Kristoffer Erickson is an American alpinist and ski mountaineer for The North Face, photographer, philanthropist and family man, who has climbed and skied mountains all over the world in the Himalayas, Antarctica, the Alps, and in the ranges across North America. Kristoffer was good friends with Hans Saari, a renowned American ski mountaineer, who passed away after falling down the Northeast entrance of the Gervasutti Couloir on Mt. Blanc du Tacul on May 8th, 2001. They were together that day skiing a remarkable run under pristinely blue and calm skies. Kristoffer, just a few feet away, locked eyes with Hans in that last moment when Hans’ ski edges gave way on the hard ice underneath the 55 degree face. 13 years later, Kristoffer wrote “Surviving a Lifetime in the Mountains” for his blog threecrazylives.com, which gives us a personal glimpse into that harrowing moment as well as the profound impacts the incident had upon his life. We caught up with Kristoffer and he graciously allowed us to ask a few questions.
Your article serves many purposes. What has writing the article done for you personally?
Revisiting Chamonix and writing about the experience has been a way for me to finally close a painful and difficult chapter in my life. It has helped me to reflect on my life since the accident and clarified that my life has always had a significant focus around spending time in the mountains and that experiences in the mountains will always be a significant part of my life. I can honestly say that despite the pain and suffering I’ve endured through the last two decades in the mountains I have gained a far greater wealth of experiences and knowledge. My time in the mountains has been and continues to be one of my most valuable educational processes. These experiences have helped to refine me as a person and I believe I have grown beyond what would have been possible had I not chosen to pursue those adventures.
In the days, weeks, or months following Hans’ death, what type of physical responses did you have? What type of mental responses did you have? How did you manage them?
Directly after the accident my life mostly shut down. I wasn’t able to go climbing, skiing, trail running, even low level adventure seemed like more risk than I wanted to take. I was mentally and physically exhausted from the stress of the accident. The overall toll of seeing two close friends in two separate accidents just days apart beat me down. It was also the cumulative effects of reflecting on the previous years leading up to the accident in France. My mentor Alex Lowe was killed while we were on Shishapangma two years prior to the accident in France and my high school best friend Rob Williams died two years prior to that in 1997 while we were in Peru. It seemed like I was seeing a lot of death in my life and a pattern of very close friends dying in the mountains every two years. I felt as though it was only a matter of time before I was going to be killed if I continued spending time in the mountains. As I settled back into my life in the States I shifted to spending my days taking long walks in the forest and far too much time drinking with friends to forget the pain. The year before Hans’ accident I had started working as a guide for EXUM in the Tetons. Guiding was now out of the question. My thoughts were if professional athletes were being killed all around me I couldn’t justify in my mind that I was able to take responsibility for any other people in the mountains.
After the accident, when the helicopter flew away you noted, “the landscape was no longer a place that I loved, it now felt more like it was trying to kill me.” Can you bring us a little further into that moment? and the hike out of there?
As the helicopter flew away my thoughts were jumping from survival to emotions of sadness. Hans was gone and I was in a place I hadn’t planned on being by myself. I had no idea if Hans was going to live or die. My mind was in a state of short circuit analyzing the decisions that led up to Hans falling and the present situation of how dangerous it could still be to ski down to the Vallee Blanche by myself. I knew I needed to get down to town but there was disconnect from where my mind was and the actions I needed to direct my physical body. I was struggling to know what the right decision was and starting to feel the fatigue of stress take its toll. Crevasses, seracs and every other type of mountain hazard imaginable loomed all around. At that moment I was alone and vulnerable. I can remember asking some other skiers if I could ski down with them feeling that I needed to be near others. Beyond that I don’t remember much about skiing down other than being surprised at the number of crevasses I skied through, around and over. Despite making it through the dangers leading back to civilization the one thought that stands out in my mind is arriving to the Montenvers train station with people everywhere and still feeling like I was truly alone.
Did this incident change your perception of “family”? How so?
I’ve always been close to my family and at the time of the accident I was dating my wife to be, Cloe. She had been in Chamonix with me a few days prior to the group arriving. Because of the support she lent me during that time in my life our relationship grew much stronger. When I returned back to the States I needed my family and Cloe more than ever. I needed my friends and the support that they gave me. I needed the tribe of kindred mountain souls that reached out to express the sadness that they felt through the mutual loss of a great friend. To this day I prefer to share my experiences with others rather than the solitude of being along.
Has this incident changed your belief systems in other ways?
I’ve always been a believer in the adage of the Two Jars of Life. On one side you have the jar of experience and on the other side you have the jar of luck. When we are young we start out with a jar of luck that is full and the jar of experience that is empty. As we gain experience in life we undoubtedly pull from the jar of luck and subsequently add to the jar of experience. To reach the place I’m at in my life now I feel I’ve found a healthy balance with both jars. I’m old enough to have filled the jar of experience with many great lessons but also still young enough that the jar of luck has not been completely drained. Through my aging I’ve also realized that I have a choice to continue to learn as I spend time in the mountains. That process of continuing to learn has taught me that keeping my skills sharp is more important than hanging my hat on the experiences I’ve had in the past. I always listen to my gut feelings about things but make sure that those feelings are backed up with facts that lead to me coming home at the end of the adventure. Through the process of educating myself to be an IFMGA mountain guide I continue to refine my safety and rescue skills while also maintaining a very high level of technical skill in all mountain disciplines.
You are heavily involved in several philanthropic endeavors. Did this incident have any impacts on your sense of community or giving back to community? If so, why do you think that is?
I firmly believe in karma and those that give will also receive. As a person that has grown up in the first world of the United States I was fortunate to have good education and health. I’ve seen many other parts of the world where the people have far fewer opportunities in life and the need to survive takes every thing they have. I have always enjoyed teaching and helping others and will continue to for the rest of my life. I feel my travels to less fortunate communities of the world has taught me the value in helping out where you can.
Did you have any shifts in your sense of creativity in the years following Hans’ death?
After Hans died I was more reluctant to push hard in the mountains. The fresh reminder of how fast life can be taken made it easy for me to shift my focus more towards my photography work and less on trying to define myself through accomplishments in the mountains. With a degree in photography it was easy to stay dedicated to the creative side of the mountains. I wanted to continue showing people how amazing the mountains could be but with a slightly less committed prospective. In some ways it was a time in my life when I was most at a loss professionally, questioning where my career was going, what I would spend my time focused on and what I would be doing in ten years. Had there been some amazing opportunity come along I might have jumped on the wagon and walked away from my life in the mountains. In retrospect I’m glad that wasn’t the case and that I was able to stay focused with enjoying experiences in the mountains. I would have regretted the decision later in life.
If you find one of your younger clients really hooks into high level skiing, and reminds you of younger versions of yourself or Hans, how will you manage that relationship?
I’ve seen a few young skiers with the desire to push hard and chase their dreams in the big mountains and I’m constantly blown away with how they go after skiing big lines. While the technical side of ski mountaineering has made very little progress in the last ten years I feel the style at which those same lines are being skied has evolved. Some people argue that the mountain experience is best with a hang it all out there mentality and when there is no margin for error. But I firmly believe that it is much more complex than that. I believe in balancing all of the skills of the mountains and making those skills a complete package. Being just a great skier is fine but I have a lot more respect for a great skier that can also travel safely in all types of mountain conditions and has the ability to climb what they want to ski. Skiing a line when it’s in condition takes a lot more skill than showing up and skiing a line because you got lucky with conditions. To spend a lifetime in the mountains and especially skiing in the greater ranges of the world, there isn’t just one skill that needs to be perfected; all of the mountain skills need to be perfected.