Almost Over the Edge

Magnus VI of Norway

In May 2016, I went ski touring with two friends. We biked fourteen kilometres into the backcountry with our skis, boots, and gear strapped to our backs. After bivy sacking throughout the wee morning hours, we woke up around 4:30 am to begin our 1500 metre vertical ascent. As it was later in the season with very cool temperatures, the slope had mostly turned into ice. We had crampons for our ski boots and ice axes to battle the icy landscape. After three and a half hours of whacking ice axes and kicking boots into the face of the mountain, stopping frequently in safe zones with minimal rock and ice fall hazard, we finally made it to the summit.

We ate a quick lunch to fuel ourselves for the big descent. With skis now off of our packs and on our feet, we chatted excitedly about who would go first, and who would take up the rear. With nerves growing inside of me the longer we stood on top of the mountain chatting, I decided I would go first, and skied away from my partners.

The first three pitches were successful. We were skiing down a sixty degree slope, constantly aware of the sloughing behind us, the rapidly warming temperatures, and the potential for avalanche. It was exhilarating. The plan was easy enough, ski each pitch one at a time to an island of safety. Around 500 metres below me was a massive cliff, known to the local search and rescue as a cliff that has taken many lives. I skied more confidently knowing fully what was at stake.

We continued to pick our way down the slope, eventually reaching our final island of safety. After this pitch, we would be in the fan of the mountain face, and it would be safe and fun the rest of the way. As I was standing there, taking my last break, I looked around. I realized my skis were not facing in the right direction and I wanted to get them turned to face the other way. I made what is called a “downhill kickturn.” Essentially, you cross your legs in a very inhumane looking way and voila! You are facing the other direction on a perilous slope. My skis did not have a good enough edge for this maneuver. I kicked my own feet out from underneath me.

The first thing that happened, in a matter of milliseconds, was a blown ACL. My knee popped at the same time I realized I was about to head face first down this mountain. The second thing that happened was I lost my ice axe, and along with it my ability to self-arrest. The final thing that happened was, as foreshadowed, I wound up heading face first down the mountain. My friend, who was about fifteen metres below me, held out his hand and screamed at me to take it. Even though everything was happening so fast, I remember having time to think that I did not want to bring him down with me to inevitable death. As I slid past him, he grabbed my backpack and we both went for an approximately two hundred metre long tumble over rocks and ice. At one point, it felt like I was literally drowning. There was snow and ice making its way into my throat. When we finally came to a stop, both just surprised as the other, I felt sick and lost. My friend touched my face and when he pulled his hand away, along with it came blood. “There’s a hole in your head,” he said.

We had a VHF (very high frequency) radio with us to call for dispatch, and just as soon as the operator received our distress call, the radio died. It had been damaged in the fall. Several hours later, after painstakingly making our way down the face of the mountain with six broken ribs, two torn knees, and a gash the size of a baseball on my face, we made it back to our basecamp, where eventually search and rescue would pick us up by helicopter and fly us to a hospital.

I regret having put my friend’s life in peril; it is something I will take with me to my grave. Someday, though, I will go back to claim the line that claimed me, this time with great respect and solemnity.

“All the birds have flown up and gone;
a lonely cloud floats leisurely by.
We never tire of looking at each other-
only the mountain and I.”
– Li Po