Happy Turns Hanser!
Andrew McLean Remembers Hans Saari: 1971 - 2001
December 17, 2001- Seattle, Washington
If terms of endearment are a measure of friendship, Hans Saari had plenty of both. Hanser, Hansie, Han Safari, Hans Solo, Hansmeister, Hanski the list went on and on. I think the only time I ever called him Hans was when I was talking to someone else about him.
Sadly, after Hans fell to his death in Chamonix last May, I won't be able to call him anything anymore. As the first storms of a new ski season start to roll in, I miss his exuberant phone calls, wild plans, and the frenzied enthusiasm he brought to every outing. He latched onto ski mountaineering like it was an undiscovered vein of gold that only he and a few friends knew about. He was on a mission to mine the planet of savory chutes first and spread the good word afterwards.
When we met, Hans fit the ski bum image perfectly - long hair, tanned, beat-up ski gear, a job that didn't warrant much discussion, and a passion for skiing. From there, the stereotype took a sharp left turn. On mentioning college, I asked him where he had gone.
That was Hans, always surprising, constantly surprising.
The next day we started climbing in firm spring conditions. The objective was to make what we believe was the second ski descent of Whitetail Peak. At one point, Hans asked if I had any tips for skiing steep, icy exposed lines like the one we were clinging to at the moment. As we were 1,400' up the chute using crampons and ice axes for safety, I figured the wise thing here was to just stick to the basics.
"Keep your hands forward and don't fall."
He seemed to take this advice to heart and cruised the descent. We went on to ski many big lines together in Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Tibet over the next three years.
"Sure. What's wasabi?"
He then proceeded to squirt a golfball-sized blob of wasabi on a cracker and hand it to Hans. It took all of our efforts to remain cool and detached as the cracker went up to his mouth, then disappeared inside. Now that Hans was past the point of no return, we both watched in gleeful anticipation.
A moment later, Alex asked, "Well, Hans, how is it?"
With tears streaming from his eyes, sinuses exploding, and a mouthful of fire, Hans barely managed to croak out, "Ummm, it's kind of hot!"
That was our cue to double over with cruel-hearted laughter, which we did. In retrospect, that's how I like to remember Hans. He had a taste for the spicier things in life, could laugh at himself, relished living, enjoyed his friends, and was willing to forgive and forget.
I didn't go to Chamonix with Hans and the others. I was thinking about going, but dropped out at the last minute. My close partner Mark Holbrook, and photographer Kris Erickson both went along. A few days before Hans' accident, a fourth member of their team, Nat Partridge, fell more than 3,000 feet and had to be evacuated. Partridge was in emergency care for a couple of days with many broken bones. A few days later Hans said to the others he wanted to "ski something for Nat" and ended up slipping on some ice. Kris was standing right there, which is really tragic, as they were best friends.
I haven't seen or skied the chute where Hans fell. But I can vividly imagine the scenario. He'd skied the steep, exposed, upper sectionthe real cruxthat almost no one ever tries. The hard part was now behind him, and he was a short traverse towards the enjoyable lower section, the "gravy on the cake" as a metaphor-mixing friend of mine once said.
Barring the way is a small obstacle. In this case, it's a section of ice. It's no major cause for concern, but suddenly you realize that it is. Having experienced situations like this before, you stay calm and consider your options. Then, somewhere on a molecular level, your edges break loose from the ice and your options run out. You try to relax as destiny takes over and the pull of gravity has its way. You can't fight it, you have to go with it.
Rocks, snow, ice, sky, rocks.
You just hope for the best. But this time the best doesn't happen.
I had been steep skiing for about a year when I took my first major fall. I fell 500 vertical feet, hitting the snow only three times. It was the result of being impatient and, more than anything, it completely changed my approach to the steeps.
When I started to fall, I missed my first chance to get back on my feet but I was still relaxed, thinking that I'd get it on the next roll. That chance never came, as my vision suddenly became a kaleidoscope of cliffs, trees, snow, and perfect blue sky, all spinning wildly. I clearly remember thinking, "I'm going to break my back."
But it never happened. I landed on my feet with both skis still on, having lost one pole and my sunglasses. From that moment on, I've skied like a hack with a blocky, conservative style that keeps plenty in reserve in case I fall. Each turn has to come completely under control before I start the next one. That fall was a sobering experience that I was lucky to survive, but I'm thankful for the lessons I learned.
More than anything, I wish Hans had lived through this accident, that it had been only a close call, like the close call I lived through. I wish he were here to talk about it and spread the word. I have to imagine that it would have given him a moment of pause, but then he'd be right back at it with a new insight to the game. Happy that he'd learned something new and ready to apply the knowledge to bigger adventures yet. And, of course, he'd be doing all of that with that huge trademark smile and contagious enthusiasm.
Happy turns Hanser!
Andrew McLean, MountainZone.com Correspondent