'I thought it was my turn to die'
My name is Pierre-Francois. I have been skiing for 34 years, racing for 12, teaching on and off-piste skiing for 18. My life is skiing. I ski every day from December to the end of April, mainly off-piste.
As a ski-school director in Meribel, every day I have to be aware of the daily snow and weather conditions: the avalanche risk. I check the mountain, the conditions, visibility, the wind direction, the temperature but sometimes it is not enough - you can't be 100 per cent sure, there is always a risk.
It is an amazing experience to ski off-piste. Our ski school provides free avalanche talks to British tour operators and their clients but nowadays the popularity of 'freeriding' is increasing the risks. Lots of inexperienced skiers and snowboarders, with insufficient mountain knowledge, think they can go off piste as if they were on a groomed and secured slope.
Last February, after a small snowfall I was skiing off piste with a friend. As usual, I was equipped with my transceiver and airbag. After two hours of good runs, we decided to do the last one, a good long run that starts in a couloir. At the top, as we always do, we checked our surroundings as far as we could see above us to the left and right and down the slope to where we were headed. I told my friend to wait until I stopped in a safe area before he started to ski. The snow was good but not very deep. I was skiing fast, doing large, long turns, I was very happy.
I skied down to a couloir I had taken many times before - a narrow path around 10 metres wide, 20 metres long and with a 10-metre cliff above and to my right: like skiing down a long tube. That's where it happened ... I was skiing quite fast and thinking of where to turn at the end of the couloir. Suddenly, in a split second, I felt the cold on my face. I didn't understand what was happening; I was confused but sure I had fallen off a cliff. I was falling and moving very fast with the force of the snow, like a rag doll. I could see the sky and the snow and the sky again and again as my body tumbled head over heels and from left to right; it was then that I realised I was caught in an avalanche.
The noise and the sensation ended. I stopped and the snow stopped around me. I felt the compression as the snow slowly packed down. I felt a strong pressure on my chest. I was trapped, lying horizontally on my back with my face pointing upwards. I started to panic.
I could see the light of the blue sky through the snow, so I was sure I was not deep below the surface. I managed to pull my left arm towards me and start digging. I thought I could try to force my arm upwards towards the sky to make my hand visible to those who could find me. Wishful thinking ... I found I could not move my arm; only my wrist was moving. As it happens, struggling would have been a waste of time and energy anyway: I was actually trapped about two metres under the snow.
I had to stop panicking and trying to move. I thought to myself: 'You must calm down, keep your energy and start breathing slowly if you want to survive.' I was thinking that I was too young to die and of all the things in my life I wanted to do. I didn't understand what had happened but I was sure I did not start the avalanche.
After a while I started to see colours, violet and brown; it was difficult to breathe and I had snow stuck in my mouth between my teeth and my lips. I realised I was dying. I was quiet and calm, thinking: 'It must just be my turn to die now.' I lost all concept of time or how long I'd been there. I was starting to feel the sensation of falling asleep and it was not painful. Then suddenly I felt something on my thigh. It was a probe, they were above me! I started to hear shouting and digging, but it seemed to take a long time. Then I opened my eyes and saw a man, a ski patroller who started to talk to me. I will always remember the eyes of Nicolas, the guy who found me.
A helicopter was above us, there were dogs around me and lots of people digging. The signal from my transceiver had saved my life.
Then I saw my friend; he had escaped the avalanche. He told me, 'You didn't start the avalanche, it came above you from the right, someone else started it!' Now I understood. It had fallen on me like a waterfall when I was below the cliff in the couloir. That's why I didn't see, hear or feel anything under my skis - it came from the sky. It's also why I didn't pull the handle to open my airbag.
I was very lucky. I didn't even have to go to hospital - the ski patrollers took me to the medical centre and an hour later I was in a bar with them. They told me that it had taken them 17 minutes to find me in the avalanche. If you include the time it took someone to raise the alarm, it would have been more than 20 minutes. Lucky me!
It can be an amazing pleasure to have a sunny day with light, deep powder snow, but in this mountain environment you must never forget that you are very small and vulnerable.
· Pierre-Francois Papet is a director of Snow Systems ski school in Meribel, France (for details see www.snow-systems.com). He also trains British ski instructors on gap year courses run by Base Camp Group (020 7243 6222; www.basecampgroup.com).
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