Spring is the time for steep ski descents, if you are into that sort of thing. As with all high-level mountain sports, risk and the potential for severe consequences are ever-present. The following feature relays the gripping account of one man's search for the ultimate ski descent, a tragic ending and lessons learned.
It's been 13 years since I was last in Chamonix. Standing on the bridge of the Aiguille du Midi my mind is racing back to May 8, 2001 — the last time I was looking at this same view. The air is crisp with a light breeze blowing across my face. In the distance the sun is shining and I can see Mont Blanc du Tacul and the Gervasutti Couloir.
I've had nightmares about this place, been haunted by the images of my best friend and fellow The North Face athlete, Hans Saari, falling to his death, and recently about the prospect of returning to face fears and emotions I've suppressed for years.
I've thought about returning to Chamonix but never did. I didn't want to die. My life has come full circle and returning here to take my advanced ski guide exam in pursuit of my IFMGA guiding certification is symbolic to my life's dedication to being in the mountains.
After the accident I wasn't sure I would ever return to climb or ski.
"Don't come any closer. I'm standing on a patch of ice!"
Hans' last words have replayed in my mind, as if a record player is skipping over and over. That fateful day I was standing a ski pole's length away from him and things were about to go seriously wrong.
We had skied four sections down the steeper, and rarely repeated, northeast entrance to the Gervasutti Couloir on Mont Blanc du Tacul. The skiing started out at a reasonable grade, but was steep and quickly approached 55 degrees. The icy face we were skiing is normally black with streaks of grey, or blue, marking the sections in the ice that have melted and formed small runnels. The only reason the face was holding snow over the black and blue ice beneath our skis was because the spring storms of May came in wet, and tend to bond well to the old ice that made up the glacial wall we were attempting to ski.
It was a ski descent where falling would kill you and conditions needed to be perfect. Ski mountaineers can spend a decade or more waiting for those same conditions, and most will never see the right conditions twice in a lifetime to repeat the descent.
Fifty metres below our position on the face was a series of cliffs that needed to be negotiated in order to enter into the Gervasutti Couloir proper. Beyond that, the skiing in the main couloir is sustained at 50-55 degrees. By most standards the main couloir is a challenge alone and a slip wouldn't leave any chance for stopping by self arrest before sliding the remaining 610 metres to the glacier below. Sylvain Sudan first skied the main Gervasutti Couloir in the fall of 1968, but the entrance we were skiing hadn't been successfully skied until Peirre Tardievel found the perfect conditions in June of 1994.
Two days before Hans' death our group set out to ski the Exit Couloir off the Aiguille du Midi for a second time having already skied it the day before. We were a young, fairly experienced group of ski mountaineers that included Hans Saari, Nat Patridge, Mark Holbrook, myself and a few others from the core Chamonix ski circle. All of us had made numerous big mountain descents in places like the Himalaya, Alaska, and Andes. A foot of fresh snow had just coated the mountains and the skiing looked like incredible spring powder.
Five turns into the start of the Glacier Rond and Nat was swept off his feet by the fresh sloughing snow that his initial turns had generated. Instantly he was caught up in a nasty avalanche that luckily pulled to the skier's left where he slid the entire 2 610-metre length of the Exit Couloir. Had the avalanche continued straight down the glacier he would have shot over serac walls that ended in an abyss.
When we reached him he was on top of the debris pile. He was conscious, but hurting from such a long fall. During the avalanche Nat sustained severe burns on his legs from the friction of sliding on his side most of the way and at some point tumbled hard enough to break his tibia and fibula just above the top of his boot. He was lucky to be alive.
The process of extracting Nat became first priority and was not an easy task given the melting spring snowpack at lower elevations. In May the snow line doesn't allow for skiing to the valley bottom.
In order to return to Chamonix a long traverse must be made from the bottom of the couloir to reach the mid station of the Aiguille du Midi, or a long walk through the forest below. We sent one person to initiate a rescue and the rest of us went to work on stabilizing Nat in order to get him ready for evacuation.
Our first thoughts were that we were in the Alps and it would be easy to have a helicopter come in, quickly whisking him down valley to the hospital, and the medical attention he needed. Within an hour we could hear sounds of the helicopter flying around looking for an opening in the clouds to drop down. A light snow was falling but temperatures were warm. The helicopter tried for 30 to 40 minutes, but the clouds only darkened and the chances of a landing were less and less. It was becoming clear we should start thinking about taking the rescue into our own hands or we would all be spending a very cold night out in the elements. We went to work building an improvised sled for hauling Nat on the long journey around the mountain to reach the mid station. We strapped a backpack to his skis, rubber straps and cordelettes held the makeshift sled together, and climbing rope was used to secure Nat's good leg to the sled and provide an attachment to pull him from.
Two people stomped out a trench to keep Nat and the sled package in a boot track, one person pulled, another held the back of the sled with a tail line to keep him from slipping out of the track, while the last person shuttled the remaining loose gear.
It was a long, slow train of progress. Together we all worked to keep Nat upright and as comfortable as possible — painful and not an easy task when the entire package constantly wanted to slip sideways down the slope.
We set into a rotation of roles to stay as rested as possible, and within three or four hours we had made fairly good progress covering more than half of the ground on the long traverse. Exhausted from our efforts we were delighted to see the rescue crew arrive with more than 50 people to help.
With medics and morphine, I watched Nat smile for the first time in hours and knew that regardless of how things worked out we would make it back to civilization that night. Near midnight we rounded the last slope and could see the mid station in the distance where the traverse ended and we began descending to the valley floor.
The next morning we all slept late and then walked to the hospital to see Nat. The doctors had induced him into a coma to combat a fatty embolism that had developed from so much rich bone marrow entering into his blood stream during the long extraction. We were happy to see Nat in good hands but with him sedated in a coma there was no direct communication with him.
Dream turns to nightmare
Hans was just in front of me having taken the lead on the forth section of the couloir. I was excited to be skiing on such a historically famous mountain — a ski run that Hans and I had dreamed of skiing together. The position was breathtaking. The sun was shining down on us and there was barely a breeze that day.
As I neared Hans I shouted words of excitement. "This is it! Descents like this don't happen every day." But as I approached I could see he was intently focused on his skis and the millimetres of steel holding purchase to the face.
As I neared he yelled, "Don't come any closer!" He yelled again as I got closer, warning me of the danger he was staring down. "I'm standing on a patch of ice," he said.
I encouraged him to try and get into a different position. "Can you shoot forward to the snow ahead?" (I asked). I was spouting suggestions not knowing time was slipping away. "Tip your skis forward and aim for the softer snow over there," I said.
I tried to remain calm verbally encouraging him to change his position.
But I didn't know how truly perilous the situation was.
What happened next is frozen in my mind — a moment in life that I can't forget. Hans' gaze moved upward from the sharp metal edges of his skis. Our eyes met. His face was saturated with fear, the fear of recognition that he was about to take a deadly journey out of his control. It was the moment that all ski mountaineers dread.
Ski mountaineers possess a unique ability to suppress fear and rationalize their ability to climb mountains and safely ski back down them. It is a delicate balancing act of understanding skill and conditions. Knowing when it will all come together and work out the way you want is the art of pushing the sport.
As Hans looked intently down at the ice, his edges washed out from under him. The frail purchase his skis held on the mountain slowly began to dissolve. First his tails began to slide and then the forces escalated upwards throughout each part of his body. The twisting motion from the slip generating behind him rotated his arms and then shoulders as if in slow motion.
His face turned towards me last and we made eye contact for the last time. I remember yelling, but I can't remember the words I shouted as I watched him fall away from me.
In a moment everything became silent.
Left alone standing near the icy section on the mountain where Hans had just fallen I was in disbelief. I couldn't see Hans and had no idea how far he had fallen. My thoughts flashed back to Nat's accident and how far he had slid just two days before. I knew this face was steeper, and the cliffs he had fallen over would be difficult to survive.
I stayed focused and tried to think. I thought about my training and what I was supposed to do. The first rule is to not make the accident worse by adding to the scene with another fallen skier.
I was able to take off my pack and slowly remove my ice axe. Swinging the axe into the hard ice took several swings to find a solid purchase. I wanted something I knew wasn't coming out. I clipped into the tool to provide some level of security for myself. I took out my crampons and with one ski on and one ski off I placed the crampon under my boot and felt the steel points grab into the hard ice. Taking the second ski off was easier than the first and with both crampons secured to my boots I was able to strap my skis onto my pack.
The amount of time it took me to go through this series of tasks seemed like an eternity but in reality is was a few brief minutes. I could see a helicopter flying around in the brilliant blue sky and it appeared to be close enough to the face that I assumed it was able to see Hans on the face below.
Slowly I shouldered my pack and removed the axe that was set into the ice. It was now my turn to cross over the icy patch that Hans had slipped on. With recently sharpened crampons on my feet, the steep points bit firmly into the ice and I confidently moved across and then above the icy section.
Fifteen minutes later I was on the top of the Tacul. A French mountain guide had seen the accident happen and called seconds after Hans fell. He gave me the update on what was happening with the helicopter.
For the last 15 minutes it had been flying over the face with a para-rescue person attached to a cable hanging beneath the ship. I could tell his goal was to extract Hans from the face. Somehow Hans had stopped only a few hundred metres from where he fell and had not slid the entire length of the couloir. A small moat between rocks and ice was enough of a barrier to hold his injured body, pinning him into the couloir. I thanked the guide for his help and quickly stepped back into my skis.
Descending down the main entrance of the Gervasutti Couloir was out of the question, so I was left with returning the way we came up, the normal ascent route of the Tacul.
By the time I descended the standard route, and had skied around to the base of the couloir the helicopter was hovering close in the distance. At first I couldn't tell if they were still working on the upper face, or if they were able to extract him to the glacier below.
As I skied closer I could see a team of people working over someone and knew it must be Hans. As I skied up they asked if I was his partner and we exchanged some basic information about Hans. I helped hold the IV that they had inserted into him and did my best to stay strong and hold back my emotions. Through my questioning of the doctor who was treating him and the visible signs on his body, it was clear he had sustained severe injuries from the fall but at that point he was alive.
Within a few minutes of arriving, the helicopter was called back in and I helped load Hans and the other paramedics into the ship.
I turned my head to avoid the rotor wash as the helicopter lifted off and within seconds the sound was absent leaving only the tranquility of the mountains. I was alone again.
As I looked around at the towering mountains, glaciers and faces of rock, the landscape was no longer a place I loved. It now felt more like it was trying to kill me.
I never saw Hans again. He died on the flight to Genève.
Nat woke up from the coma to his wife by his side.
A week of waiting in Chamonix after Hans' accident had sent me into a tailspin and I needed to return home to be close to my own family. Looking back I regret not being in Chamonix when Nat came out of the coma. I wanted to tell him myself and explain what had happened that day.
Not long after Nat arrived back to the States I visited him at his house in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He was still recovering from his own fall, walking on crutches but alive. We both cried and choked on emotions we had suppressed since being in France. Like a band of brothers that have shared life and death experiences, being reunited had brought our emotions to the front and exposed us for the weakness death can bring.
We talked for hours about the lessons learned and what we could have done differently in order to all come home together. It was a tough pill to swallow knowing I had broken a cardinal rule of not climbing what I planned to ski. In Chamonix where the lifts can catapult you to the summits in a matter of minutes, the rules of high-level ski mountaineering are easily blurred. Terrain is accessed so much more quickly than in mountains of the same size in other ranges of the world, and the desire to bend the rules is a delicate balance with experience and conditions.
As I've moved forward through the last 13 years since Hans died and continue to pursue ski mountaineering objectives around the world, I've often asked myself if I'm following the rules.
To be back in France and almost finished achieving my IFMGA guide status I know I've learned a lot along the journey. Some lessons have come at an unreasonable cost and others with a quick glimpse into what could have gone wrong.
The most important lesson I can think of when it comes to spending time in the mountains is to remember that no skiing is worth dying for, and returning home is the most important part of any day.
Kristoffer Erickson is an American alpinist and ski mountaineer for The North Face, photographer, philanthropist and family man, who has climbed and skied mountains all over the world in the Himalayas, Antarctica, the Alps, and in the ranges across North America. Kristoffer was good friends with Hans Saari, a renowned American ski mountaineer, who passed away after falling down the Northeast entrance of the Gervasutti Couloir on Mt. Blanc du Tacul on May 8th, 2001. Thirteen years later, Kristoffer wrote "Surviving a Lifetime in the Mountains"for his blog threecrazylives.com, which gives us a personal glimpse into that harrowing moment, as well as the profound impact the incident had upon his life.