‘I was bouncing down like a pinball’

From Saturday’s Globe and Mail – December 8, 2007

LA VALLÉE BLANCHE, FRANCE – We had been skiing and boarding for more than two hours toward Chamonix down La Vallée Blanche of France’s Mont Blanc range. My husband, Pierre, children Laurence and Simon, our guide and I had descended about 1,200 metres to 2,400 metres of altitude. It was 11:45 a.m. as we negotiated the last, most technical part of the run in a flat, grey light.

I was tired from a number of falls and was looking forward to the wider and easier terrain of La Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in France.

Little did I know that my biggest fall was yet to come.

We were entering a region of numerous crevasses and our guide had just crossed the first one on a two-metre-wide snow bridge. I was next, going downhill with enough speed to cross safely, planning to stop behind our guide to leave room for the others. What the guide didn’t know was that there was another crevasse about five metres behind him.

As I crossed and then proceeded to stop, I suddenly felt emptiness under me. A crevasse was running parallel to my skis. I was falling. It was as if an elevator cable had snapped. I screamed. My arms were stretched above my head and I was bouncing down between the walls of hard-packed snow like a pinball. Somewhere during that 15-metre plunge, I lost my poles, which probably prevented a broken arm or, worse, impalement.

I landed on my back and although badly winded, I didn’t feel anything was broken. I remember thinking, “I’m okay. It should be easy to get me out of here.” That optimism was literally crushed a second later when a 50-kilogram slab of snow the size of an ironing board crashed down on me, pinning my body to the bottom of the crevasse.
A change in plans

We had started out one morning last March to ski the famed Vallée Blanche with a local guide. According to brochures and a newspaper account we had read before arriving, it would be an easy 24-kilometre ski run in loose powder through breathtaking scenery.

Our expedition started on the Aiguille du Midi cable car, which took us up to almost 4,000 metres. Once inside the top cable car station, our guide provided each of us with a harness and an avalanche locator. He then roped us together for the first un-skiable portion along a narrow trail.

It was only when we reached the end of the trail that we discovered that, with Laurence and Simon on snowboards, we couldn’t do the easy and scenic “classic route,” which included flat plateaus. In addition, bad weather was approaching and the guide opted for speed on the most expert route.

This route revealed itself to be very technical for Pierre and me, difficult for 17-year-old Simon and manageable only for 18-year-old Laurence, who is an excellent snowboarder. I found myself tumbling down and crashing in the snow almost every few minutes. The view, however, was as promised: breathtaking.
Trapped at the bottom

For a few seconds after the slab of snow landed on me, I panicked. I screamed in French: ” Au secours, je suis coincée, je ne peux pas respirer.” (“Help, I’m stuck and I can’t breathe.”) My screams bounced back fast and furious to my helmet. I realized I had to stay calm.

I tried to lift my arms to push the block off me, but I wasn’t strong enough. The only place I could have pushed it was at my feet. My head was resting a few inches from one end of the crevasse, and the crevasse was exactly the width of my shoulders, so I couldn’t roll the snow to the left or right. I was trapped. I managed to lift the mass a bit by raising my pelvis to bring my left knee up to support it and relieve the pressure on my chest. This also helped free up my left forearm. I reached for my goggles, which were crushed to my face, but in the process of pulling them down I lost my right contact lens.

It crossed my mind not to move too much, because I didn’t know if there was emptiness below. I had a brief thought for the kids, although I knew they would be safe, and for Pierre and how badly he must have been feeling since he had coaxed us into this skiing expedition.

While the guide was using his cellphone to call the French Mountain Rescue Unit, another important call was being made. At exactly 11:55 a.m., about one minute after I hit the bottom, my BlackBerry rang. I couldn’t reach the phone, but I would find out later that it was Laurence. Typical quick-thinking, she took the initiative to call me moments after she saw me disappear – that’s my girl.

Pulling my left knee closer, lifting the block higher, I created enough space to slip my left arm toward the right pocket of my jacket. After what seemed an eternity of turning and twisting, I retrieved the BlackBerry and carefully brought it to my chest. I wanted to call my family and let them know that I was alive, but I couldn’t see the keyboard.
Finally, my BlackBerry rang again and I was able to press the answer button. I couldn’t bring the phone to my face, but I found the speakerphone button. It was Pierre. What a sweet voice it was, filled with relief.
After the call, however, I felt depressed and claustrophobic. Another surge of panic. I heard banging, like someone hammering a nail. I thought the rescuers were already coming down, but I soon realized that it was my own heartbeat, resounding in my helmet.

At about the same time, I noticed that I was loosing sensation in my right foot. Lying on my back, my ski boot was cutting the circulation in my calf. I tried to reach the binding, but a small chunk of snow blocked my grasp. I wondered how long it takes to lose a foot or a leg due to lack of circulation in sub-zero temperatures.

Pierre called back at 12:03 p.m. with the news that other guides – some Spanish, some French – had stopped to help, along with a German physician who was also a certified rescuer and was coming down into the crevasse. In addition to the foreign ski guides who were converging, a platoon of Police Nationale trainees showed up. The platoon had been on a training exercise nearby, picked up the distress call and skied to our location. Another lucky turn of events.

The rescueBefore the physician reached the bottom I heard an approaching helicopter, which I found out later was bringing the official rescue team and their equipment. It was only 22 minutes after my fall. At the same time that the physician was rappelling down, the Gendarmerie rescuers were getting ready to send their own medic. By then I heard, “I’m here. I’m a doctor.” He asked how I was feeling, and I said I thought I had nothing broken but that I had problems with breathing and with circulation. By then I couldn’t feel my right foot, and the tingling sensation had moved to just below my knee.

The physician, standing at my feet and bracing his own feet on the walls of the crevasse with crampons, began to lift the slab of snow. After one slip, which dropped the slab onto my head, he managed to push it behind him.
With my head finally free to turn, I noticed for the first time the ice of the crevasse’s walls. It was so beautiful, a tone of blue and a texture I had never seen before.

The physician quickly attached a rope to the harness I was still wearing from the beginning of our descent and shouted up to have the slack taken up. I later found out that the first step in a crevasse rescue is to secure the victim. A glacier can move a metre a day. That means the upstream could have been closing in on us or the downstream wall could have moved farther down slope, widening the crevasse. Once certain I wasn’t seriously injured, the doctor helped me to my feet.
While we were still at the bottom of the crevasse, a second rescuer came down. It was Philippe Garnier, a medic with the Mountain Rescue Unit. Once Garnier had been reassured that I was alright, he asked if I was feeling well enough to handle the ascent, which involved pushing off the wall of the crevasse as I was pulled up. I said I was feeling fine and that I had done rappelling while a cadet at the Royal Military College many years ago, so I had an idea of what to do.

The ascent took many minutes because the rescuers were limited in their movements by a crevasse behind them. After I was finally pulled out and this group, too, was reassured that I was unhurt, they released the ropes attached to my harness and helped me to my feet. Once sure I could stand on my own, the rescue team went back to the ropes to pull up the physician and the Gendarmerie medic.

Seconds after I was on my feet, I was in Pierre’s arms and we were kissing. The first thing I said to him after our embrace was: “C’est tellement bleu, c’est beau” (“It’s so blue down there, it’s beautiful”). Pierre laughed in wonder.
Much later that evening – after a helicopter ride to the rescue station on which I was accompanied by my son, a hospital visit and a precautionary cast on my right hand – I told Pierre that I was somewhat ashamed that, during my ordeal, I didn’t once think about God.

Pierre, my voice of reason for the past 21 years, said that I didn’t have time to think about God, that all my energy had to be dedicated to improving the situation I was in.

“You did as God wanted you to do: He wanted you to do everything in your power to survive. You did exactly what He wanted.” And with his words, my feeling of guilt evaporated.

Looking back

We are back in Toronto and I still have problems sleeping. When I close my eyes, I have flashbacks and see myself falling into a void or pinned under a block of snow. I wrote a detailed log of the events, hoping it will have a cathartic effect. Despite all this, my fervour for skiing hasn’t diminished, and I look forward to hitting the slopes again.

As for Pierre, he sent a letter of thanks to the rescue team and – appropriately – a case of ice wine.
Special to The Globe and Mail

To see and download pictures please click here

Video of the rescue taken by daughter Laurence

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