DRAMA “I Fell Down a Crevasse and Sur­vived”

En­joy­ing the moun­tain soli­tude, the snow­shoer kept up a steady pace. Then the snow gave way be­neath him

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Front Page - BY LISA FITTERMAN

FRI­DAY, MAY 20, 2016. Yan­nick Niez tosses his much-used snow­shoes and day­pack into his car. It is near­ing 10am on a sunny morn­ing last year in Poey-d’Oloron, a French farm­ing vil­lage near the bor­der with Spain. In the dis­tance, the peak of La Pierre Saint-Martin in the French Pyre­nees looks like a paint­ing in gen­tle shades of grey, green and white. But Yan­nick knows that the 1766-me­tre moun­tain is mer­cu­rial, its con­di­tions chang­ing with a shift in the wind. This morn­ing, though, is cloud­less and with a day off from his fac­tory job mak­ing aero­plane land­ing sys­tems Yan­nick wants to take ad­van­tage of the snow be­fore it melts in the late-spring warmth.

He pulls away from his par­ents’ small stone farm­house and starts the 50-kilo­me­tre drive. He’s so fo­cused on get­ting to the moun­tain, with no-one to an­swer to and no schedule to meet, that he doesn’t think to leave them a note about his plans for the day.

Tall, with dark hair, jug ears and a se­ri­ous mien, the then 42-year-old Yan­nick is a di­vorced fa­ther who has been liv­ing at his par­ents’ for the last two years. He misses his son, sev­enyear-old Yaël, but he likes be­ing on his own. Some­times he even prefers it. At a rock concert or a movie or on an out­ing like to­day, he likes that he can lose him­self and just be car­ried along.

How often he has come this way! he thinks. First as a child when he was taken by his fa­ther, then as a teenager who’d rather be out­side than in class, and now, look­ing for­ward to one day bring­ing his own little boy here, too.

Yan­nick slows to ne­go­ti­ate the switchbacks that snake up the moun­tain, higher and higher. The for­est thins un­til it dis­ap­pears al­to­gether, giv­ing way to an ex­panse of snow, scrab­ble and scrub. Fi­nally, at around 1650 me­tres, he stops and parks. His is the only car in the area.

He straps the snow­shoes to his boots, zips up his light­weight wa­ter­proof jacket and slings on his day­pack. Al­though it is 5°C, there is still about 30 cen­time­tres of wet spring snow on the ground. Un­der­neath, how­ever, he knows that parts of the ter­rain are a lu­nar-like lime­stone land­scape pock­marked with cracks and deep fis­sures, or crevasses, caused by wa­ter run-off and cal­ci­fi­ca­tion.

Care­ful, he re­minds him­self as he sets out, fol­low­ing some­one’s old ski tracks, there’s no-one else around. But he’s skilled at know­ing where to tread, spot­ting fis­sures un­der the snow.

Arms swing­ing in a wide arc to pro­pel his body for­wards, Yan­nick starts out. He rev­els in the si­lence. Soon, sweat is run­ning down his face and he tastes salt on his tongue. It feels good.

The plan is to spend a few hours here, then go home and maybe go out that evening.

After an hour, he stops for lunch atop a ridge and pulls out a small bot­tle of wa­ter and ham sand­wich from his day­pack. Ev­ery­thing I need is here, he thinks, tak­ing in the view. I have the moun­tains, the ocean, my par­ents, my friends and my son, Yaël.

He starts out again, re­freshed. It’s shortly after 12.30pm. One-two, onetwo – he loses him­self in the rhythm. There is no plan or spe­cific route. To­day, he is just en­joy­ing be­ing out­side; en­joy­ing the views and the sense of ef­fort. Thirty min­utes pass, then an hour. Yan­nick’s pace doesn’t change. Down one slope and up another, his eyes con­stantly scan­ning the ter­rain in front of him, then – noth­ing!

The snow gives way and he drops down, down…

His knees and back ab­sorb the im­pact when he lands on a pile of snow, his snow­shoes stick­ing up at right an­gles. Look­ing up, Yan­nick sees only rock walls, glit­ter­ing with snow and ice crys­tals to an open­ing about 12 me­tres above him, the height of a three-storey build­ing. Even this late in the af­ter­noon the ice and snow are still melt­ing, drip­ping con­stantly on his head.

He has landed on a snow bridge, a shelf 1.5 me­tres wide and 12 me­tres deep. Al­though he can­not see the deeper crevasse, he knows it must be there. His po­si­tion is pre­car­i­ous, and he has little room to move. All he can see is snow all around.

He takes stock, flex­ing fin­gers and toes, cir­cling his wrists, check­ing torso, shoul­ders and neck. Al­though he can’t stop shiv­er­ing, ev­ery­thing works.

OK, he tells him­self. Keep calm. You’re go­ing to get out of here.

Care­fully, he puts his hand in his back pocket and pulls out his mo­bile phone. But he is so far down, there is no ser­vice, not even when he stands up to his full 1.8-me­tre height and waves it above his head.

Think­ing back to his manda­tory mil­i­tary ser­vice over 20 years ago, Yan­nick re­mains col­lected. He runs his hands over the crevasse wall in

search of a way to climb out. Slick with ice and slush and studded with ra­zor­like edges that cut his fin­gers, it seems hope­less.

“Help!” he shouts in des­per­a­tion. “I’m down here!” Noth­ing. Yan­nick knows his car was the only one in the park­ing lot, and it’s un­likely there’s any­one out there. He’s on his own.

He puts on the dry T-shirt in his day­pack, puts his jacket back on and wraps his arms around his body. The light is fad­ing and in May that means it’s about 8.30pm.

Pulling up the hood of his jacket, he curls into a ball, his boots propped up against one end of the ledge, his head, neck and shoul­ders against the other.

Fall­ing asleep, he won­ders, When will I be missed?

He’s been gone for ten hours.

SATUR­DAY, MAY 21 Yan­nick’s par­ents, Ge­orges Niez and his wife, Ge­or­gette, are sit­ting in their din­ing room when Ge­orges glances out of the win­dow and no­tices their son’s car isn’t there.

“I won­der if he came home,” Ge­orges says. The 68-year-old re­tired ma­chin­ist isn’t con­cerned. After all, Yan­nick does have a habit of tak­ing off for a day or two at a time with­out leav­ing a note or call­ing.

Ge­or­gette, 64, knocks on Yan­nick’s bed­room door. When there’s no an­swer, she peeks in.

“He didn’t sleep here,” she says, try­ing not to sound wor­ried.

She starts to pack two overnight bags for a train trip the next morn­ing to Toulouse, where their younger son David lives; they plan to stay with him on Sun­day night be­fore her med­i­cal ap­point­ment there on Mon­day morn­ing.

But as the hours pass with still no word from Yan­nick, her stom­ach tight­ens.

“Why doesn’t he call?” she asks Ge­orges.

In the af­ter­noon, she re­minds her hus­band that a few days ear­lier, Yan­nick had pointed out to his par­ents the snowy sum­mit of ‘ La Pierre’ in the dis­tance. “Maybe he went there?” she asks.

In the early evening, they call Yan­nick’s ex-wife but she hasn’t heard a thing. Nor has David, when they call him.

At 8.20pm, for their own peace of mind, the cou­ple calls the po­lice depart­ment in nearby Oloron-Saint-Marie to re­port that their son hasn’t been home since around ten the pre­vi­ous morn­ing.

“Now, he has gone off in the past for up to two days,” Ge­orges cau­tions. “He may have gone to La Pierre Sain­tMartin.”

Wait, they are told. Go to Toulouse to­mor­row as planned. Be­cause even though we will start look­ing for Yan­nick’s car right away, it could take a while.

THAT SAME MORN­ING, as Ge­or­gette and Ge­orges dis­cover that he hasn’t come home, Yan­nick wakes in the crevasse, stiff and shiv­er­ing. He hears a high, keen­ing wind and snow is fall­ing heav­ily, swirling into the crevasse.

I must stay warm, he thinks. Cold could be my worst enemy un­til I’m found. Fum­bling with frozen fin­gers at the laces of his boots, he re­alises his socks are soak­ing wet and his feet swollen from lack of move­ment. So he gets up and walks as much as he can, given the small space.

He scoops up a hand­ful of snow, wait­ing for it to melt be­fore he drinks, and he par­tially un­peels one of two ba­nanas left in his pack. They’re all he has and he ra­tions them, one bite at a time.

With this weather, there isn’t go­ing to be a search to­day. But maybe there’s a cross-coun­try skier or some­one on snow­shoes.

He calls for help but his voice is swal­lowed by the wind. He tries again to climb out, first one way, then another. Fi­nally, frus­trated, his fin­gers and knuck­les blood­ied, Yan­nick sits down. He thinks about his par­ents, his brother, but mostly about his son, Yaël.

Then, like a sergeant bark­ing or­ders to the sol­dier he once was, he ban­ishes all thought of them. There’s no room here for self-pity! Keep your wits about you! Sol­diers don’t cry!

“I’m go­ing to be found,” he says out loud. “This isn’t my time to die.”

SUN­DAY, MAY 22 After lo­cat­ing the last cell tower trig­gered by Yan­nick’s phone, it took six hours to check all the car parks in the wide area ser­viced by that tower be­fore po­lice fi­nally found Yan­nick’s car, parked near a se­ries of trails that go ev­ery which way. It’s 2am.

Later that same morn­ing, the ­po­lice tell Ge­orges and Ge­or­gette that a search won’t of­fi­cially be­gin un­til Mon­day morn­ing, so that they can see if Yan­nick ar­rives for his shift at the fac­tory. “We want to make sure he’s re­ally miss­ing.”

Ge­or­gette is be­side her­self. My son is some­where on the moun­tain and all I can do is wait?

In the crevasse Yan­nick waits, too, all the long Sun­day. What if they aren’t look­ing? He has to keep try­ing to get out on his own.

And he con­tin­ues what over the past 47 hours has be­come his life: he drinks slush, eats a small piece of ba­nana, cups his hands around his mouth to call for help, rises on painful, swollen feet to try to climb out on his own, fails and naps. He does it by rote. Over and over again, un­til it be­comes too dark to do any­thing but sleep.

As he nods off, he thinks: No-one came to­day.

MON­DAY, MAY 23 About 30 searchers – a mix of gen­darmes and fire­fight­ers – have spent much of the day me­thod­i­cally walk­ing or ski­ing, cov­er­ing a grid over a ten-kilo­me­tre ra­dius. Their calls of “Yan­nick!” ring out, sharp, haunt­ing and unan­swered.

When Ge­orges and Ge­or­gette re­ceive word that Yan­nick is now of­fi­cially miss­ing, they drive with David from Toulouse at top speed to the moun­tain. By the time they ar­rive in mid-af­ter­noon, the thick fog has ­fi­nally cleared and the snow, which has been fall­ing all day, has let up.

Ge­orges ap­proaches one of the search co­or­di­na­tors. “What hap­pens now?”

“We’re send­ing up a he­li­copter now the weather is bet­ter,” says Ma­jor ­Di­dier Péri­cou, a po­lice of­fi­cer spe­cially trained in moun­tain res­cues. “We’re go­ing to ex­haust ev­ery pos­si­bil­ity.”

The pi­lot spends about an hour fly­ing over the area but sees noth­ing – no move­ment, no snow­shoe prints and no ev­i­dence of an ac­ci­dent. The search is ended for that day and at around 8pm Ge­orges, Ge­or­gette and David re­turn to the farm­house in Poey-d’Oloron and sit in the wood-pan­elled din­ing room, star­ing at the phone. Will­ing it to ring. Will­ing it not to.

For Yan­nick, his fourth day in the crevasse is like all the pre­vi­ous ones: he tries to find a way out, stingily mea­sures out the last bit of ba­nana, shouts for help and drinks lots of melted snow, which fools him into feel­ing his belly is full. But he is also get­ting colder and tired – so tired – of wait­ing.

TUES­DAY, MAY 24 Yan­nick wakes from another fit­ful sleep con­vinced that by now there has to be a search on. Isn’t there? He pushes away the thought. It has been a long four days and it seems that he has al­ways felt cold. Stub­born, he re­fuses to think that this may be it. That he may die from ex­po­sure, or star­va­tion or de­hy­dra­tion.

He can still hear wind but for the first time since he fell into the crevasse four days ago the sky is blue. In the late morn­ing, he hears voices. He stands up painfully and shouts as loudly as he can: “I’m down here!” But they don’t hear him.

Sit­ting again, he dozes off, only to be wo­ken by a sound. Thwack, thwack, thwack… A he­li­copter! He screams and waves his arms. “I’m here, here, here!”

But the he­li­copter swings around and flies away. Rub­bing his eyes with his knuck­les to stem tears of frus­tra­tion, for the first time since he was a little boy Yan­nick drops to his knees and be­gins to pray.

Please, God, I want to live. Please, let me live.

WED­NES­DAY, MAY 25 The morn­ing dawns sunny and calm and the snow has all melted when the searchers re­con­vene just be­fore 8am. They’re tired and they know that after nearly five days, the chances that they’ll find Yan­nick alive are not good.

Péri­cou ral­lies them with a pep talk and they set out again, two by two, re­trac­ing their steps, peer­ing into cracks and crevasses that may have pre­vi­ously been ob­scured by snow.

In his deep hole, Yan­nick stirs. Time means noth­ing any­more. From the crevasse, he has watched as the sky gets light, then dark, then light, over and over again. Is this how he will end, ­en­cased in a cold lime­stone tomb? Do NOT think about dy­ing. All of a sud­den he hears voices, right above him. “I’m down here!”

The voices stop, then: “Yan­nick? Yan­nick Niez?” Re­lief floods his body. “That’s me,” he shouts. “I’m down here!”

THAT AF­TER­NOON the fam­ily, in­clud­ing Yaël, gath­ers in Yan­nick’s hos­pi­tal room in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, where he is be­ing treated for hy­pother­mia and de­hy­dra­tion. Ge­or­gette can’t take her eyes off her son. As he opens his arms to hug his own child, she thinks he looks shrunken and bruised, with great cir­cles un­der his eyes. But it’s still him.

“From now, please let us know where you’re go­ing,” she says.

For five long days, Yan­nick’s fam­ily – brother David, fa­ther Ge­orges and mother Ge­or­gette – waited for word of his res­cue

An ex­pe­ri­enced hiker, skier and snow­shoer, Yan­nick Niez has en­joyed the moun­tains near his home all his life

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