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Jul 28, 2016

Overcoming Injury – A Ski Descent of Piz Spinas, North Face

With only one month to recover from serious injury, extreme skiers Sébastien de Sainte Marie and Adelin Favre make a second descent of a steep line down the north face of Piz Spinas (3823m), a mountain in the Alps straddling South Switzerland (Graubünden) and Italy in the region of Engadin.

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This is Sébastien’s story, in his own words.

Saturday 23rd April: My back has been hurting for three days, but still feeling optimistic, I bring my skis to my girlfriend’s flat with the hopes of skiing the next day. I couldn’t sleep all night, the pain in my back kept me awake.

In the morning I couldn’t feel my right foot. Natalie, in her last year of medicine, tells me it could be a herniated disc. A trip to the hospital and her diagnosis is confirmed correct.

This was followed by two long weeks of sitting and lying around taking cortisone, opioid and painkillers. Physiotherapy helped me move a bit, but with the idea to get back on skis as fast as possible I decided to try to go back to work after only 50% recovery.

From left to right: Oriental summit (3882m), Piz Palü (3900m), Occidental one Piz Spinas (3898m) and our objective to start the downhill. We go up the whole way to the oriental peak then cross the entire ridge. Photo © Sébastian de Sainte Marie
From left to right: Pic Orientale (3882m), Piz Palü (3900m), the western peak of Piz Spinas (3898m), our objective for steep skiing; we go up the whole way to the eastern peak then cross the entire ridge. Photo © Sébastian de Sainte Marie

While some skiers make great descents each day – the conditions being unbelievable, I simply try to walk. With Natalie’s help, I am feeling better every day. My best friend and skier Adelin spent his time planning out descent projects which turned out to be just the psychological push I needed.

On the fourth week I decide to try a cortisone injection. The pain is almost unbearable the first two days, but slowly becomes better.

Top of the oriental summit (3882m). Adelin is leading and help to carry my stuff. With my disc hernia I cant really carry much load. Photo © Sébastian de Sainte Marie
Top of the oriental summit (3882m). Adelin is leading and helps to carry my stuff. With my herniated disc I cant really carry much. Photo © Sébastian de Sainte Marie

So, here I am. It’s Friday, May 28th and I’m with Adelin in Diavolezza, a ski area in upper Engadin in South Switzerland at 2000m. We spend the night in the car to be ready for the first lift at 8:30am the next day (and to avoid the crazy hotel costs). The car, our hotel for the night, gave us so many possibilities for freedom and in the end, was a beautiful place to sleep.

Our project was to ski the Piz Spinas (3898m) Nordwand (North Face), the last peak of the Piz Palü mountain. Taking the cable car up 900m, we go up the last 1000m the normal way, then cross the ridge to get to our drop point to the Nordwand.

Top of the Oriental summit. We still have to follow a 500m long but flat ridge to pass the main summit and finally the oriental one wich would be our start point. Photo © Sébastian de Sainte Marie
Top of the Oriental summit. We still have to follow a 500m long but flat ridge to pass the main summit and finally the oriental one which would be our starting point. Photo © Sébastian de Sainte Marie

I was fairly unfit. All the medication I had taken and the lack of sports activity I’d been able to do in the last month had taken its toll on my health. Luckily enough, Adelin waited for me and helped me carry my stuff. Only one month after the diagnosis of my herniated disc, here I stand. I have been reborn!

The first turn comes naturally, it is such a great feeling to be on skis again with my mate Adelin. The first 40m are quite steep and we see some fresh tracks. Two guys had skied it the day before so we missed the first descent. However, we started it from the top and their tracks started below us.

After the long and beautiful upper slope we initially wanted to find a route more to the right-hand side, but the snow was becoming warm. With the high risk of causing an avalanche we decided to continue straight down. We experienced some beautiful, but scary moments under the seracs with some interesting sounds. We carried on, enjoying the moment, but with one eye continuously and cautiously kept on the seracs.

Adelin on the mid section under the upper seracs. A few moments before I heard "clong clac" from the seracs. This noise made me a bit more concerned so then we adopted the technic "one skis, the other one watch the seracs." © Sébastian de Sainte Marie
Adelin on the mid section under the upper seracs. A few moments before I heard “clong clac” from the seracs. This noise made me a concerned, so we adopted the technique: “one skis, the other one watches the seracs.”
© Sébastian de Sainte Marie

The descent was steep but easy. We didn’t step in at any moment, just curved. Once down, we were simply happy – though we still had to go back up 300m to reach Diavolezza and get to our car.

That descent helped us discover a little bit more of the region I love – the Grison, in South Switzerland. This adventure would not have been possible without Natalie and all her love, my colleagues and friends for the great positive support and Adelin, who carried everything, waited for me and supported the handicap skier that I am, still.


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