Conquering the Impossible (7 page)

BOOK: Conquering the Impossible
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“Come on, let's go,” he cried. “Get moving! We're leaving! Hurry up!”

And I, my brain still swirling and foggy, replied, “Huh? Wh-wha…?”

“We're heading back to the base. Right now! The helicopter can't set down because of the condition of the ice, and there is just enough fuel to get back!”

They hustled me out of my tent and told me to climb into the helicopter—in fact, it was hovering a few feet above the ice—and to leave all my equipment behind. I refused. I would rather stay right here than abandon everything by which, for which, and thanks to which I had survived for the past forty days and forty nights. Maybe it was the effect of the morphine, but it suddenly seemed to me that all this equipment had become a part of me. I couldn't even imagine abandoning it on the ice.

Faced with my stubborn refusal, the Russians chose to accommodate my demands instead of wasting another minute arguing. In the blizzard of snow being kicked up by the chopper blades, they opened the luggage hatches and tossed all my equipment inside with the distinctive brutality of underpaid moving men. It was true that there was not a single place to land between here and Cape Arktichesky, and that if we ran out of gas, we'd drop straight down into the Arctic Ocean, and that would be the end of the trip for everyone.

I jumped aboard, and the helicopter lifted off immediately. A Russian doctor who had been sent to administer emergency first aid examined my fingers with a grim expression and a series of eloquent shakes of the head. He replaced my amateurish dressings with clean bandages, treated my frostbite with an antiseptic spray, and gave me another dose of morphine, an injection this time. Apathetically, I watched him at work and a young Russian woman from a local television station who was filming everything with a TV camera on her shoulder. I could feel nothing but a profound sense of disappointment, an overwhelming sadness that brought tears to my eyes, as the miles of ice slipped away under my feet, all that ground that I had struggled to cover in the opposite direction. I was unhappy, frustrated, angry. None of it made sense. This wasn't how the journey was supposed to end!

I was suffering from emotional whiplash caused by that brutal withdrawal from a wild place that had grown to be part of me. I had been there for so long, with no one to talk to except for the ice and the snow.

They gave me vodka and steaming hot tea to drink; they gave me reindeer meat to eat. I swallowed mechanically. I was barely listening to the pilot when he came back to tell us that the fuel gauge was on empty and that we might not make it back. I listened to the signals that the navigator was sending in Morse code. Didn't he have any other way of communicating? I noticed that we were flying so low that we were practically skimming the ice; perhaps that was to shorten the fall. When a helicopter runs out of gas, it must drop like a brick.…

Suddenly the rotor came to a halt with a terrible clatter at the very instant that we touched down on the landing strip of Cape Arktichesky. The entire crew heaved a deep sigh of relief. Mission accomplished.

*   *   *

We quickly refueled and then we took off for Dickson, a port on the Russian Arctic Ocean that was also the helicopter's base. There they loaded me into an ambulance, which raced through the snow to the hospital, an immense and sinister building made of cracked concrete that seemed on the verge of collapse. It was practically empty, lined with metal beds without mattresses. I found myself in a shower room whose tiles were half gone and where the plumbing was mostly just a distant memory. They filled the sole bathtub with buckets of water, which had probably been heated over a coal-burning stove. It occurred to me that I might be in an abandoned gulag.

But after what I'd been through, it looked like a three-star health spa, and I was going to enjoy a fairly basic cleaning. I hadn't washed in fifty days, and I was emitting a distinct whiff of polecat.

There was just one problem: I was going to have a difficult time undressing without full use of my hands. That was when a Russian nurse showed up to help me with my washing. She was quite different from the old fantasy of the Russian sex bomb, braless beneath a sheer blouse; this nurse could easily have passed for an Olympic champion weightlifter from the old days of the Soviet Union. She was so massive that she had to turn sideways to get through the door, and when she finally came to a halt in front of me, I felt like I had finally met the Yeti, only hairier. With a muffled grunt, the abominable snow woman lunged at me and ripped off my clothing. When I was dressed in nothing but my dirt, she shoved me into the tub of boiling hot water, leaving me to simmer for a while so that the filth would loosen its grip on my skin. I barely had time to begin to relax in the hot water when she reappeared, brandishing a terrifying scrub brush. She grabbed me and lifted me out of the water as if I was a newborn baby, and then set about methodically scrubbing every square inch of my body, the way you might groom a horse. But she knew her job. Soon I was red as a lobster but impeccably clean.

Clothed only in a pair of slippers and a hospital gown that was loosely tied, hanging open in the back so that my ass enjoyed a cool breeze, I met a Russian surgeon. He drew circles in felt-tip marker at the bases of my thumbs, and he explained to me that he planned to cut them off whole.

I yelled,

However fatalistic I might have become since being rescued from the ice field, I was not about to allow this Siberian Dr. Frankenstein to begin to butcher me! If I lost my thumbs, it would be the same as losing my hands; and if I was going to lose my hands, then I might as well go ahead and kill myself!

I was saved by Gouram, who called the mayor of Dickson just a few minutes later to warn him that a Learjet with a doctor on board had just taken off from Paris and was flying to Norilsk to take me back to Europe, where I would be given proper treatment. In the meanwhile, absolutely no surgery was to be performed on my body. When the hospital surgeon received these instructions, he was visibly disappointed—he would have been so happy to perform a few amputations. I was placed in a bed with a mattress and a set of sheets that they found who knows where. They gave me an old-fashioned IV: the bottle was made of glass, and I screamed when a weight-lifting nurse technician stabbed me in the arm with a needle so big that it looked like the exhaust pipe of an old car.

A few minutes later the mayor of Dickson made his appearance. He had come in person to pay his respects to a man he'd never heard of in his life, but whom Gouram Assathiany had described as a famous adventurer, an international celebrity. He was clearly delighted that I had come to pay a visit to his lovely town, and he seemed to have only warm feelings toward me, though I could only guess, since I didn't speak a word of Russian, and he spoke not a word of any other language. Without a word he sat down on my bed, and with a convivial smile he pulled back the flaps of his voluminous leather jacket and took out, in order, a bottle of vodka, two glasses, three oranges, a knife, a loaf of bread, and a garlic-flavored sausage. He sliced the oranges and cut both bread and sausage. He poured out two brimming glassfuls and proposed a toast before we drank together:
Na Zdrovyeh!

It struck me as unlikely that alcohol—especially such high-proof alcohol—was what the doctor would order right now, especially since I hadn't had a drop of alcohol for the past forty-five days, and my veins were filled to the brim with morphine, along with other medicines. But it would seem ungracious to refuse. My host explained the art of alternating mouthfuls of orange slices, bread, or sausage, and gulps of vodka, tossed down like water. My glass seemed to refill itself magically each time I set it down. I was aware that in Russia you never open a bottle of vodka without finishing it off. In these situations, you do what you have to do. The gray hospital walls began to spin. Luckily, I was already lying down, and the bottle was empty.

But the mayor's jacket contained a second bottle! I gave up on that bottle before it was empty, and left my host to polish it off by himself. I expected by this point to see him collapse on the bed next to mine, but instead he took his leave, tottering only slightly, his face glowing in a radiant smile.

During the night I spent in the hospital of Dickson, I had some time to think. The odds were good that they'd save my fingers. I had done what I had to do, and I had accomplished what I accomplished. I had no alternative at this point than to explain what had happened to the journalists, to my friends, and to all the others … and to make peace with myself.

Gouram had arranged for me to be transported by helicopter to Norilsk the following day. There, the Learjet that had arrived from Paris was waiting to whisk me to Geneva. From there, I'd be taken to Chamonix, to be cared for in Dr. Cauchy's clinic. But the helicopters were all grounded by bad weather, and it took another twenty-four hours before I reached Norilsk. There, envelopes filled with cash were discreetly exchanged, and I was miraculously excused from of all bureaucratic formalities.

I later learned that the envelopes were fatter and more numerous than I had imagined, and that my rescue had been quite the Herculean undertaking, as supervised from the Paris office of Groupama Assistance.

When I had given the green light for evacuation, Gouram Assathiany immediately reached out and contacted the three nearest Siberian military bases. The first base did have a helicopter, but its blades had been removed and placed in storage; the second base had an aircraft, but no one could find the engine. At the third base, the one in Dickson, a pilot replied that his helicopter was ready to fly … but he, quite clearly, was not. Gouram called back the next day, once the effects of the vodka had worn off. Once he was sober, the pilot demanded a small fortune to go pick me up. After tough negotiations, Gouram and the pilot came to an agreement. I was a seven-hour flight from Dickson and the pilot demanded the presence of a second crew—and they wouldn't be doing charity work, either.

“And what about the kerosene,” he added. “Do you have kerosene of your own, or would you like to buy some of ours?” Because the military base was short on fuel, it had been necessary to persuade—with U.S. dollars—the captain of an oil tanker cruising in the Arctic Ocean to make port at Cape Arktichesky to resupply the helicopter. The result? The most expensive tankful of fuel in history.

Gouram had then been obliged to reach out to his contacts in Moscow in order to obtain authorization for us to enter Russian territory—me, my gun, and my lack of papers. There, too, large quantities of cash had changed hands. And it was because the mayor of Dickson had also been generously paid off that he had been so solicitous—and so generous—to me.

It's enough to make you a cynic.

*   *   *

Aboard the private jet, I was welcomed by Cathy, the great Dr. Cauchy from Chamonix, a stewardess, and three pilots. Fed and pampered like a first-class passenger, I enjoyed a trip back home that would have been heavenly had the specialist, probing my frostbitten fingertips with the end of his scalpel, not delivered a prognosis of the loss of most of my first finger joints. It would be necessary in any case to amputate from the point where the bone was frostbitten, he said. We only needed to determine with greater precision just where that point was, which could not be done just yet. All the same, there was one last hope: a new type of treatment that was supposed to revive dead tissue.

I rejoiced inwardly. Whatever happened, I would be able to use my hands.

In Geneva, since the damage to my toes prevented me from wearing any shoes at all, I exited the plane barefoot and with bandaged hands. The media were there, uninvited but eager to greet me nonetheless.

After being admitted to the clinic in Chamonix, where I arrived at about one in the morning, the treatment began. The treatment consisted of injecting a vasodilator into my fingers, while my hands were soaking in a solution of Betadine; the vasodilator was to force the blood toward the extremities of my fingers. Each time the tissues became accustomed to the pressure, it was increased. I was on the verge of fainting for the three hours of the first session. There were two sessions a day for many days running, alternating with baths of Betadine.

Once the treatment had been completed, Dr. Cauchy told me that we had a choice between either amputating immediately or waiting a month, perhaps six weeks, to see how things developed. The second option was a double-edged sword, so to speak. It might help to save a little more of the joint, or it might result in my losing that much more.

I decided to run the risk.

With my fingers still bandaged, I returned home. The media peppered me with questions, and not always friendly ones. I didn't bother to answer most of them. In an attempt to escape the photographers trying to get shots of my fingers, I spent hours every day running or bicycling (even though it was difficult to grip the handlebars), both to get back into shape and in order to boost my circulation. Cathy changed my bandages every day. My fingers began to turn black, withering and desiccating, and taking on the general appearance of jerky. The fingernails fell off, and pus oozed out. I couldn't tell if things were getting better or worse. But I decided not to give in to adversity, and to do everything I could to get the upper hand, as it were.

After a month, I went back to Chamonix, where they injected a substance into me, a radioactive compound that had the property of bonding with all the living tissues it encountered, so that X-rays could distinguish clearly between living zones and dead zones. This examination revealed—hear ye, hear ye!—that I had recovered a bit of life in certain tissues. But the rest was dead—definitively, this time.

Ten days later, the extremities of three of my fingers were amputated, and the lifeless tip of one of my thumbs was shaved off. Later, the amputated fingers were reshaped to look more like fingers. After the operation, the surgeon decided not to close the wound but to allow the skin to grow back as much as possible, which resulted in a further layer of growth.

BOOK: Conquering the Impossible
5.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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