41 HOURS ALONE IN THE SNOW

The young snow­boarder had to rely on his re­source­ful­ness to sur­vive.

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - DANIEL J. SCHÜZ

“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!

“It’s him!”

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

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