If terms of endearment are a measure of friendship, Hans Saari had plenty of both. Hanser, Hansie, Han Safari, Hans Solo, Hansmeister, Hanski – the list went on and on. I think the only time I ever called him Hans was when I was talking to someone else about him, which usually involved statements of disbelief. “Hans wants to ski K2? When? With who? How, what, why?” But sadly, last May after Hans fell to his death in Chamonix, I won’t be able to call him anything anymore. As the first storms of a new ski season start to roll in, I miss his exuberant phone calls, wild plans, and frenzied enthusiasm. He latched onto ski mountaineering like it was an undiscovered gold mine that only he and a few friends knew about and was determined to mine the earth of savory chutes first and spread the good word afterwards.
I first met Hans on a trip to Montana to ski White Tail Peak with Alex Lowe in 1998. I had known Alex and many of his partners in crime for years, so when he mentioned this complete stranger, I was curious. As he was giving me the details, I had no premonition that he was talking about someone who I would go on to have some of the most intense experiences of my life with. He was just one of two “local guys that are completely fired up about skiing.” The other was Kris Erickson, a long time friend and skiing partner of Hans from Bozeman.
At the time, Hans fit the ski bum image perfectly – long hair, a tan, beat up ski gear, a job that didn’t warrant much discussion and a passion for skiing. From there, the stereotype took a sharp left turn. On mentioning college, I asked him where he had gone.
“Where? (Colorado State? U of Utah?)
“Oh. Right. Yale. And, uhmm, what did you study there?
That was typical of Hans. You were always surprised by him. We went on the next day to do the suspected second descent of White Tail Peak in firm spring conditions. At one point Hans asked if I had any tips for skiing steep, icy exposed lines like the one we were clinging to at the moment. Figuring it was a good time to just stick to the basics, I offered “Keep your hands forward and don’t fall.” He seemed to take this advice to heart and we went on to ski many big lines together in Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Tibet over the next three years.
One of my favorite Hans stories happened on a subsequent trip up to Montana which was again with Alex Lowe. After a long day getting in to the base of our desired line, we set up camp and Alex was preparing his favorite snack, some canned fish product and crackers. But this time he had a secret ingredient – wasabi. After Alex and I had one apiece, he asked Hans if he wanted one with some wasabi on it. Hans said the magic words – “Sure. What’s wasabi?” Without breaking a smile, Alex calmly said it was a “Japanese sweet and sour paste” and proceeded to squirt a golf ball sized blob of it on a cracker and hand it to Hans. It took all of our efforts to remain cool and detached as the cracker went up to his mouth, and then disappeared inside. Now past the point of no return, we both turned to him with gleeful anticipation before Alex asked, “Well Hans, how is it?” With tears streaming from his eyes and a mouthful of fire, Hans was able to croak out “Hmmm, it’s kind of hot.” which of course made us double over with cruel hearted laughter. In retrospect, that’s how I like to remember Hans – he had a taste for the spicier things in life, was able to laugh at himself, enjoyed living, enjoyed his friends and was willing to forgive and forget.
I had been steep skiing for about a year before I took my first major fall. It was a result of being impatient and more than anything, it completely changed my approach to the steeps. I went 500 vertical feet hitting only three times. When I started to fall, I missed my first chance to get back on my feet, but was relaxed thinking that I’d get it on the next roll. The chance never came, as my vision suddenly became a kaleidoscope of cliffs, trees, snow and perfect blue sky spinning wildly. I clearly remember thinking “I’m going to break my back.” But it never happened. I landed on my feet with both skis still on, having lost one pole and my sunglasses. From that point on, I’ve skied like a hack with a blocky conservative style that keeps plenty in reserve in case I fall. Each turn has to come completely under control before I start the next one. It was a sobering experience that I was lucky to survive, yet thankful to have had.
I haven’t seen or skied the chute that Hans fell down, but can vividly imagine the scenario. Having skied the steep upper crux section, the hard part was now behind him and he was heading over to the enjoyable lower section – the “gravy on the cake” as a metaphor-mixing friend of mine once said. Barring the way is a small obstacle. In this case it was a section of ice – no major cause for concern, until suddenly you realize that it is. Having experienced things like this before, you stay calm and think about your options until somewhere on a molecular level, your edges break loose from the ice and your options run out. You try to relax as destiny takes over and the pull of gravity has its way. Rocks, snow, ice, sky, rocks. You just hope for the best. But this time the best didn’t happen.
More than anything, I wish Hans had had a close call like the one I survived and was here to talk about it and spread the word. I’d have to imagine that it would give him a moment of pause, then he’d be right back at it with a new insight to the game, happy that he’d learned something new and ready to apply that to big adventures yet. And of course, he’d be doing all of that with his large, trademark smile.
Happy turns Hanser!