Jacks of All Trades: The UN's self-styled ski-bum special forces
By McKenzie Funk
First published in Skiing Magazine, April 2007
On October 8, 2005, a magnitude-7.6 earthquake struck Pakistan, killing 82,000 people. The 13th- deadliest earthquake in recorded history, it was nevertheless a disaster best measured in terms of survivors: more than 3.3 million people suddenly homeless, scattered through a web of remote, landslide-prone valleys in a war zone. The epicenter of the quake was beneath the flanks of a 14,344- foot Himalayan peak in a region where 10 feet of snow can fall in a single storm. For the United Nations, keeping the survivors alive was a humanitarian mission that straddled remote provinces, tribal areas, and the disputed and war-torn Kashmir region.
As October turned to November and temperatures plummeted, the phrase most often used was "second wave": Casualties from exposure during the winter months were expected to outstrip those from the quake itself. Road closures from deep snow and avalanches, survivable in normal years, would leave half-starved and shelterless people cut off from the $5.8 billion relief movement. Two hundred thousand lives were in the balance.
As it turned out, the survivors' best hope lay with a handful of Canadian ski bums.
The Canadian relief team toyed with calling itself the Humanitarian Mountain Patrol, but in Pakistan, where the band of unshaven Canucks flies the flag of the United Nations Office for Project Services, they're the RRR: Remote, Reconnaissance & Response. Tasked to do avalanche control, clear snow, and provide search and rescue, they have a fleet of four Unimogs--Mercedes-built megatrucks used for snowplowing and all-terrain driving--and they have $2 million to spend. They have 15 of the best guides in the Himalayas, who were hired through famous Pakistani mountaineer Nazir Sabir. They have snowmobiles and quads and heli access and $40,000 of ski and avy gear from the Canadian retailer Mountain Equipment Coop. They have satellite phones and GPS units and Land Rovers--all mountain-tested during four years of relief missions in Afghanistan. But most of all, the Canadian skiers turned rescue workers have the X factor of international-aid work, which the typical UN bureaucrat lacks: the ability to tackle almost any task. "Out in the field, all that matters is common sense," says team project manager Chris McGeough. "You don't need the degrees, the proficiencies, the three UN languages. You need to be able to fix a truck, drive a snowplow, and work with the locals on the ground." In short, you need the resume of a lifelong ski bum.
Chris, 45, has a wave of brown hair and blue eyes ringed by crow's-feet. On the job he wears ill-fitting jeans and an air of pissed-off hurriedness. Chris grew up camping out in ski-resort parking lots with his parents and six siblings in a converted school bus, and then he fell into a string of respectable ski- town gigs. He ran a guide service and bed-and-breakfast in Whistler, backcountry guided in Verbier, and instructed beginners on a rotating "ski deck" carpet in Johannesburg, South Africa. Eventually he headed the road crew for the Banff Mountain Film Festival tour in Europe, which for a decade allowed him to base out of Chamonix, where he ran side businesses as a commercial photographer and a camera rigger for Hollywood films. He shot catalogs for Lowe Alpine, Petzl, Helly Hansen, and K2.
His friend Jean-Philipe Bourgeois, a boyish 37-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair and an improbable set of braces, used to work three or four jobs at a time to fund shoestring trips to the world's mountain ranges. Jipe, as he's known, built the more bummish resume: dishwasher, busboy, and dogcatcher in Whistler. Ski tech. Heli guide. Bobcat driver. Janitor. Gardener. Climbing model. Writer. Golf-course worker. Installer of interlocking stones. Yacht restorer. Night watchman and seller of woven bracelets in Greece. Timber framer in North Carolina. Logger in Brittany, France. Translator in Haiti. Trucker in Montreal. Tree planter in BC. Importer of handmade goods from Nepal. Guide and bungee weaver in Switzerland. Scrap-metal recycler, organic farmer, and maple-tree tapper in Quebec. Master of ceremonies and coordinator of Banff's North American tour. (Chris hooked him up. He also recruited Jipe to be a high-altitude cameraman at Latok II in Pakistan.) Adventure-travel guide to Kilimanjaro, the Zanskar Himal, and Everest Base Camp. Jipe also raises rabbits.
Hugh Smith, 41, now one of the heads of the International Organization for Migration in the quake zone, was a bartender when he met Chris and Jipe in Whistler back in the early '90s. Story goes that they became friends because Smitty (forever playing the Cameron to Chris's Ferris Bueller) was so impressed that Chris had a Swedish girlfriend he gave him free drinks in the basement pub where he worked. This lasted until Smitty was fired for giving out free drinks. But the pair remained friends and took on another in the form of Jipe, who was making his living collecting cans at the side of the road, moonlighting as a dogcatcher, and driving a backhoe.
None of the trio could be said to really live anywhere--in the last 18 years, the longest Jipe has stayed in one spot is six months. But they often returned to the same places: Whistler, Banff, Chamonix, Verbier, Quebec, Pakistan, the Bahamas, and Afghanistan. They climb and ski together, and when one finds a new job, he'll get the others in on it.
In early 2001, the three met Claude-Andre Nadon, 34, when Jipe was hired to do logistics for the Ukatak, Quebec's original winter adventure race. Naturally he'd brought his own crew. This was the code of the freelance jack of all trades then, and it's still their code today at the UN--hooking each other up with the bro deal on a grand scale. "You want to work with people you trust," Chris says, "and there's nobody I trust more than these guys." At the Ukatak, Chris became the race photographer, Smitty the race webmaster. Other friends set up the ropes and rappels. Claude, who was becoming a well-known mountaineer and filmmaker in Quebec, was the race cameraman. Compact and bushy- haired, Claude had already summited Tibet's Cho Oyu and would soon complete a harrowing climb of Patagonia's Cerro Torre. He would also win acclaim for An Everest from Within, a prizewinning film about an Everest attempt aborted 600 meters shy of the summit. To raise $80,000 to climb K2 (on the Pakistan/China border) he sold expedition T-shirts--at $20 a pop. A political science major in college, Claude's resume includes stints as a humanitarian worker in Haiti and Russia, census taker among the Inuit of northern Quebec, and manager of an outdoor store. His mom was a ripping skier. His grandfather was the first accredited mountain guide in Austria. He spent his summers surfing a huge river wave in downtown Montreal. He was a natural fit with the crew.
The Canadians' association with the UN happened by chance. In October 2001, soon after the U.S. had begun bombing Afghanistan, Chris and Smitty were in Virginia, where they'd spent a month sanding and varnishing Chris's 38-foot "project boat." The plan was for Jipe to fly in from Rome, and then the trio would sail the boat to the Bahamas--the first leg of an around-the-world trip.
But there was a hang-up. The day before he was due to leave Italy, Jipe went to a dinner party with a bunch of his sister's friends who worked for the World Food Programme. Afghanistan dominated the conversation. War was still raging in the south, and the truckloads of fuel and humanitarian aid keeping Kabul alive were all snaking into the country via the avalanche-ridden, 11,134-foot Salang Pass. If it closed, Kabul would be cut off. One of the WFP bosses turned to Jipe. "Do you know anything about avalanches?" he asked. Jipe said he'd gotten his certification in Canada. "How about heavy machinery?" the boss asked. Jipe mentioned the backhoe. "His wife started tugging at his sleeve," Jipe says, "and telling him I'd be perfect."
"So then Jean-Philipe calls me up," Chris recalls, "and says he's really sorry, but he won't be able to make it sailing. But how would we like to go to Afghanistan instead?" Chris took Smitty down to the bar for a few beers before dropping the news. "No, McGeough! No, McGeough! No, McGeough!" Smitty screamed. "Are you out of your mind? In the Bahamas there are beaches and girls in bikinis. In Afghanistan they're shooting each other. What's wrong with you guys?" Chris and Jipe left Smitty behind--though after surviving a few months without getting shot, they convinced him to come over. The sailboat stayed in dry dock.
At the top of Salang Pass there's a two-mile-long, Russian-built tunnel used by up to a thousand vehicles a day. During 23 years of war, the tunnel, along with the 12 miles of switchbacks and the series of avalanche galleries leading up to it, had been bombed and mined and littered with the wreckage of tanks and personnel carriers. When Jipe and Chris arrived, all that was left was a treacherous single lane of potholes and ice with no protection from the hundreds of avalanches that tumbled down from the Hindu Kush. "We got hit over and over at the south entrance of the tunnel," Chris says. Afghan drivers pushed forward regardless of the conditions, causing massive, multiday traffic jams and a string of carbon monoxide deaths in the tunnel. Local warlords, refusing to cede any authority to outsiders, brandished guns and ran the tunnel even when it should have been closed due to avy danger, with sometimes disastrous results.
Jipe and Chris were budgeted $30 million to buy heavy equipment, but somewhere between Russia and Afghanistan, the UN lost track of the two front-end loaders they'd ordered. (This still bedevils Chris: 'How do you lose a front-end loader?" he asks. "It's bright and yellow and as big as a house.") Fed up with the bureaucracy and the wait, they went to the Faizabad bazaar with a concept drawing and built their own snowplow. It was an ugly but functional machine--a six-wheeled, Russian-made Kamaz truck equipped with chains on its giant tires and dragging a piece of scrap metal that served as the plow. It cost all of $50, though in the days of the 1:180,000 dollar-to-afghani exchange rate, that was still a garbage bag full of cash. They also bought pickaxes and shovels, enough for a road crew of 2,500 men, and then they got to work.
Dynamite for avalanche control was off-limits--officials worried that if locals heard explosions, they might come out guns blazing--so Jipe and Chris toured with climbing skins up the surrounding mountains and ski cut the avy chutes. They climbed before dawn, usually digging a test pit up top to gauge stability and determine if it was worth triggering a slide. The biggest peaks were 18,000 feet high and striped with couloirs. The pair claimed first descents on 11 of them during their days off. "We were the only skiers in the entire country," Chris says. "We always got first tracks." They even dreamed of creating a hut-to-hut Hindu Kush Haute Route until they realized they were skiing a minefield, protected only by the depth of the snow.
Once Jipe was caught in a slide in one of the couloirs, but he managed to ski out of it. Chris wrote home to complain about his frequent confrontations with warlords who refused to heed his rules: "When I have approached these commanders to put an end to this, they invite me for tea. Maybe there is something being lost in the translation--I thought the F word was pretty universal."
The slides kept blasting across the road, so they stepped up their control work by jury-rigging bombs out of defused mines and U.S. military meal-ration packs. "How about a spaghetti and meatballs this morning?" Chris says. "That was our big joke." They'd stuff the ration bags with explosives, hang them over the edge of a chute, light the long fuses, and wait for the bang. Keeping the homemade snowplow going in minus-4-degree temperatures required similar ingenuity. Because there was no antifreeze, they learned to empty the water from the radiator every night and refill it in the morning. The cheap diesel fuel turned to sludge in the cold, so they lit a fire under the Kamaz's fuel tank before starting it.
The Canadians came back the next two seasons, and in the winter of 2004-2005, when Afghanistan's central highlands were drowning in snow, Jipe and Claude were there with the Unimogs to fight it. One of Jipe's favorite photos from that era is telling. In it, a white Land Cruiser is navigating a newly cleared road between two 30-foot walls of snow. On one side of the gap is a man with a snow shovel, and on the other is the clear outline of a ski ramp. During at least one of their snow-clearing missions, the men of the Remote, Reconnaissance & Response team were compelled to build a gap jump.
There's a game of cricket on when photographer Beth Wald and I arrive in Muzaffarabad during week 21 of the earthquake crisis. Crowds of bearded men wander by; a Red Cross helicopter is parked in the corner; an orange wind sock hangs limp from a pole. The city is gray and brown and dusty, clogged with buzzing scooters and jeeps. White tents sit in the front yards of crumbled homes and families cook dinner over open fires. A string of white peaks stands out from the drab, rubble-filled gray of the city. Muzaffarabad, normal population roughly 740,000, current population unknown, is the capital of what Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir--Free Kashmir--and the seat of the relief effort.
It's the middle of February and the UNOPS team is meant to be out there proving its worth. But there's a strange vibe in town. Less than a week has passed since mobs in Islamabad, enraged by the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammad, trashed a bunch of McDonald's and Pizza Huts, and now President Bush is about to make a controversial first visit to Pakistan. Islamist Islamist parties have called for a general strike; imams are whipping their congregations into an anti-Western furor; the UN bureaucracy is so freaked out that it's swiftly grinding aid work to a halt. Jipe, whom Beth and I ran into in Islamabad just after he'd finished pulling stitches out of his eyebrow with a Leatherman, is heading home. After four months of working 16-hour days seven days a week, he smashed himself in the face with a wrench while trying to repair the Unimog. He needs to hide out in the sugar shack at his maple farm.
Also missing is the snow. It's the mildest winter in living memory, a miracle for everyone except, perhaps, the mountain crew (though Chris, Jipe, and Claude would never say so). Expecting to finally be recognized as a sort of NGO 10th Mountain Division, they're now struggling to reinvent themselves.
Chris dumps Beth and me off at the "guesthouse" Smitty runs at the IOM, where we're offered the floor, and rushes off to the UN compound. "They're too uptight to let you into the compound," Chris says, "so let's not even bother trying." The guesthouse patio slowly fills with relief workers. Bob Marley and Bob Dylan thump out of the stereo. The aid workers are barbequing goat tonight; it's going to be a party. As it builds, one worker, high on local hashish and a little drunk, comes up to us and rips into UN bureaucracy. "It's an elephant. I'm battling an elephant," he says, looking out over the scattered lights of the broken city. "No, no...it's an amoeba--the UN subsists only on its own parts, feeding itself."
The next morning we meet Claude at a muddy gear depot halfway between Muzaffarabad and the Karakoram Highway, where the crew's new Ski-Doos and Bombardier quads are kept in a prefab shed. A buck knife hangs from a carabiner on Claude's belt, and the pockets of his cargo pants are stuffed with two additional pocket knives, three rolls of tape, a screwdriver, some cord, an iPod, a box of pills, Unimog keys, and a cell phone. Claude and Chris look around the depot until they find a pile of hollow steel beams, which they use to build a precipitous ramp up to the five-foot-high bed of the Unimog. Then Claude pulls a quad around and stands over it like a horse jumper as it inches up the beams, wheels spinning. Chris pushes from behind. The wheels kick the beams back when it reaches the top, and everyone scatters.
The quad is going to the Bagh district, to the southeast, but Beth and I are sent to the north, dumped in the lap of Claude's climbing partner, Martin Boiteau. Claude and Chris race off to coordinate efforts with other UN agencies. Martin, an experienced Himalayan guide, is on his first UN assignment, courtesy of Claude. We wait for a police escort before driving farther into the North-West Frontier Province, where cartoon protests have been particularly ugly. One blue police pickup leads our convoy--an officer with a rifle peering out of its covered bed--and behind us is another police truck. We pass through a market filled with oranges and long-bearded men with angry faces; they cloak themselves in dark shawls to protect from the cold rain.
"Everybody told us it was impossible to go to Bana," Martin says as we drive to Bana. "The road was closed--there was nothing to do. So we sent some of the Hunza guys up there and they moved the rocks. People down in the UN camp were like, 'How'd you do that?' They thought it was a miracle. All we had to do was move some rocks." The Hunza guys are Nazir Sabir's expedition guides from the Karakoram. We grind up a muddy track pinned to a cliffside and catch an aerial view of a massive quake-refugee camp on the banks of the Indus River. It's home to nearly 20,000 people. The tents are situated in rows and laid out like a map of the Allai region so that Pashtun clan structures can remain intact.
With Martin and two of the Hunza guides, we set off from Bana the next morning to visit villages accessible only by foot. In Gangwal, elevation 7,247 feet, only a handful of residents remain; the rest are either dead or down in the camps. There were once 1,500 homes; now there are 200. The corrugated aluminum sheeting given out by aid agencies has become a currency here--it covers the roofs of the rich or corrupt. In a muddy field, the village's children use sticks and rocks to construct miniature replicas of the houses they once lived in. Martin attends to the infected eye of an old man.
After we set up our tents, the village elders, led by an English-speaking schoolteacher named Mohammed, surround us and tell us what has been lost. In this valley, the mud walls of the homes are built so that bees will come nest in them, and honey flows from the walls. Not every house has them-- the bees are a gift from Allah--and before the earthquake, it was the schoolteacher's brother, the imam, who was so blessed. Now the homes have collapsed, along with the imam's mosque, and the bees are gone. Mohammed has food and shelter, but he wants a new bridge across the river, a new micro-hydropower plant and mill, a new mosque, and more corrugated roofing. Martin, who thought he was coming to Pakistan to fight avalanches, can provide none of these things.
A few days later, Claude takes us by Unimog and snowmobile to a high pass near Bagh. A group of doctors and NGO workers is trapped on the other side by one of the few patches of snow in Kashmir, and they need supplies. With the Unimog, Claude could surely open it, but the Pakistani Army won't let him--it's too close to the Indian lines. We drive up switchbacks until we hit the snow, and Claude backs the Unimog up to a bank and unloads the snowmobile in a process nearly as harrowing as the quad- loading at the depot. He jumps onto the sled and zips away up a spine of the Himalayas, peering off into Indian-held territory, but soon he bogs down in deep slush. The snow is melting; it'll be easier to reach the stranded NGO workers via another road. There will be no heroic rescue, but the Canadians aren't concerned with being heroes; they just want to help. "Let's go home," Claude says.
The team stays on for a while in Pakistan, coordinating refugees' return to the mountains, looking for people to save, and running head-on into a hardening bureaucracy that has less use for men of action than it does for paper pushers. The Canadians lobby superiors to set them up as an always-on strike force, funded year-round, based in Dubai with a training center and a warehouse of equipment. It may yet happen, but in the meantime, they don't stand still. Come summertime, Jipe is in Greenland and Iceland, guiding kayaking and trekking trips while planning a move to Ethiopia. Smitty hunkers down with his partner and two-year-old son in Muzaffarabad, directing traffic for the IOM. Claude, who spends a few months in Italy with the Iranian girlfriend he met in Pakistan, considers going to Lebanon. And Chris is finally sailing his boat through the Bahamas, completing stage one of his around-the- world cruise, waiting for the phone to ring with news of the next crisis.
I catch up with Claude one sunny, late-summer afternoon in Montreal at an outdoor cafe. As always, as everywhere, he seems in his element. I ask about his favorite memory from Pakistan, and he brings up a day in late December when, in a small village above the snow line, he got his hands dirty rebuilding an old woman's home. "It was just one house. Just one woman," he says. I wonder what the Muslim villagers thought of him that day--a Westerner who wasn't a Green Beret or hash-smoking backpacker or technocrat in a passing motorcade--and realize they probably didn't think much about him at all. He wouldn't have seemed too foreign.