Vail Daily column: Death on the glacier
On a rainy Sunday afternoon, my neighbor, Howard Wright who is a former airline pilot, came by the house with his computer and showed me a film you have to see to believe. It is a film about half a dozen paragliders flying down from the summit of Mont Blanc in France. After almost a 15-minute decent of the brilliantly colored parachutes flying over everything that is both beautiful and life threatening on a glacier, they land in a village below.
The first time I saw a film of the 15,000-foot high Mont Blanc was 60 years ago. That was when Bill Dunaway, who used to own and publish The Aspen Times, together with another mountaineer made the first descent of the treacherous North Face of Mont Blanc on skis.
This steep glacier has to be taken seriously. It was first climbed in the late 1800s and has claimed the lives of literally hundreds of people who made a simple mistake in climbing technique while trying to reach the summit.
Sometime, more than a hundred years ago, one couple thought that the closer they were to God when they conceived their first child, the healthier that child would be. They organized a large group of guides and other climbers to help haul the mattress to the summit. They also had to haul the nuptial tent and accommodations for everyone in the expedition for a week or so. That includes a lot of food for the twelve man support crew. It also included a dining table, candles and wine for the bride and groom.
After a half a dozen nights of messing around at 15,000 feet the bride and groom had to descend back down to reality and face the fact that the idea was an expensive, time-consuming one, as well as a first at the summit (sort of an early mile-high club). But whoever makes babies was probably busy somewhere else those nights and the epic ascent of Mt. Blanc produced nothing but a lower bank balance in the bride’s dowry.
But back to ice- and snow-covered Mont Blanc: as the hundreds of feet thick glacial ice slowly moves down the hill, crevasses open and close and giant ice blocks rise up and tumble over. I know how dangerous a glacier can be having been on a lot of them with my camera. But I never have been without an experienced guide except for the one day on the Tasman glacier on Mount Cook, New Zealand. I was filming triple Olympic gold-medal winner Jean-Claude Killy and Leo Lacroix with the help of my best cameraman, Don Brolin. For some reason, when you are looking through the lens of a camera, you tend to ignore the danger of potential death.
I have been close a lot of times during my career and somehow, I was able to quit while I was ahead.
One time in France, I took a chance and was able to climb up and stand on a giant ice block and get really unusual shots looking down at my skiers as they went by one at a time below me and jumping across a fairly wide deep blue crevasse.
The next day, I was filming on another part of the same glacier when I saw the government rescue helicopter headed for where I had been filming the day before.
Another, maybe less experienced, television camera crew had seen my ski tracks to the top of that same ice block. While the cameraman was on top of it the ice block, it tipped over and as it did, it broke up and part of it crushed the cameraman.
For some unknown reason, I have always had freedom on my shoulder and luck on my side, whether it was on the Tasman Glacier in New Zealand or on the gentle glacier in Chamonix called La Mir de Glace.
On a sunny day, sometimes several thousand people will ski down it and many stop part way and have lunch in the bright sunshine. One sunny Sunday, a lot of people had stopped part way down to have lunch and watch other skiers go by. Some of the crevasses are only inches wide, others a foot or two, and it is easy to ski over them at right angles with no danger.
On that sunny Sunday, a skier was side slipping and skidded into a narrow crevasse and only dropped down about 15 feet or so.
Half a dozen people quickly ran over to help the victim who was standing upright with his lower ski and boot wedged into both sides of the narrowing crevasse.
He hollered up that he was OK and to just throw him a rope.
Keep in mind that glaciers are continually in motion as this one was.
The rope was thrown down and rigged under his arms but the vice-like grip of the moving glacier had already tightly imprisoned his lower ski and boot.
Someone was lowered down with an ice axe and attempted to chip out the ice that was holding the ski and boot. The crevasse was closing up faster than the rescuer could chip away at it.
In front of all of the people who had stopped to eat lunch, they heard the screams of the man stuck in the crevasse as he was slowly crushed to death.
About fifty years ago, on a glacier in Austria, a frozen body emerged from the ice at the foot of a glacier after a 400- or 500-year journey from where he fell to his death. His body was so well preserved by the glacial ice that scientists were able to keep it frozen and during the autopsy were able to find out what he had for lunch the day of his death and figure out what village he was from by the food in his pouch as well as a lot of other stuff about him.
On nearby Mt. Baker that I can see when I am out catching crabs near my island, about 10 years ago during a particularly dry snow year and warm summer, the tail of a P-38 airplane emerged from the glacier. The World War II Army fighter plane had been missing with its pilot since 1942.
Sitting here at the computer in the sanctuary of my office listening to concert music on Symphony Hall, I reflect on the many times I put my life on the line to get some of the pictures that I brought back to my audiences for all of those years. It was a long, happy but sometimes dangerous journey.
I always relied on the skill and knowledge of mountain men who knew almost exactly what the snow and ice will do under almost any circumstance. Almost any circumstance is the definitive phrase here.
If I wrote all of the stories that I have heard or experienced during those many winters in the mountains, then I am sure that I could make an entire book about it with the simple title, “Death in the Mountains.”
But I have drifted away from the movie that Howard Wright showed me: Half a dozen men paragliding down the north face of Mont Blanc. You quickly get caught up in the beauty of the day and the colored parachutes set against the tumbling ice blocks and awesome crevasses as though the paragliders are in no danger whatsoever, when in reality an unseen sudden gust of wind tumbling down from the summit could instantly deflate their parachutes.
As the first few paragliders in close formation are being filmed from the helicopter with a village in the background, you begin to wonder where they will land with their skis on.
They glide in for a landing on wet grass after completing the first-ever journey of its kind down a 15,000-foot-high mountain without spending any time climbing up to do it.
Just rent a helicopter with a few friends and do it.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff log onto http://www.warren miller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to http://www.warrenmiller.org.