Even when we thought we were dying, there was no finger-pointing. There was no, 'You did this wrong.' It was just a very calm, loving experience." Erik Bjarnason
From a freak tropical cyclone atop Mount Logan that struck a search-and-rescue team, to a snowboarder buried alive in an avalanche, to the rock-climber hanging by his fingertips, these stories will grip you
It was one of the coldest places he had ever experienced. The biting, howling wind just never let up, and the idea of a major storm crossed his mind. This remote mountain is unforgiving, likely why only about 140 climbers attempt it each year. If you get into trouble, you may well be left alone on Mount Logan, which holds the record of highest mountain in Canada, and the second-highest peak in North America.
After reaching the false summit — the north side of the West Peak of Logan, Erik Bjarnason was content. He knew that reaching the uppermost peak is not the only measure of a successful climb. He also knew that going as far as he did was only halfway: he still had to get back down. One member from another team and one of Bjarnason's team decided to go for the summit the following morning. Meanwhile Bjarnason, Don Jardine and Alex Snigurowicz would ski down to Camp 6, then to Prospector Col where they would rendezvous with two other team members who'd left earlier in the morning. By the time the trio was on their way, they received radio contact from the two farther down the mountain warning them of building winds and ominous clouds.
Halfway across the col the storm hit with full force with winds of 108 km/h as the temperature dropped to -56°C with the wind chill. With little choice, the three men assembled their tent.
"We got hit with a subtropical cyclone at altitude and they're very rare, and the human body is not designed to withstand that, especially out on a ledge. It was a series of circumstances. There was never one massive thing we did wrong — it was just a whole bunch of little things and all of a sudden we were in a world of trouble," Bjarnason says recently from his North Vancouver home.
"I've been telling the story for years," Bjarnason says of the expedition that was to celebrate North Shore Rescue's (NSR) 40th anniversary. By that time Bjarnason had been a member of NSR for 17 years.
"What I thought happened for years, didn't actually happen but other things did... The three of us in the snow cave, I could tell they were severely hypothermic, I could tell they were off the wall — and I thought I was fine," Bjarnason says with a chuckle. "We were zombies. In my head, it was a perfect sentence, and they would just hear baby-talk. You just kind of looked at somebody and you'd grunt, thinking you're having a constructive conversation."
Bjarnason decided to write the story of that 2005 expedition and Surviving Logan will be published in October this year.
Bjarnason's hands were already searing from the cold. Having suffered frostbite years ago on another climb, he was susceptible. As the storm raged on, Bjarnason looked at his hands: the fingers were red, swollen and aching deeply. After 20 hours, the tent started to rip and shred in the relentless wind. Bjarnason tried to get the stove going to melt snow to drink. To light the stove, he had to take off two layers of gloves, which he put on his lap. As Jardine and Snigurowicz had exited the tent to start to build a snow cave, the wind suddenly gusted and plucked the tent from the ice screws that were holding it and then — with all their gear, the stove and the shovels — the tent was gone.
'The seriousness of the situation hit me immediately. We had no shelter, no fuel to make water and had lost important gear. All that had escaped the tent were two sleeping bags, one sleeping mat and a pot lid. I looked at the meagre supplies on the ground at my feet and wondered if this could get any worse.
Then Alex stared at me with a strange expression his face.
"Erik!" he shouted. I looked at him, thinking he was just upset by the loss of our gear. Then he bellowed at me as if I were deaf, "Erik! Where are your gloves?"*
"It was three days before we could get off. That's without food or water at altitude. It was -70° to -90° Celsius with the windchill," he says. "Between the time the tent blew and Don and Alex built the snow cave, I was in the elements holding on to a rock for six hours and that's why I lost my hands — they actually froze to the rock."
It was a series of coincidences and lucky breaks that Bjarnason and his team were rescued by a special high-altitude helicopter from the Alaskan Air Guard. But for Bjarnason, it was a much longer trip back.
Therapy by the paragraph
Bjarnason says the book was therapeutic, and emotional, and a testament to what he could accomplish.
"What I wanted was a comeback book. I was in a terrible situation but I was rescued...I've got no hands left — what do I do with my life? And there was a point where I had to choose between the bottle and living life to its fullest. Luckily for me I went with the latter," he says.
Bjarnason's book recounts his fight to gain his independence, to regain his self-worth and to reclaim the job he loves.
"When they amputated, it was like having a broken bone sticking out of the end of each fingertip. So if I touched it, it would shoot pain up to my jaw."
A common therapy — used among boxers and anyone who needs to strengthen their hands — is to dig the knuckles into rice or sand to toughen them up.
"When they were training me to use my new fingers, they were using sand and I'd do it once an hour. And if I did that, then it would take two years to toughen them," he says. "So I would sit there and I would dig my hands into uncooked rice until I couldn't take the pain anymore, and I'd do it for hours a day. And there would be blood in there, I'd be crying. And after about four months, my hands were as tough as my elbows, and there was absolutely no pain. I was going to do it no matter what."
After his recovery, Bjarnason won back his cherished job, that of a City of North Vancouver firefighter, within nine months. Within 13 months he was climbing Mt. Elbrus in Russia. And by 2009 he climbed to 8,500m on Everest.
"We all have huge challenges, it's all what we do with those challenges. Do we let them beat us to death or do we beat the challenge?"
Excerpt courtesy Rocky Mountain Books Ltd.
Testing the limits
Exploring the 'craft of dying'
Peter Stark was backcountry skiing with a friend at a high headwall near the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. An extremely steep section called Left Gully lay before them and Stark, a former ski racer, figured they could ski the route. But his friend looked at it and noticed that the lower portion fell into a shadow. It was late in the afternoon and that snow in the shadow would be freezing up. If they took that route and fell, they would slide uncontrollably into rocks below. So they passed on that slippery couloir and made it out safely. As they headed out at the end of their day, they noticed a helicopter wending its way into the ravine. The next day Stark learned that another skier had taken that route, had fallen on the icy snow and was helicoptered out. That skier died.
Stark wrote Last Breath: The Limits of Adventure after the incident with his friend made him realize that death can be just one step away. Stark also wanted to explore human reactions, poor decisions, and emotional complications that can cloud judgment, but also what happens physiologically to the body — to document how the body deteriorates — in cases of suffocation or hypothermia, for example, or dehydration, or when someone is stung by a box jellyfish, or bitten by a mosquito carrying malaria.
It was Stark's exploration of ars moriendo, or "the craft of dying" that non-western cultures embrace, that prompted his book for those who engage in adventurous activities.
Stark's book has been translated into seven languages since its 2002 publication. The book is a bit of a cult classic as fans read it over and over again, have a difficult time loaning it to someone else, and pack it along on trips. The book has been used in first-responders training in the U.S. because the details of physiological changes to a body under duress or trauma are thorough and so well-documented.
"People who read it are often outdoors-oriented and they were really engrossed by it and I think one of the surprising aspects of the book is that people think it's going to be a gruesome read and when they read it and they find it a lot less gruesome. They find it compelling drama with science woven into it," says Stark, who spoke on the phone from his car on his way from his home in Missoula, Mont., with his family to Portland, Ore.
The beauty of Stark's book is the finely crafted fictional characters who — because of circumstance, emotional state and plain old hubris — face complicated decisions that can make the difference between life and death. Stark creates tension as his characters lead you step by step toward their survival, or demise. Each chapter features a different sport, a different set of physiological challenges, and each ends with a different outcome.
"Eight turns. Something odd out of the right corner of his eye . . .a long, blue-tinged crack in the snow.
Then a sound and the snow reverberated with a hollow noise like a giant hand knocking on a giant pumpkin.
Nine turns. The snow all around him was moving, breaking into slabs."**
Stark says: "I worked really hard to make it suspenseful and that's certainly a lot of the reaction I got. The notion that I had was to try to write these really edge-of-your-seat stories and put these people on the edge of difficulty and disaster, and then at the same time pull away, go back and examine the science and the physiology and, to some degree, the psychology of what these individuals are undergoing."
Stark's snowboarder is caught in a 95km/h avalanche and buried beneath a metre of snow. The snowboarder realizes he has a small air pocket in front of him. His breath comes moist and dense as he shouts "Help!" Panic surges as the sound is muffled and he now feels as though someone is holding a pillow against his face.
Within four minutes of being buried, the oxygen in his bloodstream has dropped to 89 per cent, but the carbon dioxide in his exhalations has jumped, which means he is inhaling a high concentration of carbon dioxide.
"The lack of oxygen in the blood eventually causes brain function and heart rate to slow. With the slowing heart rate, blood pressure drops. The victim blacks out under the snow...Finally, between 15 and 35 minutes after burial, the heart usually stops beating altogether."**
Stark said he found all the characters completely engrossing.
"I think the ones I like best are the first chapter and the last chapter, the freezing — the hypothermia chapter — and the dehydration chapter. The hypothermia chapter was the first one I wrote and I actually wrote it as an article for Outside magazine a few years before I wrote the book," he says. "That story resonated so much with the readership and that's what got me thinking maybe I should use this concept for a whole book, creating characters and putting them in extreme situations."
Stark said what surprised him most when researching was how resilient the human body is. "It's a remarkable organism but, at the same time, there's this certain fragility to it that it can't survive under certain conditions."
Stark was quite an adventurer himself. After Last Breath was published, he undertook a kayaking expedition to the largely uncharted Lugenda River in Mozambique, which he chronicled in his 2005 book At the Mercy of the River.
"We found ourselves in really dicey situations, at least by my standards. You didn't know about a waterfall around the next bend, you're dealing with pods of hippos, which can be extremely dangerous, and crocs in the water — and we were in wild Africa in sea kayaks on this river," he says with a bit of a laugh. "So I had the sense from that expedition that's about as far as I'm going to go in terms of putting myself in danger — I had two small children at home at that point and I was really trying to survive. It changes your perspective."
Stark's characters in Last Breath are young and eager, and perhaps more prone to risk-taking, such as the extreme kayaker Matt who has travelled all the way to China's Tiger's Leap Gorge in the Jinsha River to tackle Class 6 rapids.
"He plunges into the hole headfirst. He is instantly ripped out of his kayak. The water snaps his paddle shaft in two and tears it from his grip, strips the contact lenses from his corneas, pulls the helmet off his head, and yanks at the straps of his life vest as if some great animal were shaking him in its teeth."**
Or the testosterone-fuelled climber who heads out on his own as much as to prove himself as to vent the anger at his fellow climber who bailed on him at the last minute. This chapter, "Pitched From the Vertical Realm" is a fan favourite: The situation is dire, the character as close to imperfection as one can get.
"I had a vision of who would be an interesting character in that situation and I started thinking of a heavily charged, very competitive type and he is very self-centred and I thought, OK, I'm going to create a character like that and put him in a lot of trouble," Stark says.
'He looks up again at the handhold. A dyno 150 feet off the deck with no protection. This is a loser's move. He feels it in his gut. There are two types of people in the world: the winners, like him, and the losers."**
Stark's free-soloing climber has no backup, no ropes, no anchors, no belays. All he thinks about is walking into his office on Monday and regaling his colleagues with his tale of his ballsy climb, and how those who undertake such climbs are "a breed apart."
"He'll come off the wall unless he does something fast...He kicks and scrapes with his free foot, scrabbling for a hold on sheer granite...It is in that moment, there, that his fingertips slip from the rock."**
Stark writes that without catastrophic injury, there is something called "the golden hour." For that length of time, the human body can sort of hold itself together. But once the hour has passed, the chance of survival drops dramatically — and even more so in the wilderness with no paramedics to rescue you, no emergency room close by.
Stark's climber is a classic narcissist, hobbled as much by his poor choices as his inflated ego. "In a way, it's creating characters that complicate the situation. It heightens the tension," says Stark.
"He looks over the edge, assessing the situation once more. No rope. No cell phone. A badly broken leg. But he'll turn up a winner again. He's sure of it. If he had to put money down, he would definitely, definitely place it on himself. That's what he'd honestly tell a client. No bullshit. We're talking 96, 97, maybe even 98 percent chance of success."**
Some of Stark's characters survive. Some don't. What odds would you give the climber?
Full disclosure: The writer has read Stark's book seven times and no, she will not loan it to you.
**Last Breath excerpts courtesy Ballantine Books
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