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The tram was crowded this morning as it climbed rapidly in the clear blue French sky. The 22 inches of new powder snow had gotten everyone in town up early. Waiting in line took longer than normal because of the early birds with inside connections.
The Super Chamonix upper tram has a cable speed of almost 20 mph, so once on board the 5,000-vertical-foot ride took less than 10 minutes. As it swayed gently and glided over the main tower, we could see a group of four skiers traversing one of the best slopes on this vast, undulating and steep glacier. No other ski track was yet visible on the west side of the gondola. Underneath the new snow was a glacier of rock-hard ice that was more than 500 feet deep in places. As the mile-long sea of ice moves across the mountain, it doesn’t bend but instead breaks, creating crevasses that are sometimes as wide as 100 feet or as narrow as an inch-and seemingly limitless in their depths.
When it snows hard, the blowing snow forms a cornice on one side of the crevasse and, when the wind changes direction, it forms another cornice on the other side. The two cornices grow larger and larger until they sometimes touch and form a bridge of snow.
There is nothing underneath the bridge except a plunging void. Where the two cornices meet is sometimes only an inch or two thick, so when a skier goes across one, the fragile bridge of snow can give way-and the skier can fall to his death.
I was explaining all of this to my wife as I watched the four skiers traversing the glacier. One of the ladies, who was wearing a canary-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 tram also witnessed the accident and quickly dialed the ski patrol. By the time we arrived at the top station, the ski patrol was on its way down to attempt a rescue.
For me, this was a good opportunity to get some rare rescue shots for a magazine article I was writing. I skied down as fast as I could in the deep snow. By the time I arrived, half of the patrol was engaged in crowd control. At least half a dozen other ski patrolmen had rigged rescue ropes and lowered one of the patrollers down into the crevasse. The word he sent up from deep in the crevasse was encouraging. A lady had fallen in. She was down about 45 feet, perched precariously on a narrow ledge of ice that fortunately was covered with about five feet of powder snow. She was stunned but still alive.
A few minutes later, the head patrolman said something untranslatable in French, and the 5 remaining patrolmen began sidestepping down the hill. They all had a good grip on the rope that led down to the lady 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 lady in the yellow parka. Instead, on the end of the rope was a man. It turned out he had fallen into the crevasse two days earlier and was near death from hypothermia. Fortunately, he had been wearing a thick down parka over his powder suit and long underwear. He also had two candy bars with him, and this combination had saved his life. However, he had wasted away to virtual skin and bone. He looked like he had lost 20 pounds during his two-day ordeal in the darkness of the sub-zero crevasse. When this information was passed back down to the ski patrolman who was still in the crevasse, a heated argument erupted between the patroller and the lady who was still down there.
Armed with this new information, she hollered, “Come back and get me in a couple of days!”