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Vet’s ‘miracle’ survival in Austrian Alps retold in TV documentary

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Ken Cichowicz lost his footing while descending a glacier in the Austrian Alps in 1985 and hurtled 200 feet down a steep mountainside.

He tried to dig his pickax into the slope to stop his slide, but it bounced off. He landed hard, feet first, on a ledge. He broke his right arm, cracked his ribs and shattered his right femur.

Cichowicz, then 38, was a Vietnam veteran who worked as a civilian logistician for the U.S. Army in Heidelberg. He had just begun a 10-day trek through the Dachstein Mountains on Oct. 16. He would be stranded for 19 days, run out of food after 12 days and eat only snow for six days.

At times he worried that he would never see his family again and that his untreated injuries would cause permanent damage. He feared that his loved ones wouldn’t know what became of him and that he might end up like the soldiers who went missing in Vietnam.

Yet he has described the ordeal as an extraordinary gift and a deep, spiritual experience. Experts say his iron will and survival training helped him stay alive.

His story will be told in the documentary “Das Wunder vom Dachstein” (“The Miracle of Dachstein),” which will air Dec. 26 on Austria’s Servus TV. The film re-enacts the accident, drawing on news accounts and interviews with Cichowicz, his family and a rescuer.

Cichowicz describes his plight after the fall as a dire one.

“My leg looked like two links of sausage,” he said in an interview with Stars and Stripes.

Despite a broken arm and a body wracked with pain, Cichowicz pitched a tent. He was thankful he had packed a thermal sleeping bag, vapor-proof liners, a portable stove, plenty of fuel and some food.

He settled in and waited to be rescued.

Finding peace in his plight

His tent was nestled near the rocky slope, with snow-covered peaks surrounding him like a rugged fortress. The silence made him feel strangely at peace.

“It was serene,” Cichowicz said.

On the first day, a cawing raven broke the silence. Then he heard faint voices, perhaps from distant hikers or from the ski resort 1½ miles away — too distant to shout for help.

A small prop plane zoomed overhead, then three more followed. He thought of burning his sleeping bag as a signal fire but decided against it because if the pilots didn’t spot him, he would be stuck there with no way to keep warm at night.

He still wonders whether he would’ve been rescued that day if he’d lit the bag. But he thinks he was right not to risk freezing to death. He wouldn’t see another aircraft for almost three weeks.

Inside his tent, he swaddled himself in his sleeping bag and put his legs into his rucksack for added warmth.

He figured how to ration his pound of soy and 2 pounds of cereal to last about two weeks, hoping he would be found by then.

In this pre-cellphone era, he couldn’t alert authorities. His wife would not know anything was amiss until he failed to contact her in a week. Cichowicz passed the time by reading Carlos Castaneda’s book “Tales of Power,” in which the author explores how to transcend the normal limits of perception, including the belief that death is the end.

The book helped him view his potential demise more philosophically. He would rather die here amid the Alps’ majestic beauty than in a traffic accident in the city, he concluded at the time.

“Death was an obvious part of the picture from the first night,” he said. “It was kind of a passive acceptance, a resignation. I never felt I was struggling.”

Message to home

After three days, Cichowicz began to write a journal on postcards to his wife, Janet, and 8-year-old son Casey so that if he died they would know what he went through and that his thoughts were with them.

“I didn’t want my wife to not know what happened to me,” he said.

On the seventh day, he wrote: “Still no rescue. I collapsed twice in an agony of pain. Discomfort bad, worst at night.”

The ice under his tent had melted, he wrote, forcing him to sleep with his broken bones on the rocks.

He expressed hope that his wife would ask friends to notify the alpine club that he’s missing so it can call a search and rescue team.

“I shouldn’t be hard to find, but right now no one is looking. I have survived this long with that hope. For once I’m counting on your worry. It’s tough out here.”

Those postcards would serve as the basis for a 2014 book by Peter Gruber, titled “Das Tagesbuch des Kenneth Thomas Cichowicz” (The Diary of Kenneth Thomas Cichowicz).

On the ninth day, Cichowicz wrote that he ate the last of his soy. Four days later, the cereal was gone, leaving him with only snow to eat.

He said he doesn’t recall ever feeling hungry. He drifted in and out of consciousness while reflecting on his life and musing about topics such as the history of rock ‘n’ roll.

He decided if his deprivation became unbearable, he would end his life with the scalpel in his first aid kit. But he never reached that point because he wanted so badly to see his family again.

“That’s what kept me from going for that scalpel,” he said. “Without them, I might’ve given up.”

Ups and downs

On the 16th day, he tried to climb to higher ground.

He attached a crampon to his left foot and put the other on his upper right arm. He clambered up three layers of rock and saw a snowcat vehicle rumbling high above him on the hilltop. He could hear voices that seemed tantalizingly close.

Then he lost his grip and slid into a crevasse, landing in translucent blue ice.

He belly-crawled to an exposed area where he had a better chance of being seen, but the frigid wind was too intense. He dragged himself back to his tent, totally spent.

The next day he couldn’t warm his feet and knew he would die soon if he wasn’t rescued.

He wrote that he couldn’t go on much longer and that he feared his remains might never be found.

“Goodbye my true love. Take care of yourself and Casey.”

On the 19th day, he heard a helicopter.

He tied a red bandanna to his pickax and waved it. The chopper pulled away, and he feared the team hadn’t spotted him. Then it flew back and hovered above him.

He felt relief and elation as rescuers strapped him to a stretcher and secured it just below the chopper door. He enjoyed a spectacular, bird’s-eye view of the Alps while being flown to the hospital.

“It was a religious experience,” he said.

Second life

Cichowicz had lost 35 pounds. His quadriceps were fused to his shattered thigh bone.

Surgeons separated bone from muscle and inserted an L-shaped bracket with screws that reinforced the fractured femur. It remained in his leg for a year. He made a full recovery with no lingering effects.

Some have called it miraculous that Cichowicz was able to fend off hypothermia on meager rations for 12 days and zero calories for six days, even with his ample cold-weather gear.

He somehow maintained his body temperature, perhaps through periods of shivering, which would have become more difficult when his blood sugar dropped from starvation, said Hein Daanen, professor of exercise physiology at Vrije University in Amsterdam.

His body drew on its own mass for calories, causing the weight loss, Daanen explained in an email. The veins in his feet and hands must have constricted enough to minimize loss of body heat yet still allow vital blood flow, he said.

“I don’t believe in miracles,” Daanen said. “Still, it’s an amazing story. He must have had a strong will and motivation.”

Cichowicz thinks if he had hiked to the top of the glacier instead of taking a ski lift, he would have had a better feel for the terrain on the descent and might have avoided the fall. But the ski lift ultimately saved his life.

After the initial search was called off, a taxi driver told authorities he drove an American to the ski lift. Rescuers resumed the search, focused on that area, and found Cichowicz.

Cichowicz retired from his civilian Army job in 2004 and lives in the rural Pennsylvania hills with his wife in a log house they named Haus Dachstein.

He returned to the alpine campsite in 1986 for an earlier Austrian documentary about his misadventure. His son Casey, 40, went to the glacier for the latest film to see where his father was trapped for 19 days.

Facing death in the snowy canyon was a privilege in a way, Cichowicz said, because he learned much about himself. And the accident, rather than discouraging him from mountainous treks, has made him a more avid hiker.

He has logged tens of thousands of miles hiking in the Shenandoah, Smokey and White mountains as well as Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Wind River Range.

“I’ve spent my whole life celebrating I could still hike,” he said.

WHERE TO SEE IT

“Das Wunder vom Dachstein” (The Miracle of Dachstein) airs at 8:15 p.m., Dec. 26, on Austria’s Servus TV.

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© 2017 the Stars and Stripes

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