7 Jan 10 – 1200 Local
Location: Lourdes, France
We woke up around 0400, to move to Vignemale, but the weather was awful, as usual. So, we slept in, and eventually got up to move to a hut at the base of Vignemale called Baysellance. By 0900, when we left the hut, the weather was gorgeous. We hadn’t had weather this nice for the entirety of the trip. Moving through the valley was easy, enjoyable and the views were amazing. We were deep in a valley with high peaks all around us.
Soon, we arrived at the Barrage D’Ossoue, which was a dam across the river that ran through the valley. We stopped there, checked out the hut, filled our water and kept moving. About 2 kilometres later, we encountered an impass. The valley just ended. In front of us was a wall of mountain. Double checking the map, it appeared that the path we were following went straight up a waterfall. This was clearly not the path we wanted to follow. Dan and I analysed the situation and decided that heading left, up on to the ridge and over would be the best and safest option. Dan began moving up the 40m semi-technical terrain first. He tried it in snowshoes and was left hanging on his axe, flailing his legs, for most of the ascent, but eventually made it to an intermediary ridge. I followed with my crampons on and soon joined him. We stood on this ridge and drank in the immense beauty of the valley before us. We had to keep pushing forward, though, and Dan made his way right towards an easy gully that would take us over the main ridge. He was about ten metres up when I saw him pitch backwards.
The scream Dan let out when he impacted the rock corner of the gully is one that shook me to the core and with it came an instant realisation that our situation and my mission had drastically changed. Dan dropped his 30kg pack down to the ridge and down climbed to it. In his state of shock, he pitched the pack off the edge of the cliff and made his way over to me. I shoved an Ibuprofen in his mouth and told him not to pass out. It was clear his leg had broken and now we had to get him out of there. We down climbed another ten metres, so we could rappel in one go. I set up a two picket anchor and dropped the rope. He used the line as an assist as he went down. As soon as he reached the bottom, I pulled one of the pickets and headed down on one.
When I got to the end of the rope, Dan had already started dragging himself out through an avalanche run-out area. I pulled the rope and moved towards the remnants of Dan’s pack. Everything had been stripped off the outside of it and the frame was mangled. I picked his pack up and started moving. When I got to the blocky, complicated, avalanche area, I dropped my pack and took his out, then went back for mine. I met up with Dan at the bridge we had crossed earlier in the day and splinted his leg with our ice axes. Dan started moving back to the last hut, at Barrage D’Ossoue, using an avalanche probe as a crutch. I started carrying his pack out. I dumped his pack at the hut, laid out his sleeping back, mat, got him some water and headed back for my pack. We arrived at the hut around the same time, Dan on a broken leg and me on my second trip. I laid my sleeping bags out and set up the stove. Once the hut was good to go I shoved my bivy bag, some chocolate and some water in my little pack, told Dan I’d see him in a day or two and started running.
It was dusk as I booked it away from the hut at Barrage D’Ossoue and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find any help in Gavarnie when I arrived there. My biggest fear was spending the night in town unable to do anything to help Dan. I was hoping to find someone to rent a snowmobile from, as a rescue operation would be much more expensive than Dan or I could afford. After 10km and countless practice explanations, in French, I arrived in Gavarnie. It soon became obvious that renting a snowmobile was not an option, luckily for me as it would likely have been a very dangerous ride, so I banged on the first lit door I saw. The lady who answered listened to me try to explain what had happened and then dialled the rescue service number from memory. Being the first house in Gavarnie, she must get that all the time. She then called her husband, who drove me to the rescue hut.
The guys were already gearing to go in for Dan. They seemed excited at the prospect of an early season rescue. The local helicopter pilot wouldn’t fly through that valley at night, because it was too tight, so the guys were planning to go in on skies for Dan. They didn’t speak much English, but we generally understood each other. They were all really good guys. I told them I was glad the helicopter couldn’t go because it would be very expensive. They informed me that rescues in France were free, and I wished their pilot had the guts to fly through valleys at night. They got me a beer and food, while I waited and started asking me about myself. They asked where I lived, how long I had been in France, where were we going, what I did for a living, etc. As soon as I answered “Canadian Military Officer” as my profession, the head rescuer immediately got on the radio and spoke very quickly in French. A couple of minutes later he told me that a French Army Helicopter Pilot was being woken up in Toulouse and would be flying in for Dan.
We all continued chatting while we waited for the helicopter to show up. When it did, two of the rescuers hopped in and it took off for Dan. Ten minutes later it was back with Dan and all our gear. This was the proudest moment of the entire day for me. Dan was still wearing the splint I had put on him and apparently the rescuers were impressed with it. They began examining Dan and I got a chance to relax for a minute. Then the ambulance arrived. We piled all our gear in, shoved Dan in and I jumped in behind, with barely enough time to thank the rescue guys. We rode in the ambulance for an hour and eventually arrived at the hospital in Lourdes, France.
We pulled into the emergency room and Dan was shuttled into a room. I was left standing in a pile of gear in the main entryway, until a nurse fetched me. She took all our information again and told me to wait in the hall. Soon, Dan was all x-rayed and I could go see him. They told us he had broken the ball joint off his Tibia and would need surgery the next day. So, I left Dan and found a hotel. It felt good to take a shower and sleep in a big bed. I just hoped Dan was OK alone.
This morning, I checked on Dan. He was being prepped for surgery and I couldn’t stay. So, I have been touring around Lourdes looking at churches and pictures of popes, waiting for Dan to get out of surgery. Hope he’s OK.