A week ago I learned that a friend of mine Basti had been swept off a mountain in Nepal.
Basti was a wild Austrian who loved to push his limits in the high mountains. I remember discussing him dying in the mountains and he was OK with it. He had no kids, wife or any dependents who would be affected so much by his death. So he didn’t mind pushing it in the mountains. I recall having differing opinions on safety protocols in the mountains but we both respected each others ways.
A few days ago i heard about that Andreas Fransson was swept off a mountain side in Chile. I was with Andreas in France just over a week ago and now he is gone. I loved his wildness, his ability to ski lines that are too extreme for most extreme skiers. He risk tolerance was a lot higher than mine but he seemed to understand that and was prepared to die for what he loved. It came as no surprise to me that he died skiing in the mountains.
With all these deaths happening my Mom asked me the other day what I would expect from them should I die? There would be no consolation for them or the rest of my family. No doubt that is true but I feel we place too much importance on ourselves. Of course life is all about me, because its mine and it should be. But in the grand scheme of things we are simply grains of sand. Our existence so meaningless. Right now there are 7 billion people on earth, if I were to die, nothing changes. For a few people something will be missing but for the rest nothing changes. How many people die everyday on earth? I am going to google this and see. ( small pause while I search up this number) 154,889 people die every day. Of those 154 889 people how many were really living the lives they wanted? How many were really happy? For sure in the last week over 1 084 223 people have died but how many of them lived lives like Andreas Fransson, Basti, JP Auclair and Liz dailey
Of course if I die there will be little consolation for those that I leave behind, but at least we shared this short time on earth and enjoyed each other. What more can I really say but that I hope to encourage people to live loudly. To fight against insecurities and unhappiness and find their calling in life. To find what makes them happy and satisfied. That is lifes only true journey. I know that Andreas, JP and Basti all loved the lives they were living and had incredible moments right up to the end.
I have been trying to figure out how to justify living the life I live. How to find an analogy that helps make people understand. If you had the two glasses. One was twice the size of the other and filled with city water. The other was half the size and filled with the tastiest alcohol ever. Which would you prefer? I know most people would take the smaller glass. Imagine life like that. To live a long and unfulfilling life or one half as long that is so engrossing and powerful that every day is savoured.
Lying there, having just escaped death, time ticked by slowly and probably 5 minutes later Ptor came rushing over to me. “I found him. He is OK” he screamed up the hill. Then he frantically pulled out his shovel and began to dig me out. A few more minutes later and they were all there.
As I watched them all dig, I thought about the go-pro on my helmet and how real and awesome the footage was going to be. To have captured the skiing, the slabs breaking away, all the tumbling and finally the rescue. How vivid was that going to be?
They dug more and more. I warned them about my left leg and helped them dig out my arms. My left arm was held in by the ski pole and most likely I had hurt it. The right leg was dug out slowly and was fine.
Slowly they worked on my left leg. It felt ok and part of me was hoping that maybe it wasn’t broken. Except it was lying at a weird angle and supported by the snow. The way the toe was pointing up towards my face seemed odd yet it felt ok so maybe it was. They dug it out slowly supporting it with their hands. I kept hoping beyond hope that it would be ok.
Then it flopped over. Like a dead floppy fish. It looked like the bottom of my leg was completely disconnected from the upper part. Ptor picked it up slowly and extended my leg. He held my foot away with some traction and we maneuvered into a better position. Luckily there was no blood flowing out of the boot or anything to suggest that it was a compound fracture.
At this point it was very obvious that I was broken and there would be no way for me to travel back to camp 1. So a rescue was needed. Ptor pulled out his first aid kit and threw it to us. For some reason there were no satellites in range so he needed to go and ski lower to where we knew he would get service.
Ptor wanted to help with the bandaging of my leg, but we forced him to ski off and get the rescue started.
It appeared to be a fracture of the tib fib we needed to figure out how to apply some traction. The traction would help pull the bones away from each other and perhaps prevent any further damage. Once the upper leg was nice and supported with ski poles we tied some cordellet around the foot and pulled the ankle away from the knee. Bracing myself for the pain I encouraged them to pull harder. Once they had some good traction with the rope they then tied the ends to the poles. It felt pretty decent, the bones were well pulled away from each other and over the leg was stable.
With the injury dealt with, we started to manage my comfort. Placing skins under my legs for warmth, down jackets under my bum and moving me forward so that we could re-arrange my backpack. Then it was time to wait. While waiting I reached up to turn my Go-pro off and realized that I had lost it in the slide. Damn that would have been some great footage.
“hey Bjarne, when do you think the helicopters will rescue me?” it was 1:45 and there was lots of daylight left. It seemed like there was no way that the helicopters wouldn’t have time to rescue me. In my overly optimistic way I guessed
” Probably a little too early but I am hoping 4:30”
“ I guess 6:30.”
“6:30 seriously, come on that is way too long from now.”
“ well at least it is longer than we hope. That way it will be a relief when they come earlier”
His justification made way more sense than my optimistic view, mine would only lead to bitterness as we waited way past my guessing point. While his would provide a cushion that might keep us in a less stressed mood. It was good we had both guesses. It turned out neither was even close.
It was hard for me to see the size of the avalanche, but I knew that I had been lucky to end up on the side of the flow, that was what allowed me to keep my head out and some breathing room. Looking down the next 15 m into the terrain trap I was very lucky to not be down there. The debris looked to be 3-6 m deep and would have been a burial spot for me.. Overall I had been really lucky, and survived with only a small injury, anything worse at this elevation and I would have been in far worse predicament. Instead I was sitting with a broken leg, with manageable pain, a sore left shoulder and nothing else really.
Over the next few hours I kept imagining the sounds of helicopters. I would perk up and feel like I heard them and then be let down when I realized it was nothing. Luckily the sun was out and we were all relatively comfortable.
4:30 came pretty quickly with no helicopters in sight and we started to realize that perhaps the rescue would not happen today. So we needed to plan for an overnighter. Around 5 we sent Daniel down to camp 1 to grab the required bivy gear. All of a sudden it was just Bjarne and me. 2 people alone at 17000ft waiting for something that may never come.
The sun had disappeared and the cold slowly started to set in. Luckily for me I was all wrapped up but I could see that Bjarne was getting colder. To keep warm he devoted his energies to digging a snow cave for the night. By 6 my hopes were dwindling, 6:30 I still had some naïve dream and by 7 I accepted the night ahead.
My thoughts ran in circles, reenacting the event, getting mad at myself for my mistake, accepting what had happened. Breathing deeply to deal with the aching pain. Relaxing and trying to pass the time.
By 9 pm the stars were out and a beautiful night surrounded us. Which was gorgeous but also meant that it was cold and getting colder. By now the cave was big enough for us both to get into. So we put the backpacks on the ground, and anything else that could be used for insulation. Sucking up all my pain I crawled backwards into the hole and attempted to get comfortable. Bjarne, came in and we both cuddled to maintain any extra warmth we could. By this point I was shivering but at least I had his warmth and mine. I was starting to worry a lot about the toes on my left foot. Since the leg had swollen in the boot there was a lot of pressure on the foot. I worried about frostbite.
Lying there shivering I focused on moving my toes and time slowed…. Bjarne was giving me a bit of warmth but nothing was really going to warm me up. My feet were near the door and the cold air kept cooling them down. Uncomfortable, cold, shivering I lay there hoping that Daniel would return soon. Finally at 10 I saw a headlamp.
Daniel peered into our cave, “ I brought some sleeping bags, a tent, stove and some water. Mirghani is also following with some more stuff and a toboggan to take you down tomorrow.”
Relief spilled through my body, which didn’t stop the shivering but at least it reassured my mind. Daniel started melting some snow while Bjarne helped me get a sleeping pad under my back. It felt so nice to not have the heat sucked out of my back.
Since the ski poles went past my foot by a good 25 cm I realized I needed to cut the bottom of my sleeping bag off. So I cut out the bottom and eased the poles through. Daniel guided the pole through the bottom and soon enough I was in a sleeping bag… Ohh wow what a relief. I was not going to freeze.
Although I was more comfortable I was still shivering and moving my toes to keep them warm.
Daniel and Bjarne set up a tent and used one sleeping bag to stay warm while Mirghani joined me in the cave. The temperature in the cave would be much warmer than the tent and I felt bad for the boys but there was little I could do in my state. They at least would be sleeping while I knew I wouldn’t.
Breathing deeply to relax and maybe overcome the shivers I began the longest night of my life. 11 pm I focused on trying to sleep but it never seemed to come. Moments lasted FOR EVER. I kept checking the time, quite often it was only minutes between checks, moments felt like hours.
When experiencing moments of duress I have always been reassured by the fact that time never stops. It doesn’t; but somehow it was moving really slowly this night. 11:30, 11:38, time crept slowly forward. But the moments wore on, so many thought loops that kept repeating. Thoughts of Tracey and my kids. Wondering what Charley and Aiden would think about this recent adventure of mine.
Since I hadn’t had a painkiller in hours the ache was like a heart beat. A constant underlying pain punctuated with heartbeats of stronger more intense pulses.The pain was bearable but it required me to breathe deep and relax. Also to fully accept it. Nothing was going to change the amount of pain. The only thing that could change was my acceptance of it, to not fight it and somehow minimize it. All I could do was focus on breathing away my pain.
2 am crept by, 2:12 felt like an hour had gone by 2:32 another entire day finally it felt like I had slept… I checked my watch wishing for 4 or 5…. 2:48… well at least I had slept. More breathing, and hopes of sleep. I kept wiggling my toes and was reassured since they felt alive and normal.
3:15, a small nap, more shivering 3:30. Oh relief it was almost time to get the boys up and into action. Finally 4 am, more relief in that we will be moving forward soon. I guess the relief was enough to relax me enough because I finally managed a small 30 minute nap. 5 am and the boys all started to move around. We would be doing something different than lying, shivering and wiggling my toes.
Mirghani got up and started to get the toboggan ready. He had a pretty decent idea and I was interested to see how it would work. He had cut a 45 gallon barrel into two halves and then tied the halves together. This way they formed a canoe shaped vessel that they could tow me around in. They had ropes in the end, plus a couple of handles on the sides.
They filled the bottom of the toboggan with the sleeping mats and placed a backpack for me to lean up against. Since I did not want to jar my leg we figured it would be easier to have me facing up hill, then any bumps would be on my back and bum, instead of on my broken leg. It meant that I would have no idea what was coming up, no way to anticipate anything.
By 6 am we had loaded me into the sled and I was wrapped up in my sleeping bag. The first section was really bumpy since it was all the avalanche debris. The only way with toboggans is to flow with terrain. Luckily the first bits of terrain were mellow and allowed the boys to gain confidence with the system. I could trail my arms and provide stability in case of rolling over. It was hard stomach work, keeping myself upright but overall there was not much pain in the leg.. For two hours it worked really well through the mellow morrainal terrain, but then the terrain steepened and I knew it would get really hard on the boys and the hazard of the toboggan taking off and really injuring me increased dramatically.
The place we were at was perfect and I kept bugging Mirghani about calling to arrange for the rescue. He kept saying that there was no way that they could rescue us from where we were. Which made no sense to me, I use helicopters all the time and I understand their limits. This pickup would not be pushing their thresholds at all. He was very resistant to this, and I could not understand why.
Finally I forced him to give me the Sat phone so I could phone Liver and discuss it myself. He passed me the phone and I immediately realized that it had been locked out. Someone had punched in the wrong code 3 times which meant it was locked from use. Useless.
So we were sitting at the perfect pick up spot, with no way of letting them know we were ready.They started to scout out the easiest snow slopes down through the rocks. A small 100m step lay below us, something that you would not even notice when skiing but something that grew into a monumental challenge when tobogganing an injured person. So they all scouted out a zone and decided on the best approach. They hiked down, to drop off the bags and then came back up for me.
Using Bjarne as the anchor, with ice axe and crampons, plus Mir and Daniel in the front they would lower me the length of the rope, 5m, then Daniel would support me while Bjarne would re-set. Then they would slowly lower me again, mostly over snow with the occasionally small rock. Thankful that I could not see behind me and the disaster potential of them letting go.
The first step took at least an hour and my partners were getting more and more run down with each effort. The boys were being super troopers, having bivied at 5000m, eaten very little food and yet were still power houses getting me down the mountainside.
They slowly lowered me off small rocks, sidehilled me across snow slopes, maneuvered my awkward body around all sorts of hurdles. Finally looking down the valley I could see the base camp people working their way up. It looked like 4 or five, which would be a huge help with these downhill challenges. We could see Ptor skinning away and soon enough he was upon us. Asking if we needed anything from camp 1, if there were any essentials that he should grab. All I cared about was my kobo reading book and my journals. So asked him to grab those. !5 minutes later the crew of camp folks showed up, the cook, the camp facilitator,and one of the cops.
I started sobbing a bit, some pressure was removed. With so many people around it would be far easier to get me to where we wanted. I had built about a lot of resolve and calm and it was time to let some of the worry out. Small tears of gratitude flowed down my face.
Then out of nowhere we hear the buzz of a small machine. We all stopped to listen, ears tuned we discuss wether it was a heli or small plane. Most were convinced that it is a small plane but I couldn’t decide. The sound faded as the plane went up the Garol valley. Bummed we continue on, then 5 minutes later it got louder and louder. And definitely a helicopter. Relieve washed over me… most of this ordeal was almost over. The helis got closer and closer, soon enough the army helicopter was doing a fly by.Then I saw that they were looking for a place to land. I tried pointing 20 m up the hill but they didn’t seem to like it. They tried hovering nearby and couldn’t decide where to go. Then they flew away, “please don’t leave” I thought. They flew lower down the slope and landed on the crest of a moraine. All of a sudden I was being rushed down to the helicopter. I started to untie the knots that tied me to the toboggan. A bit of a frenzy with so many people around but they managed to lift me up and into the helicopter. Before the door was closed I made eye contact with Daniel and Bjarne, and thanked them. Then the props spun faster and we were up and into the air.
Now the pressure was completely off and I began sobbing. Thanking the pilots between sobs. It had taken 23 hours since my accident but finally we were in the helicopter and heading to a hospital. Wow what a complete relief. It was so sad to admit that this great adventure was over, watching the village of garol from far above, following our trail in from the air I was saddened. Sad that it was over, that I had screwed up. That I was leaving the boys, not finishing the goal with them.
From there I landed at an army base, was rushed in to a hospital, x-rayed, casted and sent off to an orthopedic surgeon. I did not want to be worked on in Pakistan so I opted with traveling back to Canada and seeing Dr. Heard. 4 days later and I was finally flying home. Somehow I managed to convince the stewardesses that I needed 3 seats and I was able to go sideways on all my flights. Then I landed in Calgary and was in Banff and undergoing surgery 6.5 days after my accident.
Here is my X-ray with the new hardware in my leg.
Two months later and I am walking and dreaming of my next adventures. What a wild adventure that was!
We awoke at 4600 m and it took awhile to get water boiled, breakfast served, and gear packed but by 9 am we were skiing down around the seracs. A great two hour ski tour led us up onto a plateau at around 5000m, circling this plateau was a ridge full of 5500m summits.
One of them being particularly easy to ski from had us heading her way. The glacial up was fairly mellow and allowed us a view around. The line off gashot, our primary target, looked super intimidating and wild. But we couldn’t focus on it yet since the acclimatizing had to be perfect. Rushing anything in these mountains leads to disaster, so we were happy to be attempting something a little less extreme and yet still a worthy ski line.
On the way up I did not notice any recent avalanches off any similar lines, the mountains seemed dormant. In the last ten days it had snowed around 40-50cm in the alpine and most steep lines had sloughed off while the others looked settled and asleep. Our skin track easily climbed up through the glacial roll and we bootpacked up the steeper section near the top. Booting up I noticed how widespread the crust was from the high pressure in late April, but it seemed like the snow above had not formed into a slab of any sort, Just light un settled-powder. This was going to be a great ski. (alarms should be going off with the presence of this crust!)
The rest hiked well, skinning to the ridge and then a fun rocky scramble to the summit. The elevation was being felt by all of us yet we still had strength. So it was an ideal acclimatizing day. Most likely a first descent in the middle of nowhere Pakistan. First ascent possibly too.
We were making a movie on Ptor and his life which meant he was the star of the show, so he skied off first, carving nice powder turns in the upper face. At 5500m the powder turns looked great, slow moving slough that went nowhere. The sun moved away and we waited a little longer for a window, it came and soon enough I was enjoying my first turns in Pakistan. They were great flowy, cold powder snow turns. I was psyched.
I worked my way over to the line, while on the way there it was a little too gray to give the slope a ski cut, but I was not overly concerned. Not sure it was the elevation or just that I had not seen much avalanche activity. I am not sure why my sensors were not going off, tthey should have been. The line I was thinking about skiing was tantalizing in what little light we had. The issue was there were not a lot of escape options once I had committed to the line. Skiing left might work, which would bring me to the edge where hopefully I could stop myself. The other option was to go hard skiers right and get on the other side of the gully away from all the overhead hazard. Neither was ideal. Realistically the only way to do maximize what little safety I could would be to ski cut it a few times and then ski cut and stop and ski cut and stop till I was lower down the line.
While we waited for a sunny period I hung out above the slope, psyched on my first real run in Pakistan, it looked like so much fun. I pulled off my helmet, started my go-pro, and filmed myself. “ here I am in Pakistan awaiting my first run. It looks amazing, I can’t wait to rip it up!!! Yahhhhhhhhh”
Putting my helmet back on I waited for the next sun patch. Soon it was there and Bjarne was telling me to drop in.
Since I was being filmed I decided to not ski cut, but still skied where the pressures would release a slab if there was one. My first left hand turn was simply to gain speed and get near the ridge. I slashed a nice right hand turn, spraying up the snow for the photographer. The light was right and the snow felt fast and fun, I quickly carved into a nice left hander, working my way out on to the face. Wow shredding in Pakistan, this is incredible, unbelievable …Another right hand turn and I was flying down the ramp. Then looking to the right I noticed that the snow was breaking up into tiny slabs, and they were all gaining speed.
Time stopped briefly while my mind processed what was happening.
then complete understanding
and Holy shit an avalanche was following me down. It felt like it was too late to go left and try to gain the ridge. There was a lot of snow above me and following me fast. No time for long involved decisions. I chose right. Looking down ahead of me I aimed for where the snow was still and unmoving. Straightlining ahead of the avalanche I raced it to this calm intersection. Everything was breaking up around me, struggling to stay balanced while I skied as fast as possible towards the other side. The slab I was on was sliding downhill, I jumped from it to the next moving slab. The shifting and moving snow made it hard but I continued to aim for the calm ahead of the storm. It was going to be close, if only I could make it across the gully I would possibly be safe. If I could get there the flow of snow would continue downhill without me. I would be safe.
In an instant I knew I wasn’t going to make it. The cascading snow got ahead of me and there was no way across. I tried to jump the waterfall of snow but I didn’t make it. Like dipping your paddle in a very fast current I was instantly grabbed and thrown down river. Immediately my skis were like anchors dragging me down and into the snow, I felt my left leg begin twisting and then a sharp flash of light and a moment of pain down by my ankle. By this time I was tumbling head over head trying to protect myself as I bounced off the sides of the gully.
Caught in a whitewash of snow I tumbled, never really knowing which way was up. Like a doll in a dryer. Trying to protect my head with my hands. At some point both my skis came off and I was free of the anchor. Time to protect what I could. Luckily I was wearing a helmet because my head banged hard off a few things. Completely caught in the whitewash I was pummeled against the sides of the gully, my back smashed against something, my head. Over and over I crashed. Always trying to remember which way is up and to be ready to keep myself up, if I could.
It started to slow …I was able to get my right hand up and near my shoulders but at this point I really was trying to keep myself balanced. A sort of backstroke movement that allowed me to keep my head up near the top. It felt like I was succeeding. Treading snow as hard as possible I kept my head up near the top of the flow. It slowed more and more but as it slowed it also turned from a water-like consistency to more concrete like. It got heavier and heavier and I was no longer able to stay vertical, I felt myself tipping over, and getting covered by the snow. Noooooo, I am so close to being upright and with my head out of the snow. Please, fighting as hard as I could I managed to straighten myself up a little. Finally the snow stopped.
With a few desperate handswipes my face was clear. I was going to be ok. But I couldn’t breathe properly. There was an obstruction in my throat. Staying calm I breathed in an out slowly. Finally the heat of my body melted the snow obstruction enough that I could cough it out. Watching the snow chunk fly out of my mouth I was calmed even more as air entered my lungs. No obstructions just nice clean air.
Fairly calm I sat there and awaited my rescue. I probably could have continued to dig with my right hand but it felt fairly ineffective. So instead I sat and got mad at myself. The boys were not far behind. For 16 years I have been ski mountaineering, in all those years I have never really been tumbled by an avalanche. Considering the amount of time spent in avalanche terrain this has been really good. I always knew that eventually it would catch me but I felt I had developed some great rules to minimize this chance. So what happened?
There are so many different factors involved but one of my main issues is my enthusiasm. I am so pumped on being out there and doing what we do that sometimes I get caught up in my optimistic view of everything. Sometimes anything seems possible. Not that I am invincible,just that things go well very often. I aced my full ski guide exam, I sent a huge month things were happening.
Lying there, stuck in the snow, pondering my mistakes I understood that some of it had been Kodak courage. I wanted to make sure we got some good footage for Ptors movie, that we made a great segment of our trip. So instead of ski cutting the slope and managing it properly I skied right in for a better photo. God damn it Hill I know better. While waiting at the top I should have jumped around, skied down 5m, cut the slope, climbed back up and repeated. This is what I typically do, but I was tired from the altitude and I did nothing.
Although the mountains appeared dormant, this was not a snowpack I was familiar with, not a snow type that I knew and understood. Yet I approached it like my home range, I was too comfortable in my usual approach to mountains. Like understanding english really well and trying to speak Pakistani with the same confidence. Instead of easing in and learning the environment I made assumptions….
Previous to this trip I had some foreboding thoughts, I was uneasy about something. Because of the volatile society there I felt like that was where my worries were coming from. After having successfully passed my ACMG full ski guide course, as well as climbed/skied a 100km in March I was feeling great about the mountains. I knew my skills were honed and my fitness as good as ever, what could stop me? My enthusiasm was higher then ever.
And that is the biggest issue, is that I know what to do, so why did I go and do something that I should’t have. How come I didn’t protect myself from my false confidence?
Sitting here a month later writing this, I am still upset but I have forgiven myself. No need to hang onto the negative but focus on some positive healing. Rehab well and come back fighting.Hopefully having learned something and with some sort of personal check list that raises a red flag the more pumped I am.