Norman Ollestad was eleven when the plane carrying him and three others, his father among them, collided with a blizzard-enshrouded mountain. After a nine hour descent, inching his way down frozen cliffs, he was the only survivor.
In Ollestad`s best-selling Crazy for the Storm, he tells the story of the crash, cutting away each chaper to the many interactions with nature, like surfing and backcountry skiing, that he and his dare-devil father shared. In our interview, Ollestad tells us how the crash that shaped his life only brought him closer to the natural world.
Full text after the jump. Music from Chris Scruggs.TreeHugger: "Crazy for the Storm" leaps back and forth between your relationship with your father growing up in Los Angeles, and the events of February 19, 1979. Tell me about that date.
Norman Ollestad: On that day I was in a four-seater Cessna with my father, a pilot, and my father's girlfriend. We were headed to Big Bear to retrieve a ski slalom championship trophy that I had won the day before.
We came back that afternoon because I had a hockey game in Santa Monica; this is the following morning, we're flying back to Big Bear to take part in the trophy ceremony and then train with the ski team.
We did not have any ski equipment or ski clothes, really. I had Vans tennis shoes and no hat or gloves or anything. It was all left up on the mountain. We entered a blizzard and the pilot went off course and crashed straight into an 8,600-foot mountain, completely engulfed in a blizzard.
When I woke up, our bodies were sprawled across an icy, 45-degree chute. It was wind-driven snow and thick fog. After I figured out where everybody was, I concluded that the pilot was clearly dead. He was heavily damaged. My father was hunched over, I could not wake him up. I spoke to him and shook him, but I could not wake him up. Sandra was still alive. She had a dislocated shoulder and a wound on her forehead.
Eventually, Sandra and I made our way over to the edge of the chute where a wing had lodged itself at the base of a tree, one of the wings of our airplane. We got under there and took shelter. Then maybe an hour later, going in and out of consciousness, the helicopter arrived because there was a break in the storm.
I got out from under the wing and the limbs of this tree and waved to the helicopter. I saw the pilot with his helmet on and so forth, but they didn't see me and they flew away.
At that time I saw a cabin, or what I thought was the roof of a cabin, way, way, way down some gullies and canyons. I marked some of the terrain in my mind and mapped it out as a way to possibly get there. There were some ridgelines we would have to find a way through and so forth. I returned to the wing and the storm returned as well.
Now the storm was even stronger, windier, harder, and it was snowing more heavily, and I decided we had to go. They weren't going to come back and I didn't want to spend the night up there. I was 11 years old at the time and we started down, Sandra and I. She was perched on my shoulders. I was below her. We were both on our stomachs and just clawing into the ice. Eventually, she separated from me by a couple of feet and I tried to coax her down to me. Every inch mattered. You couldn't slip at all or you'd just go shooting down into the fog.
And she sort of tried to lift her body up and toppled over and disappeared into the fog down the chute. An hour later, I found her body. I made my way down for an hour gingerly, carefully, and found her body and she was dead. So, I had to continue down alone. It was a nine hour ordeal all together, and I finally made it down to Baldy Village. And that's it.