Text and photos: 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. 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.
Per Ås 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 ski photographers discovered the talented skier who looked like a photo model. Soon enough, photos of Per ended up in nearly every European ski magazine and advertising for ski brands.
During that first 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, 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 lodge inn 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 maintenance guy, 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 people on the mountain.
“There were only three mountain guides in the local guide 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 dedicated hard-core skiers, 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.
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 doesn’t lose its grip on nature until June.
It’s 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 would probably would have died right there on the boat”, he tells me as he recounts the story that changed his life.
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 Palm 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 several hours 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 an reattach Per’s left index finger. A taxi took him to the medevac. On the two-hour journey, the driver, an immigrant originally from Kabul, told stories from how 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.
Sitting on a stone wall outside his home in Les Hiéres above La Grave, Per serves us coffee as we watch the afternoon sun slowly dip behind the mighty La Meije (3,983 m) across the valley. It’s fascinating to listen to his stories from La Grave and extensive ski trips around the world.
Over the years, I have been lucky to ski a lot with Per on many occasions, noticing his innate ability to create a great group dynamic. I first met Per on a backcountry trip in northern Norway in the spring of 1997. I was organizing an editorial trip for a snowboard magazine with a couple of high-profile snowboarders who were not experienced in the deep backcountry.
Some friends of mine highly recommended Per as a guide, 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 perspectice 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!
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 a French guide agency, let alone become vice president. But Per, who is extremely well-respected with 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 has moved out and now lives in Swedish Lapland).
The Ås family lives in an old stone house from 1669 that they renovated themselves. From their living room, they can look straight at La Meije. – I came here when I was young and for me, life in La Grave has always felt very natural. It is an excellent place for skiing and any outdoor sport, but of course, it is a compromise to live in a desolate little French alpine village.
It’s important not to be too narrow-minded, but fortunately we have had the privilege of travelling around a bit, says Per. – It is a simple life here. Everyone knows each other, and it is a very safe and inclusive environment with strong friendships. You can still shop on credit (meaning, shop and pay another time, not with your credit card) in the bakery, sports shop, and restaurants. This has always been the case in La Grave, and it’s pretty unique, I believe.
Per’s passion for ski touring led to him crossing the Alps during the winters of 2006 and 2007. He offered his guests to come along and divided the challenge into two winter seasons. – I had already done many ski touring trips by then and felt it could be a fun, realistic goal to go through the entire Alp chain. He started in the east, at the foot of the first 3000-meter peaks of the Alps, a bit east of Austria’s highest mountain, the Grossglockner (3,785 m), and finished in Nice on the French Riviera. – It was a lot of logistics and puzzles. In total, it took about 100 days.
The southern part of the Alps was actually the biggest challenge. It is steep and more challenging to navigate these mountains. They are less used than the northern Alps and more remote. 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 choise 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, both for physical and mental reasons. “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 the body and give it time, adds Per, who prior to the accident never rested for a long time or skipped training for even a month.
He started to set goals for himself. The first was to put the left hand in his trouser pocket. The next was to search for a gadget in the backpack.
Eventually, Per was able to start training again: first with cycling and running, then climbing and, finally, skiing. However, as Per discovered, 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. When this problem was identified, Per contacted Hestra Gloves, the Swedish glove manufacturer. He has used their gloves throughout his whole career, so it felt natural to write to them regarding his special needs. He asked if it was possible to make a pair of special gloves and surprisingly two pairs of gloves arrived in the mail just a few weeks later. – They fitted perfectly and have been a game-changer for me. You can hardly notice the gloves are modified for a person with half an index finger; it is so nicely done, says Per.
Per’s strong passion for skiing has not diminished after the accident. Perhaps instead, the opposite. I noticed this clearly when we skied together last winter. We were lucky and got a foot of fresh snow early on our trip. The skiing was good before, but the fresh snow made the skiing in the larch forest really good. I followed Per downhill through the steep forest and stayed a bit on the side to avoid the snow cloud behind him. The snow was fast and a bit more than boot deep. We became weightless over some of the high points before touching down again, now a bit deeper. Occasionally we got sprayed with cold smoke in our faces. We stopped by a giant boulder in the forest to catch our breath. When Per took off his goggles to dry them out, I saw his smile. I recognized that look well after many fantastic ski days together. This was a good day, and it was really great to see Per’s enjoyment too.
Per’s loss of his left index finger has fundamentally changed his everyday life. – You don’t understand how critical your index finger is until it is gone, and it is quite the learning curve to live with only nine of your ten fingers. – It’s not that it hurts less; it’s more that I get used to the pain. Significantly during cold days, says Per and adds, in -10° Celsius or colder, it feels like someone is pinching with a pair of pliers around the remaining finger.
We drop into the forest again and almost right away, it’s getting steeper. The speed accelerates quickly, and we find a good flow through the perfectly spaced larch trees. We catch a bit of air on snow-covered rocks and small pillows in the forest. What a pleasant run!
Sometimes people joke that mountain guides usually know where the coldest snow is but hardly know where the most fun skiing is. I don’t know if there is any truth in that expression and it is certainly not the case when you ski with Per Ås. No matter how many fingers he has.