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FOUR SEASONS: DEFINITELY NOT A MIRACLE

Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 1 October 2011

I’M NOT religious,” Karina Hollekim tells me, “but I do believe in the power of the human brain. It’s amazing what your body is capable of doing – as long as you tell it that it’s going to be capable of doing it.”

In her career as a professional free skier and BASE jumper, Hollekim, 35, has talked her body into doing some pretty counter-intuitive things, from outrunning avalanches to leaping off dizzying precipices with nothing but a parachute between her and oblivion. She has even managed to combine her passions, becoming the first woman to complete a ski BASE jump. Breathtaking footage of the event shows her skiing full tilt off the edge of a cliff, then plummeting earthwards in Wile E Coyote-style slo-mo before pulling her ripcord and being yanked back from the abyss.

Usually when extreme sports enthusiasts start telling you about the power of mind over matter you take their words with a pinch of salt, but Hollekim hasn’t just used mental strength to override her survival instincts – she’s also used it to defy medical science. This week, in a lecture at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival, she’ll explain how.

In August 2006, during what should have been a routine skydive in Switzerland, Hollekim’s parachute failed and she hit the ground at 120km/h. Some might say it’s a miracle she’s still alive, although she’d probably beg to differ.

“When the chute didn’t open, my first thought was ‘I’ve messed up’,” she says. “I’d lost friends this way and I realised that the same was going to happen to me.

“But I refused to give up, and I remember thinking ‘I have to fix this – fix the problem’. At first I was hoping to land in the water but then I realised that wasn’t possible and I realised I was going to hit the ground. The last thing I thought was just ‘brake and brace’ you know, prepare for the hit.

“I knew it didn’t matter if I tried to brake because the canopy wouldn’t listen to what I was telling it to do, but I wanted to make sure that I’d tried everything I possibly could before I hit the ground.”

By rights, Hollekim should have been killed outright. She puts her survival down to the fact that she landed on rock, reasoning that the hard surface prevented her from bouncing, saving her head and spine. Instead, her legs took the full force of the impact, resulting in 21 open fractures in her right leg and the loss of more than three litres of blood.

When she regained consciousness, doctors informed her that she would never walk again, but Hollekim chose to ignore them. Checking into a rehab clinic back home in Norway she informed the staff that her long-term goal was to ski untracked powder again.

“I remember the look on the nurse’s face,” says Hollekim. “She obviously didn’t believe that was ever going to happen, but she didn’t want to kill my dream, so she was like ‘OK, I’ll let her believe it.'”

Last winter, after years of intensive physio, Hollekim more than achieved her goal when she went ski touring in northern Norway with fellow Norwegian pros Ane Enderud and Grete Eliassen, not only scoring virgin powder but also bagging a few first descents. In her blog, Eliassen – no slouch – says she struggled to keep up with Hollekim during a particularly memorable tour in the Lofoten Islands.

“That was the first peak that I actually hiked up to after the accident,” says Hollekim.

“The skiing down was good but that’s not really what I remember – it’s the hike up and making it to the top and the three of us all being there together, just the feeling of being back in the community that I used to be in. That was what I loved.”

In all those gruelling years of rehab, did she ever feel like throwing in the towel? “Not once,” she says.

“Obviously there were harder times, but I decided not to think about all the things I couldn’t do. Instead I tried to focus on all the things I could do. When I went to bed at night I thought about all the positive things that had happened throughout the day, and it kinda made me feel like I’d had a good day, a positive day.”

*The Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival runs from 6-9 October, www.edinburghmountainff.com

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