The gondola is crowded this morning as it climbs rapidly in the clear blue French sky. On board are 75 other snowboarders and skiers. With a lot of pushing and shoving I barely manage to get onto the third gondola load. The 22 inches of powder snow has gotten everyone in town up early.
The upper gondola of Super Chamonix has a cable speed of almost 20 miles an hour so once onboard, the ride takes less than 10 minutes and travels 5,000 vertical feet. As it sways gently from its glide over the only tower, I can see a group of four skiers traversing across the top of one of the best slopes on this steep glacier. Not another ski track is yet visible on the west side of the gondola except their traverse marks.
Under the almost two feet of fresh snow that fell last night is a glacier of ice that is more than 500-feet deep and is crisscrossed by dangerous crevasses. The mile long sea of ice doesn’t bend, but instead breaks as the rocks it covers change the course of the ice as it moves. The crevasses are sometimes as wide as a hundred feet or as narrow as an inch or two and sometimes seemingly limitless in their depth.
When it snows hard the blowing snow will form a cornice on one side of the crevasse and when the wind changes direction, it will form a cornice on the other side of the crevasse. The two cornices will get larger and larger until they sometimes touch and form a bridge of snow. There is nothing under that bridge except a bottomless killer void of freezing air. Where the two cornices meet is sometimes only an inch or two thick and when a skier goes across one, the fragile bridge of snow will give way and they can fall to their death.
I was explaining all of this to my still cameraman as I watched the four skiers traversing the glacier. One of the women in the group, who was wearing a yellow parka, was traversing a little higher than the other three when she suddenly disappeared. Her long traverse tracks ending in a black hole the size of a pair of skis and her body.
Fortunately the conductor on the gondola witnessed the accident and quickly dialed the ski patrol. Before we arrived at the top station the ski patrol was on their way down to attempt a rescue.
For me this was a good opportunity to get some rare rescue shots for my latest ski film. I skied down as fast as I could in the deep powder snow and by the time I got to the accident, at least half a dozen other ski patrolmen had already rigged their rescue ropes and lowered one of the patrolmen down into the crevasse. The word he sent up from deep in the crevasse was encouraging. The woman who had fallen in was down about 45 feet, perched precariously on a narrow ledge of ice that was covered with about five feet of powder. “She was stunned but still alive.”
A few minutes later, the head patrolman said something in French and the five remaining patrolmen began sidestepping down the hill. They all had a firm grip on the rope that led down to the skier in the crevasse.
When the victim finally was dragged over the lip of the crevasse we were all shocked to discover that it wasn’t the woman in the yellow parka.
Instead, on the end of the rope was a man.
He had fallen into the crevasse the day before and was near death from hypothermia. Fortunately he had been wearing a thick down parka over his snow suit with long underwear under it. He also had two candy bars with him and the combination had saved his life. However, he had wasted away to virtual skin and bones while down there. He looked like he had lost 20 pounds during his long ordeal in the darkness of the sub-zero crevasse.
When this hypothermia-caused, weight-loss information was passed back down to the ski patrolman who was still in the crevasse – a heated argument was heard between the patrolman and the woman who was still down there.
She had figured out that the guy they had hauled up first had lost a lot of weight, so she hollered back up,
“Come back and get me in a couple of days!”
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