Joe Boylan: I got lost on a mountain for two and a half days

I met Joe Boylan in the Alpujarras mountains in Southern Spain. We were on a baking retreat. On the first day, our group took a walk through the mountains, and Joe and I got chatting. He casually told me the story of how, at age 28, he got lost in a blizzard in Austria for two and a half days, as if it wasn't the most terrifying and extraordinary story of survival. My editors at the Guardian jumped on the story. However, a word limit of 750 words meant we had to squash a few details.

Here is the full story.

Photograph taken by Alex Lake for the Guardian (article here)

Photograph taken by Alex Lake for the Guardian (article here)

I was skiing in Scheffau, Austria in February 1984, five months before my wedding day. It was the opening day of the winter Olympics. I was a reasonable skier, I’d been six or seven times. My friend and I got on a lift I the morning, he went off to a ski class  and I got chatting with an elderly Austrian couple, and went off and skied with them until about 1 o’clock. We got to a middle station and and they went for a coffee, and I separated and went for a brandy and a hot chocolate. I noticed the weather was getting misty and decided to head back to my resort. I looked at my map; I had to take a T-bar up, ski down a slope, then up another T-bar and down the other side and I’d be back in my village.

The crowd on the piste had thinned out. The guy put me on the T-bar and said, “It’s very bad on top”, and with that I was on my way up the slope. No one else was getting on but I thought, “He wouldn’t have let me on if it was dangerous”.

As I got higher the wind got more ferocious. At the top it was a real white-out, I had to cup my face just to breathe. Then I realised I had never been on this slope before and didn’t now which way to go. I could see nothing and I was gasping for air. I moved forward slowly and carefully with my sticks out until I found my skis were on rock. It had snowed continuously for 10 days, it made no sense. I thought, “What if I’m walking over a cliff edge?” 

I could sense it was getting dark and I knew the lifts would have closed at 4:30. I hit something something wooden with my skis: I’d walked into the wall of a shepherd’s hut. The blizzard had blown snow up against the door, so I broke the window and climbed in.

Snow was blowing horizontally into the hut: it looked like someone was squirting a giant tub of toothpaste through the window.

There were a couple of garden chairs with cushions, so I blocked the window with a cushion. There was a small metal stove, with some briquettes and matches underneath. I lit a fire and slept on the stove. It wasn’t very warm. Occasionally I’d melt some snow on the stove in a pot just to drink something. 

In the morning the wind had dropped a little bit. The snow was incredibly powdery. I’d seen people skiing in powder and they had these attachments so I manufactured my own: and I found a length of string, and tied my boots to my skis. I climbed back out the window and plotted a path for home – or what I thought was home.

I followed what I thought was a piste. I was on an avenue between trees. It began to descend and converge and narrow, and I realised I’d made a mistake. It wasn’t a piste, it was just a slope without trees. I’d gone down about 100m and suddenly I was in a wood. It got steeper and steeper until I was falling from tree to tree, hitting each one like a rugby tackle. Eventually they tapered off into a V-shaped ravine. I collapsed into this gorge, I was in snow up to my shoulders with my arms above my head, and this creaking snow was sliding in on me. I could feel rushing, ice-cold water filling up my boots. It was exhausting to lift my legs to walk forward: I managed to release my skis and bring them to chest height across me, I put one ski on top of the other like a plank and stood in a press-up position, bent at the waist, trying to pull my feet out of a muddy hole. In about four hours I’d gone about 15 yards. All the time I was screaming and whistling and shouting for help. Eventually I got onto the right hand side of this valley. 

I emptied my boots, took my socks off and squeezed them out. Ice crystals were forming between my toes.

As I gained height on the mountain, I thought I saw the apex of a farmhouse, but as I got closer I realised it was just a cattle–feeding point, like a bus shelter. I sat there for a while, wrang out my socks again, massaged my feet, and punched my body to keep warm. It was gone 4:30 – I realised the lifts would have closed again. I was almost in tears, I swore, I screamed. I put my gloves on and punched myself in the face just to get the circulation going. I decided to walk until I could see no more, staying high on the hill to look out for signs of life.

By 6:30 the light had gone, but I kept going. I could see the distant flashing lights of the piste-bashers. I thought, “I’ve got to get to them”. I decided to go down through the trees. By 10:30pm I’d got to the bottom and I could hear the muffled sound of running water. I thought, 'I’ve just got to get over this brook, and walk up the hill.' I felt reasonably confident I could make it if I went all night.

I listened to the water and looked for a lump or a rock, a distinctive crossing point, to step over the brook I could hear but couldn’t see.  I found a bump of snow and thought it must be a rock. I stepped on it, and fell through the snow with a crash. The water was at chest height, my arms were above my head and my sticks were pointing to the sky.

Looking up I could see an inky circle of night sky – it was like being inside a tube of Polos.

There was about a nine inch gap between the bottom of the snow and the surface of the moving water. I had to take my skis off, so I bent down submerging my arm and shoulder into the water. I screamed at the pain. I managed to get the skis off and standing vertically in front of my face. I turned to the direction I was heading before I fell in and headed for the opposite bank. I had to smash a trench through the snow, and it fell on my head as I burrowed through. I walked up the riverbed covered in ice, soaking wet, exhausted. I lay on the bank on my back and my whole body was convulsing and I couldn’t stop my teeth chattering. Suddenly it stopped.

I thought, “This is it. This is death.” And I waited for the lights to go out.
Then I thought “Fuck that, I'm not missing my own wedding”.

I started cursing, swearing, smashing myself in the face again, pummelled my legs, thighs, ears – if you get a thick ear, it’s red hot, I just wanted to generate heat. 

I did the ritual again: empty the water from the boots, wring the socks out - then when I'd finished shaking water from the boots my socks had iced up like a pair of kippers from the freezer. I had to shove my feet in them.

I began to make little steps up the hill. Eventually I got to a point where I was cramping and just exhausted. I stopped under a tree and wanted to go to sleep, but thought, “If I go to sleep, I’ll die.” I kept myself in an upright position by putting my arms through the roots of this tree and hanging there like a scarecrow, releasing them every now and again to jog on the spot and punch myself all over. Time passed so slowly. I’d think “That must have been an hour now”, and peek at my watch and it hadn’t even been five minutes. It was excruciating. I took my gloves off and put them under my bum and put my arms inside my jacket, and perched there under this tree for hours. My focus was making it to dawn.

I started hallucinating. It was daylight, and I blinked and it went back to night. Then I heard a car, a Ford Capri with different coloured panels heading up the valley. I could hear the engine and see the wheels spinning up the snow. I shouted and waved my arms – then I blinked and it was just the same old valley. A few hours later I opened my eyes and saw a lady in black on a Venetian balcony shaking a tablecloth over the railing. I shouted for her to see me, and then – blink blink – she was gone.

When morning really came, I got my skis on, turned around to get my gloves and they were iced to the rock face. I smashed them off and I peed into my gloves, I swished it around and poured the contents into both boots. The slight tingle of warmth that went into my boots made me feel like things were on the up and up.

Eventually, I found a snow track. It was like getting off a dirt road and on to a motorway. I followed it and after half an hour I saw a lollipop sign. I knocked the snow off it: it was a sign for a cross-country ski route. Eventually I saw the apex of a roof, the side of a farmhouse. There was a Volkswagen parked outside. I’d found civilisation. I dropped my skis and banged on the door. I could see a little child’s head through a window. Nobody came to the door. I peered through the window and could see their kitchen, their fridge, their fruitbowl, and I just stood there whimpering.

I was a sight – my eyebrows were iced to my woolly hat, my hair was frozen to the collar of my jacket, I was covered in cuts from rugby-tackling trees, and my trousers had split.

I heard voices behind me and the farmer arrived with another little boy and holding a pale of milk. He looked at me wide-eyed and I said, “English, two days, mountain” in my terrible German. He opened the door and called and his wife appeared. She had been ignoring my knocks. I said, “vasser, vasser” because I was so thirsty, but what I really meant was, “Can I have a full English, with extra toast and tea?” A glass of water came and I drank it and said “water, water” again. She got me a second glass of water but didn’t invite me in. I produced my map from my pocket and it fell to pieces. He showed me where I was. I had gone to the other side of the mountains. He pointed me towards the nearest village, down a meandering road. I thanked them and walked away. I was fuming.

Very slowly, I let my skis roll me down to Söll. Taxi after taxi refused to take me because I was covered in ice. I had to take my skis off and shuffle across a dual carriageway to get to the village. I dropped my skis and sticks at the door of a supermarket and walked in, looking like the abominable snowman. I found the chocolate section and took a footlong bar of chocolate and a two-litre carton of milk, and tipped money from my zipped pocket. People were staring. I staggered to the front door, ripped the chocolate bar open and posted it into my mouth like a big letter.

I found a bus timetable and saw the bus to my destination, thinking, “Nobody’s helping me, I don’t want anybody’s help!” While waiting for the bus I went to a café, ordered two pots of tea and two ham rolls and devoured them. I’d taken my gloves off, the ones I’d peed into, and put them on the radiator. People began to arrive and two Austrian guys sat on the table behind me and I could hear them wondering what the smell was and looking at the under-soles of their shoes, while I sat there hunched over another two ham rolls and another two pots of tea.

The bus arrived and I could barely move my legs. There were hundreds of kids getting on the bus and the driver shouted at me, “Skis on the back!” By the time I did it the bus was full. I raced a kid to the last seat on the bus, swatted him away from it and slumped into it.

Everything ached. I dragged myself towards my hotel. There were police and mountain rescue everywhere, and my friends were there in tears. They thought I was dead, and said 25 other people had died that weekend. Some were caught in the blizzard, some in avalanches, some on cable cars. My brother had been told to come out and identify my body, as it was only a matter of time before they found it. I was shown to a doctor, then the police interviewed me for three hours in microscopic detail. As I told the story, the room was full of people listening. 

My hands and feet were swollen, the skin flaked and came off, and they stayed numb for a good six months. Thinking about it still makes me emotional because I know how lucky I was. I went skiing again with my wife a year or two afterwards, to get back on the horse – though I still don’t like the cold.

After the police interviewed me, the inspector said, “So when were you in the army?” I said never. He frowned, “Which mountain club do you belong to?” None. He said, “Did you do the Duke of Edinburgh Award?”

“No. I just played football.”

I'll never forget the way he shook his head, as if to say, “You shouldn’t be here, boy.”