On Feb. 19, 1979, a Cessna plane carrying 11-year-old competitive skier Norman Ollestad crashed into California’s snowy San Gabriel Mountains. The accident, which killed the pilot and Ollestad’s father and gravely injured his father’s girlfriend, left Norman facing an icy high-altitude death. But thanks to his sportsman dad — who had forced him to take part in all kinds of perilous escapades, like surfing in rip currents — Ollestad was prepared for just such a situation. Now age 42, he has written a memoir, Crazy for the Storm — just optioned by Warner Bros., and plucked by Starbucks for its book program — that cuts back and forth between his postcrash trek down the mountain and the earlier adventures he shared with his father.
What was it like to write about the crash after all these years? Did it seem like it had all happened to someone else?
Well, it always seemed like it happened to somebody else. And then I started working with my therapist to put together all these different flashes of memory, and I returned to the mountain twice and hiked up the route with a notepad. When I went back, it all came back to me. That’s when I started to realize the intensity of what I went through.
Your father’s girlfriend, Sandra, survived the initial crash, but died on the journey down after you persuaded her to leave the plane wreck. Did writing the book help ease your sense of guilt over that?
I felt responsible because I was the one that wanted to [leave the plane]. I think it was the right move, but it doesn’t matter. Because she didn’t want to go. As I’ve gotten older, I see it in a more clear perspective. It doesn’t weigh on me in the same way.
Was it easier or harder to get off the mountain because you were so young? It was easier. But I hope the book shows that everybody has it in them to tap into their animal side. I was in touch with those parts of myself because of the experiences I had with my father. But we all have it.
Many years after the accident you discovered that because of the weather conditions, the Cessna pilot never should have taken off in the first place. You were essentially doomed the moment you left the ground.
I’ve fought some outrage about that. The ironies in life can be fascinating. Here we are, toying with avalanches, backcountry skiing, surfing in rip currents, and then my father is killed because a guy takes off and flies right into a storm. I don’t know what to make of it.
At the risk of sounding trite, the structure of the book is reminiscent of the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Yeah, there’s some bizarre connection there. I was at a meeting about the film rights and somebody said, ”Well, how are we going to cut back and forth?” And I said: Slumdog Millionaire. It’s the same structure. His life prepared him.