It’s a tactical defence system,” she declares with her usual pout.
Jon rolls his eyes.
“Okay,” Dad says, grinning and raising protective arms in front of his face.
The words are barely out of his mouth when Korka thumps him on the back of his neck with the palm of her hand. Not enough to hurt him, but enough to surprise him. He drops his tall, lanky frame overdramatically into the snow, playing along.
“See how I kept my elbow in front of my ribs, rather than let you expect the blow by pulling my arm back?” she asks proudly. “So you couldn’t see it coming!”
Dad rubs his neck and grins. “Got that right,” he says.
Laughter filters through the gauzy air between them. Then Dad leaps back up and faces her with his head lowered. Jon barely hears his next words. “I’m sorry you’ll have to miss the summer sessions. We just can’t afford them anymore.”
She pulls away and crosses her arms. “Maybe I can ask Mrs. Alpern if I can pay for them by cleaning her basement studio every day.”
“We’ll talk about it later,” Dad says, patting her arm.
Really? Jon thinks. We have to mention money stuff even up here? Still, his father has found a chance to get out of his office to spend some family time outdoors. Which is good but kind of sad, considering his business is being outdoors and teaching its mysteries to others. The family’s survival school has been low on customers and cash for a while. Barely surviving (okay, that wasn’t funny). Mostly because Mom and Dad are better at teaching what they love than at the business end, Jon figures.
Korka helps Aron leap up and dust off the snow, then wraps him in a warm hug that brings out a wide grin. The kind of high-beam smile that Aron gets when reading his books on Viking heroes. “Okay,” says Dad. “I say we escort Korka home to get ready for her lesson as soon as the three of you demonstrate your snow-pit competence, which will assure us that all is safe for a return using our compasses.”
“Compasses are no good now that we’ve lost our sightline,” Korka says, nose scrunched up like she’s caught him out on a trick question.
“According to our last sightline a few minutes ago, home is one hundred forty degrees southeast of where we stand right now,” Jon says quickly, proudly.
“Exactly, son. Well done. So, we use our compass.”
None of them wants to do a snow pit, Jon figures, but they know their parents too well to bother protesting. Obediently, they drop to their knees and, using their hands and small shovels, start shovelling snow on the slope to the side of their path. The idea is to check the stability of the snowpack. It’s like digging a little hole a ski-length wide and knees-to-head height, then slicing off a side like it’s a piece of layer cake in need of inspection. Like preparing to poke fingers into the icing and cake layers to see if any part is so doughy or slippery that one layer might slide off another.
Within minutes, there are three side-by-side minipits. The siblings compete to finish, brushing their mittens vertically across the face of the pits, checking which layers are crusty and weak enough to crumble and which are hard enough that their fingers, fists, a pencil, and maybe even a knife won’t go through.
“Aron, you’re not digging a hole to China,” Mom says.
“Nope. He’s digging to Iceland,” Jon says, making Aron smile. His Viking-obsessed little brother would definitely prefer to dig a hole to one of the Nordic countries.
Jon glances at Korka. She’s crawling around in her tiny pit, shoving her arms into the weak layers.
Aron is smelling his, and chewing thoughtfully on some of the snow. Aron likes to do things a little differently. But when it comes down to instincts, Jon would pretty much trust his little brother with his life.
Once the pit walls are smooth and vertical, the three get to their feet, dust themselves off, and reach for the ice saw on the end of Dad’s ski pole. Korka gets her hands on it first. She conducts her stability tests, then hands it to Jon.
“It’s all good,” she says, hands on her hips.
Jon chops out a study block roughly fingers-to-elbow length and places Dad’s shovel on top of the column. Then he taps the top of the shovel, first lightly, then harder, till his cube fractures.
“Compression test hard, which is good,” he rules. “Low danger.” Unlike his siblings, he has had a full avalanche-training course.
An impatient Aron grabs the shovel from Jon, completes his test, and offers a thumbs-up. He can speak — he just prefers not to. That’s how it’s been ever since the three siblings had a childhood misadventure that their parents never found out about, and that Jon figures the other two were too young to remember. It’s a trauma he wishes he could forget, too.
“You’re all correct. Low avalanche danger between here and home,” Dad confirms.
A nearby crunch of snow startles them. Two large, shadowy figures on cross-country skis emerge from the mist.
“Ha!” bellows Officer Greg Vine, the absolute last person Jon wants to see right now. He’s the cop father of the girl he took out last night.
Greg’s brother David, equally big and muscle-bound as his brother, pauses behind him.
“Got your kids on their knees praying for the mist to blow away, Gunnar and Eva?” Officer Vine asks. “Is that a strange Icelandic tradition? Or is this snow-pit school?”
As if we need schooling on snow pits, which we’ve been making all our lives, Jon thinks.
“They’re practising their snow pits, Greg,” Dad replies breezily. “Remember, kids, always dig them on a slope that’s the same aspect and angle as the slope you’re about to travel across, without triggering an avalanche.”
“We know that, Dad,” Jon says.
“Of course you do.” He grins and turns back to the men. “Are we on for skiing first thing tomorrow morning, gentlemen?”
“Storm coming in, so it depends on conditions,” Officer Vine replies, his dark eyes on Jon. As Jon’s mother and father move ahead out of earshot, the big cop says in a low voice, “Jon Gunnarsson. When you pick my daughter up for a date, I expect you to deliver her home, not ditch her at the dance and make her walk home in the dark.”
Mountain Runaways is a non-stop thrill ride of a book, taking readers deep into the Albertan wilderness even as it explores some weighty family issues. In the vein of classics like My Side of the Mountain, Pam Withers combines a story of adolescent independence with actual survival techniques that are sure to keep young readers engaged (and with no small amount of warning that it might not be the best idea to go traipsing off into the woods). Readers will connect with the trio of siblings and find themselves looking at the great outdoors with a new appreciation ... and maybe some aspirations toward a far safer camping trip of their own.
Wesley King, #1 New York Times bestselling author of OCDaniel
Fast-paced and full of action, it's Hatchet for this generation.
Colleen Nelson, author of The Life and Deaths of Frankie D. and Harvey Holds His Own
Details about their survival techniques are abundant and illuminating....The narrative balances scenes of action with quieter moments of introspection.
A breathless, heart-pounding alpine tale about the bonds of family and the call of adventure.
Alisha Sevigny, author of the Secrets of the Sands series
A satisfying, action-packed story of survival and hope.