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Nine and a Half

Mattias Fredriksson  /  April 7, 2021  /  9 Min Read  /  Snow

When Swedish mountain guide Per Ås lost half of his left index finger, he started to question if he would ever find his way back to working in the mountains. A few years later, he has learned to live with it.

With nine and a half fingers, life as a mountain guide is not always easy. Bespoke gloves helped Per Ås return to the profession that he loves, and years later, he has learned to live with the pain. Photo: Mattias Fredriksson

Throwing all his weight at it, Per Ås gives everything he can to keep the anchor’s winch from breaking clean off its mounting plate. The weather has turned progressively worse since the skiers returned to the boat, and the right side of the anchor’s electric winch has broken free. After a few seconds of struggle, it is no longer possible; the entire winch pulls off its mount, landing directly on Per’s left hand. The pain almost knocks him out.

Nine and a Half

Boat-assisted ski touring in Finnmark, northern Norway. On beautiful days like this one, it’s an Arctic paradise, but harsh winds and unpredictable weather can quickly change the scene. Photo: Mattias Fredriksson

Per moved to Chamonix, France, in 1988, the same year he turned 18. He had all kinds of jobs there–ski tuner, caretaker, even doorman at the legendary disco “Le Pele”. But before long, the local photographers discovered the talented skier who looked like a model, and photos of Per ended up in nearly every European ski magazine. During that season, he met Pelle Lång, another Swede who had been in Chamonix for a long time. Pelle had an aptitude for skiing moguls and a couple of seasons later travelled south to another town in the French Alps, Les Deux Alpes, for a competition. There, he heard about a tiny, mostly unknown, place on the other side of the mountain with a long lift, massive vertical drop, wild terrain and very few people. That place was La Grave.

While opening a small ski hotel in La Grave, Pelle knew that Per would be the first employee of what was to become the legendary La Chaumine. Per first worked as a transfer driver and repair person, then as a tail guide on the mountain. At the time, La Grave was an even wilder place than now, and the Swedes were given an unofficial special permit to guide. “There were only three mountain guides in the local agency at that time, and we were accepted from day one,” remembers Per, who spent years skiing with guests before receiving any formal mountain-guide education.

Slowly but surely, the word spread about La Grave, and more guests, professional skiers and media started to show up in the village. As La Chaumine became a hub for the ski world, Pelle’s guiding grew, and Per took and completed his training to become an official Swedish mountain guide. “It seems like a macho profession, but in reality, it is a service profession,” says Per with the same frankness that often accompanies his humble nature.

Nine and a Half

En route to work. Per outside the Ås residence in the small village of Les Hières, above La Grave, France. Photo: Mattias Fredriksson

After spending many years as a guide, toward the end of May in 2018, Per was co-guiding a sail-and-ski trip with a colleague and friend, Stefan Palm, in Finnmark county. The region, found almost as far north as you can travel in Norway, is a place where winter does not lose its grip on nature until June. It is an Arctic paradise in favorable conditions, with a spectacular combination of mountains, fjords, raw wilderness and the Norwegian Sea. But on the night of the accident, conditions were far from favorable.

After sailing toward the west side of Stjernøya, they’d anchored the wooden boat in a fjord when the wind began to pick up. Funneling down the narrow valley, the wind caused the anchor to drag and push them toward the shore. Per simply did as he had always done and tried to re-anchor the boat. “I was fortunate. If the anchor’s winch had landed on my arm, I probably would have died right there on the boat,” he tells me as he recounts the story that changed his life.

Nine and a Half

Per in front of La Meije (3,983 m) after a long day in the mountains. La Meije, once known as Agulha de la Meija, means middle needle of the day. From the viewpoint of Gravarot in La Grave, the sun passes directly over the mountain at noon. Photo: Mattias Fredriksson

On the boat that night in 2018, it took eight people over an hour to pull in the 80-meter chain with a manual winch in the stormy weather. Meanwhile, Per was lying on the deck in the rain, with his hand and legs above his head to stop him from fainting. No one knew the extent of his injury, but he was telling everybody to focus on the boat so they could stop it from running aground. It was a serious situation, and in classic Per spirit, he would not put himself first, ”I will be fine. Now, let’s look at the bigger picture. How do we make sure everyone else is safe?”

Eventually, a few guests lifted Per down below deck. His left glove had been removed, and only then did they understand what had happened. Stefan stuck his head down and asked if it was life threatening. Per answered no, and Stefan hurried back up to help on deck.

The captain called for help, but the first rescue boat had to turn around due to the weather. Hours later, a larger boat from Hammerfest, a town north of their location, arrived to take Per to the hospital. There, a doctor reviewed his X-rays, and, in no uncertain terms, said that the only thing they could do was to amputate his left hand. For Per, that was not an option.

He wanted a second opinion, so the X-rays were sent to a hand surgeon in Tromsø who came back with positive news: She thought it was possible to save his hand and reattach Per’s left index finger. A taxi took him to the medevac. On the two-hour journey, the driver, an immigrant from Kabul, told stories of how he had fled Afghanistan for his life. Suddenly, Per thought his little index finger did not seem so important.

The following day, Per underwent surgery. He remembers asking with complete seriousness if the surgeon could reattach his index finger with a bend so he could continue to climb, hold ski poles and ice axes. He didn’t want it to be stiff and straight. To him it was an innocuous request, but the surgeon looked at him sideways. There sat a mountain guide with a serious injury telling a very experienced hand surgeon how to reattach his finger. “I assume I was still in shock,” laughs Per.

Nine and a Half

Powder skiing as its finest. Per navigates obstacles with ease near his home in Les Hières, France. Photo: Mattias Fredriksson

Sitting on a stone wall outside his home in Les Hières above La Grave, Per serves coffee as we watch the afternoon sun slowly dip behind the mighty La Meije (3,983 meters). It is fascinating to listen to his stories from La Grave and extensive ski trips around the world. Over the years, I’ve been lucky to ski with Per on many occasions, noticing his innate ability to create a great group dynamic.

I first met Per on a backcountry mission in Northern Norway in spring 1997. I was organizing an editorial trip for a distinguished snowboard magazine with a couple of high-profile snowboarders who were not experienced in the deep backcountry. Some friends of mine highly recommended Per, but I was blown away with how easily he adapted to the situation. He even learned to snowboard before the trip to better understand the perspective of the riders, and eventually he abandoned his skis to do the three-day trip with a snowboard and snowshoes (this was before splitboards). That was when I understood just how dedicated Per was to guiding and the mountains. In the wilderness, Per suggested building snow caves to sleep in, and although none of us had done it before, the teamwork bonded us and gave us a completely unique experience. It was the trip of a lifetime.

Nine and a Half

Scouting lines in the trees on a trip to Les Marécottes, Switzerland, last winter. Per and his youngest son Teo, 12 years old, share the same passion for skiing. Photo: Mattias Fredriksson

50-year-old Per has now worked as a mountain guide for almost 25 years. His outstanding reputation is a testament to his regular clients and colleagues around the world. When he was voted into the Bureau des Guides de la Grave 20 years ago, it was unusual for foreign guides to be accepted into the French guide agency, let alone become vice president. But Per, who is extremely well-respected within La Grave and the wider guiding community, helped lead the organization as their VP for eight years.

Balancing life as a mountain guide with his family, Per lives with his wife Josefine, a journalist and communications consultant, and their two boys—Luka, 16, and Teo, 12—in the sleepy little village of Les Hières, on a south slope high above La Grave (Per’s 27-year-old daughter Ronja lives further away in Swedish Lapland). The family lives in an old stone house from 1669 that they renovated themselves.

Life here has an emblematic ease to it. “Everyone knows each other. It is a very safe and inclusive environment with strong friendships. You can still shop on credit (meaning, shop now and pay another time) in the bakery, sports shop and restaurants. This has always been the case in La Grave,” says Per, noting a trust and respect that is often a rarity. Of course, with the freedom to ski and do any outdoor sport you can think of, comes compromise. Living in a little French alpine village, it is important not to be too narrow-minded, and he counts himself lucky to have the privilege of travelling and experiencing different places.

Nine and a Half

Ski touring under the midnight sun with clients on Stjernøya, off the coast in Finnmark, northern Norway. Photo: Mattias Fredriksson

After the surgery, Per had seven metal sticks in his finger so the flesh and bone could reattach and heal. But, after four weeks without any considerable progress, there was no choice but to amputate half of his left index finger, this time in Grenoble, the closest big city to Per’s home in Les Hières. An uncomfortable experience, it took precisely 23 minutes, and then part of his finger was gone.

For the six months following the accident, it was unclear whether he could continue his profession as a mountain guide. “I questioned how I could support my family if I couldn’t continue to work as a guide. I am in the middle of my life; guiding is what I know. Having a family with three children, a mortgage and bills coming in put the gravity of the accident into perspective,” Per tells me, visibly shaken both physically and mentally.

Per realized the most important thing he could do was to get back his physical ability as quickly as possible. Then the rest would fall into place over time. However, willpower can only get you so far, and after resting for a few weeks, his first road-bike excursion ended in a walk home. After 15 minutes in the saddle, his hand pounded and hurt terribly. “It was mentally tough with the pressure to come back quickly. I knew it was necessary, but it was more important to listen to my body and give it time,” adds Per, who prior to the accident had never rested for a long period of time or skipped training for even a month.

He started to set small goals for himself. The first was to put his left hand in his trouser pocket. The next was to search for a gadget in his backpack. Eventually, Per was able to start training again: first with cycling and running, then climbing and, finally, skiing. However, he soon discovered that wearing a glove with only half an index finger was problematic. The part of the glove where his finger should have been got stuck everywhere—in his belay device, ski-boot buckles and crampons straps.

Per had used Hestra gloves, made by the Swedish glove manufacturer, throughout his whole career, so it felt natural to write to them about his special needs. He asked if it was possible to make a pair of unique gloves, and surprisingly, two pairs arrived in the mail a few weeks later.

Nine and a Half

Per begins a steep descent in Les Marécottes, Switzerland, while the Grand Combin massif looms in the background. Photo: Mattias Fredriksson

Sometimes people joke that mountain guides know where the coldest snow is, but not where the most fun skiing is. I don’t know if there is any truth in that expression, but it certainly isn’t the case when you ski with Per.

Finding flow through the perfectly spaced larch trees, we catch air off snow-covered rocks and small pillows. Dropping into the forest again, our speed accelerates quickly. We bound through turns, each one a little deeper than the last. It’s cold, but not yet in Per’s pain zone. He mentions he is still adapting to -10°C or colder, when it feels like someone is pinching the remaining part of his finger with a pair of pliers. “It’s not that it hurts less; it’s more that I get used to the pain.”.

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