As a kid growing up in Milton, Massachusetts, Dan Egan used to kneel next to his brothers on the church pews, and hearing that he needed to be saved by Christ, he would wonder, “Saved from what?” In 1990, trapped in a snow cave on a blizzard-wrapped glacier below Mount Elbrus, lacking any food or water and on the verge of freezing to death, Dan got his answer.
As he sits today in the headquarters of Egan Entertainment Network in Ashland, New Hampshire, Dan recalls the improbable journey that brought him to that cave in the Caucasus Mountains, and recounts the even more improbable journey that he has been on ever since. The small office where he sits is as modest in its 1980s ski lodge décor as it is in its lack of self-promotion — not a single trophy, ribbon, or certificate to suggest the remarkable achievements of its proprietor. On the wall hangs a single poster, featuring Dan and another skier launching out the door of a Cannon Mountain tram and flying through the New Hampshire sky. Amidst the scattered ski stickers and DVDs on his desk sit two books: the Bible and Rediscovering Catholicism.
Dan explains how he has fashioned a life and a living by following in the daunting downhill ski tracks of his older brother John. Together the two renowned extreme skiers used their entrepreneurial instincts and filmmaking talents to travel the world “in search of steep.” Branded “The Egan Brothers,” they reached speeds on skis that left sanity a distant third. They ascended heights accessible only by helicopter, tumbled through cavernous, rock-lined ravines, averted avalanches by split seconds, and flew in the air like projectiles, landing — nearly every time — on their skis, laughing and living to ski again another day.
On that May morning in 1990, high in the Caucasus of Russia, Dan had left his brother John far behind, pushing on in his exuberance towards the summit of Europe’s highest peak. He was mindful of a storm approaching from below, but was feeling, if not invulnerable, at least lucky.
And why not? Luck had been leading him on an unpredictable road to the sort of success he only dreamed about as a kid. From an early age, Dan often found himself on a bus with his siblings headed towards New Hampshire’s ski slopes. “It was my mom’s one day off a week from the seven kids,” he recalls. They all loved skiing, but never thought they’d make a living from it. Then Dan and John saw their first Warren Miller film. Warren Miller is the legendary ski filmmaker who did for skiing what Bill Gates did for the personal computer. Dan was only 10 when he saw the movie with his brother, who was 16, but he still remembers what his brother said: “I want to ride on every chair lift in the world.”
As a teenager, Dan became a standout athlete in New England. Though a top- ranked skier, his passion was soccer, and his dream was playing on a Division I team. Having underachieved academically, he spent a year after high school at Bridgton Academy. “It was basically a home for wayward jocks, but that one year changed my life.” At Bridgton, Dan learned to transfer his athletic discipline to his schoolwork and was admitted to Babson College.
Meanwhile, his brother John, though he hadn’t yet ridden every chairlift in the world, was making an honest try. He had skied on both the U.S. pro mogul and ski racing tours and by the late 1970s was making $50 a day as a dish washer and working for Warren Miller, skiing in the very films he and Dan had gaped at as kids. So while Dan pursued a degree in business and played soccer, he never lost sight of his brother’s tracks. He spent his winter terms cultivating the life of a bona fide ski bum — flipping burgers, washing dishes, crossing the continent, and crashing down the slopes from Sugarbush, Vermont, to Squaw Valley, California. When the snow melted, he would take enough summer courses to keep up with his classmates.
After graduation, Dan coached soccer, but in the winter of 1988 he was slope-side at Sugarbush, “working as the night condo check-in guy. I was riding on a chairlift and my buddy Stan told me he had tickets to the Patriots vs. Broncos playoff game in Denver.” Most people would not have their lives changed by that information, but neither would most people reply “I can’t believe you’re going to go all the way out there and not ski.” This thought would lead to Dan, John, and two friends quitting their jobs, and heading west in Stan’s car. John earned an initial $300 in a Mogul Competition in Aspen. Then Dan made it into the final round of 16 in Vail. Ultimately, the newly-branded Egan Brothers arrived in Squaw Valley and became two of the original members of the Northface Extreme Skiing Team. Dan never made it to the football game.
“John and I became known as the Siamese twins of extreme skiing — joined at the soul.” The two were part of an extreme skiing revival when the industry was just beginning to sponsor non-Olympic skiers and VHS technology was just coming into vogue. The brothers had skied their way into a perfect combination of white powder, new video technology, and east coast chutzpa. “I was promising large retailers a multi-media extravaganza. In reality, all I had was some VHS tapes, a boom box, and a slogan: ‘Skiing to double your exposure.’”
From 1988 to 1994, Dan and John worked for Warren Miller, sub-contracting and producing films. But the films were never just about skiing. “Skiing was always wrapped to something bigger,” Dan recalls. In fact, the brothers used their skis as a passport to the world’s troubled regions. “We basically followed CNN around the world. We jumped off the Berlin wall in 1989, skied in Yugoslavia a week before the war broke out in 1992. We were in Romania after the revolution. We organized the original Peace Ski in Beirut in 1993.”
It was just such a venture that brought Dan and John to the Caucasus Mountains of Russia in 1990. Not until Dan had reached the 18,500 foot summit of Mt. Elbrus did he begin to realize the potential peril that he was in. The other members of his original exhibition, including John, had turned back long before.
After Dan and his Spanish climbing companion celebrated their ascent with the last of their water, they saw a large figure emerging from the clouds. This was Sasha, a Russian guide in search of lost hikers. In the long, treacherous hours of the next two days, this man would save the lives of a dozen people, including Dan Egan.
Sasha instructed the two men to follow him, which meant leaving behind their packs. The storm, which now engulfed the three men and other stranded climbers they joined along the way, was packing 100 mph winds and burying the mountain in over five feet of snow. The group trudged on their precarious descent when suddenly the second man in line vanished into one of the hundreds of hidden crevasses of the glacier. Without hesitating, Sasha tied a rope around himself, plunged into the snow, and rescued the man. The incident made clear that there was no pressing forward in the dark. It was time to dig caves and try to survive the night on the side of the unforgiving mountain.
In the confusion that followed, Dan dug frantically for more than four hours before discovering he had apparently been abandoned by his fellow climbers. He collapsed in exhaustion inside a cave that he was certain would be his tomb. “God was with me in that cave,” he says. “I remember shivering, struggling to keep my extremities warm.” As he approached what he was certain was his death, he recalls seeing the proverbial bright light. He believes that he met his guardian angel, who told Dan: “Follow me.”
“Suddenly, this large body bursts into the cave. It was Sasha. He engulfed my body and said, ‘We sleep together like brothers.’” Though Dan spent the night vomiting blood and having hallucinations, the body warmth provided by this experienced guide saved his life. The next day Dan and the makeshift band of stranded climbers maneuvered slowly through a minefield of hidden crevasses, determined to try to avoid a second night on the mountain.
As he and Sasha took turns leading the group, he came to understand the literalness of the words that had been spoken to him in the cave: “Follow me.” One wrong step could have plunged them to their death, but ultimately, all 14 of the climbers stranded with Dan made it down safely. Thirty-four hours after setting out, Dan re-united with his brother John. Twenty-five climbers had died in the storm in what is still regarded as one of the worst climbing disasters in history.
Dan regards his survival on Mt. Elbrus as a miracle, one that has caused him to refocus his professional ski career more on teaching and safety. As for his personal life, the experience of “essentially having died and come back” continues to shape him every day. “I don’t regard it as a singular event that happened, but rather as the beginning of a story that I am still living today — a life of deeper understanding, contemplation, and prayer.”
Still, Dan has discovered that a crash down the side of a mountain is not the worst fall one can have in life, and not all injuries can be repaired by orthopedic surgery. A decade and a half after the Elbrus experience, Dan was reeling in the wake of a painful divorce. A relative of his recommended that he attend a retreat, and he found himself at a Cursillo in 2005.
For Dan the experience was a profound re-acquaintance with the Catholic faith in which he had been steeped as a child. When Dan was growing up, his dad served as the physician for pilgrimages to Lourdes in France. Dan had made three pilgrimages and witnessed several miracles before he had graduated from high school. “The entire experience — the priests and nuns I met, the praying of the rosary, the cures I saw — really shaped my faith.”
What these pilgrimages had shaped in Dan as a child, Cursillo re-awakened. “Cursillo is like rocket fuel for your faith. Prior to Cursillo, I had never really seen my whole life within the context of my Catholic faith. This was the first time I saw my Catholic faith come alive in the laity. That spark solidified for me my many experiences from Lourdes and beyond.
“As a kid, I didn’t know how much I was going to need saving. I didn’t know I was going to be freezing to death in a snow cave in Russia. I didn’t know the pain of divorce. And yet Christ was with me through all of it. I never could understand how the divorce experience could ever be positive. Now I see that Christ can turn even that to good. I never would have seen that if I didn’t stay centered in the Church.”
Many years ago Dan left behind year-round travel and settled in Campton, NH. He is about to publish a third book, White Haze. Egan Entertainment includes his syndicated TV show broadcast in households across the country each week, and Dan is the video producer for the U.S. Sailing Team. He still tours from ski resorts to auditoriums to orthopedic centers, showcasing his passion for skiing. But today, Dan is just as likely to speak to a youth group, coach youth soccer, or lector at Holy Trinity Parish. He also helps lead a divorce support group and serves as Cursillo team member. He describes his life as “shifting from what a friend calls ‘success to significance,’ towards an understanding of the purpose of all that has happened. The whole idea now is how I can use all that I have experienced to positively affect others.”
Dan praises his parents who “remain so faithful in the practice of their faith. The fact is I’m as Catholic as my eyes are brown, and believe me I’ve tried pretty hard not to be. I’m now able to celebrate my Catholicism instead of run from it. When I speak to confirmation groups I tell the kids, ‘Hey this is not French or Math you are studying here. This defines who you are.’” The teens likely listen to his words, not because he has been to the top of the mountain, but because he has skied down it so fast. But having found what it really means to be saved, Dan tells them what he himself has discovered at the heights and in the depths of his life: “You will become who you are through your faith.”
Originally printed in Parable, the Magazine of the Diocese of Manchester. To read more articles in Parable, visit www.parablemag.com.