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
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