41 HOURS ALONE IN THE SNOW
The young snowboarder had to rely on his resourcefulness to survive.
“HELLOOO!” NICOLAS JUNGE-HÜLSING
shouts down into the valley at the top of his voice. “Daaniii! Where are you?” “Niiciiii!” Daniel Petek bellows up at the mountain until he’s practically hoarse. “We’re over here!” It may seem as if they are answering each other, but each is completely oblivious to the other’s calls, thanks to a hefty downdraft blowing violently through the Urseren valley and whipping up snow on the flank of the Gemsstock mountain. The sudden gale drowns out every sound, completely hiding every shape behind an opaque white veil. The tracks in the snow are first obscured by the winds, then completely erased seconds later. FRIDAY, MARCH 4, 2016, had gotten off to a good start, with beautiful spring sunshine and perfect, powdery snow. The winter sports enthusiasts from Radolfzell Ski Club in Germany were making the most of the glorious weather at the Andermatt ski resort in Switzerland.
At around four in the afternoon, ski instructor Daniel Petek returned to the summit with ten members of the group so that they could ski the popular Guspis freeride – ten kilometres off-piste to Hospental – one last time.
Nici is new to the group, and at age 18 he is its youngest member. He is also the only snowboarder in the party. But that isn’t to say he’s inexperienced – his grandfather started taking him on trips to the Valais Alps at age 11. “Winter sports are my life,” says the biochemistry student. “Both skiing and snowboarding!”
During a lengthy traverse, he realises that his board is long overdue for a good waxing – it keeps sticking, and in the end he has to get off and trudge through the deep snow while the skiers glide across the slope with ease.
But where are Dani and the others now? They could have carried on straight down, but then again they might have turned off over there on the left.
Nicolas’s father Bernhard Junge-Hülsing – a doctor by profession – should have been with the group, too. But he was still suffering from a stubborn bout of the flu and had told his son, “You go without me. I don’t feel up to it.”
Suddenly all alone in the mountains at an altitude of nearly 2300 metres, Nicolas is miserable and forlorn. His fingers numb with cold, he fumbles his phone out of his pocket to call his dad. His battery is running low and there’s virtually no signal. He gets cut off almost as soon as he hits the call button.
Back at the resort, Junge-Hülsing’s smartphone vibrates. It’s Dani Petek, who tells him, “We’ve lost Nici.” Just after 4.30pm Junge-Hülsing raises the alarm.
SAFE, FOR NOW
Nicolas gazes across the featureless expanse of white. He sees nothing but snow, rocks and boulders – until suddenly, the outline of something dark and square catches his eye.
He makes his way to it and discovers a tiny shelter, more wooden shack than hunter’s cabin, a shepherd’s hut with a stable-style door. It’s locked, but af ter Nici bashes it with his snowboard, the lock gives way.
There’s a bunk bed against the wall. On top of the mattress lie a blanket, a shirt and a fleece jacket. There’s also a candle, a saucepan, a camping stove, three dirty plastic bottles, a large packet of spaghetti, a jar of tomato sauce, some stock cubes, a cigarette lighter and a can of blue spray paint.
Nicolas breathes a sigh of relief. I’m safe, for now; I can spend the night here. In the morning, I’ll climb up to
NICOLAS HOLDS THE LIGHTER TO THE WICK OF THE CANDLE AND REPEATEDLY SPARKS IT WHILE SPRAYING BLUE PAINT AT IT
the cable car station on the summit. I should be able to do it in seven hours if the conditions are OK.
But he knows that snow is forecast from Saturday to Wednesday.
SNOW IN THE FORECAST
Dusk is starting to fall over the mountains as Markus Koch sets a course for the base of the Swiss Air-Rescue service known as ‘Rega’. The helicopter pilot and his crew have just flown an injured skier to the Spital Schwyz hospital and are now looking forward to an evening off.
Then the radio crackles. “Come in Rega 8.” “Rega 8 here, what have we got?” “We need you to search for a missing snowboarder on the Gemsstock, somewhere on the Guspis route.”
The pilot alters his course to 195 degrees and climbs to 2740 metres; he can’t fly any lower because the downslope föhn wind is raging through the Urseren valley at nearly 100 kilometres an hour. SOMEWHERE BELOW, Nicolas is growing increasingly desperate: the lighter is empty and doesn’t work. He picks up the can of spray paint and turns it around in his hand. On its side, he sees the words “Highly f lammable, do not spray towards naked flame.”
This gives him an idea: Nicolas holds the lighter to the wick of the candle and repeatedly sparks it while simultaneously spraying blue paint at it. It works – the wick catches fire. He uses the candle to light the camping stove.
While snow melts in a pot on the stove, Nicolas hears a muff led thump- thump- thump over the noise of the wind howling through the cracks in the hut. A helicopter! They’re searching for me!
He dashes outside. The chopper is circling right above him, in exactly the right place – but why is it flying so high? And why is it veering away?
Nici guesses that the pi lot couldn’t spot him in the storm.
CHRISTIAN VON DACH is the Gemsstock cable car technician leading the search. The Rega operations centre has called in Swiss Alpine Rescue (ARS), a non-profit foundation run by Rega and the Schweizer Alpen Club. The race is on to save the young snowboarder’s life.
Von Dach has set off with 20 helpers to search the lower slopes of the Gemsstock along the valley,
using searchlights and night-vision equipment.
Meanwhile, Daniel Petek and the rest of his group are still out there, braving the snowstorm. They have been standing in the same spot calling out Nici’s name into the gloom for two and a half hours.
At around seven o’clock, Dani’s phone rings. It’s von Dach. He asks the tourists to go back down into the valley. “Once it’s dark, it gets a lot more dangerous – and we don’t want to have to start searching for more than one person.”
In the meantime, police officers from the canton of Uri are checking the local hostels in Hospental to make sure the missing teenager isn’t sitting in a nice, warm bar somewhere.
FEARING THE WORST
Up in his mountain shelter, Nicolas has devoured his first portion of spaghetti. Now, he goes out to collect some snow to melt so he can fill up the empty bottles with hot water to help keep him warm. He strips down to his underpants and lays his clothes on top of the blanket to conserve his body heat as efficiently as possible.
Suddenly, he hears the sound of whirring rotor blades again – it’s music to his ears. Has the Swiss
Air-Rescue helicopter returned in the middle of the night?
It’s a military helicopter. The leaders of the search operation have drafted in a Super Puma from the Alpnach Air Base with a thermal imaging camera so that they can detect any signs of life in the snow. But the camera can’t ‘see’ through the walls of Nici’s shelter.
At around midnight, they give up the ground search for the night. The search team return to headquarters for a briefing, while back at the youth hostel the ski club members and Nici’s father are growing increasingly fearful for him.
As the night wears on, the chances of finding Nicolas alive recede by the hour. More than a few people are starting to think he must have fallen into a gully or over a precipice.
While still hoping for a miracle, Junge-Hülsing also fears the worst. “It’s best if you stay home,” he tells his wife, Katrin, on the phone. “There’s nothing you can do to help here.”
Katrin stays put in Munich and waits for more news. Eleven-year-old Josefine, known to everyone as Fini, sits beside her. “Nici’s alive, I know it,” says the youngest of her three daughters. “I can feel his heart beating.”
A WHITE HELL OUTSIDE THE DOOR
When hope fades and fear takes hold, it’s all too easy to let loneliness get the better of you.
Nici lies on the mattress and switches his phone on for a few seconds so he can comfort himself by looking at the picture of his mum, dad and three sisters.
And then he does something he would never normally do: he prays, speaking the words out loud and clear: Dear God, I can’t call the people who are worried about me, but please let them know that I’m alive and well. And if anyone feels like they’re to blame, tell them it’s nobody’s fault.
The sound of his own voice
convinces him that someone is listening. Every so often he drifts off to sleep and all is well with the world. He’s at home with friends and family, and no longer alone. Then he wakes up and the nightmare begins again.
On Saturday, the storm batters the walls of the hut all day long, while the snow is now several metres deep. When Nicolas opens the door, a white hell stretches out before him.
Climbing to the summit is no longer an option, much less trying to make his way down the mountain. If he starts an avalanche, it could engulf the people who are attempting to get up the mountain to rescue him.
SUNDAY MORNING. Back at the Rega base, Stefan Bucheli looks up at the sky. Although the cloud is slowly starting to break up, the Gemsstock is still completely shrouded.
The helicopter pilot doesn’t want to waste a single moment. He starts up the turbine and takes off. He picks up von Dach at the cable car halfway station. The clouds force the pilot to make a detour: Bucheli has to fly around the Saint- Gotthard Massif and approach the location where the snowboarder was last seen from the Oberalp Pass.
“Down there,” shouts von Dach and points through a gap in the clouds.
“There’s someone there!” Now the pilot, too, can see a figure waving his arms around wildly outside a wooden hut. Then they both see three man-sized blue letters sprayed onto the snow: SOS!
A SOBBING NICOLAS collapses into the search party leader’s arms. “It’s all OK now,” says von Dach, reassuring the rescued teenager. “You did all the right things!”
Some time later, father and son are standing outside the door of farmer Remo Christen’s home in Hospental. “Your hut saved my life,” says Nicolas. “I just wanted to say thank you and sorry for breaking the lock.”
His father takes out his wallet. “We will of course pay for the damage.”
The gruff sheep farmer says he’ll be sure to send them the bill.
“What about the spaghetti and tomato sauce?”
“That’s on the house!”
Below: Map showing the location of the shepherd’s hut along the Guspis freeride. Above: Nicolas JungeHülsing with his snowboard
Pilot Stefan Bucheli, who, with Christian von Dach (inset), rescued the teenager
After more than 40 hours, Bernhard is finally able to hug his son again