Avalanche: "OK, so this is it. I'm dying"
When an avalanche snatches you off the slopes, survival depends on one thing - luck.
IT WAS eight in the morning when we set out - three skiers and three snowboarders looking forward to a day in perfect snow. We had persuaded the lift operators at the Paradiski resort of Vallandry in the French Alps to sneak us on early so we could make the most of the conditions.
Between us we had almost 40 seasons experience of skiing off-piste. I had "done a ski season", fallen in love with the Alps, and found it impossible to leave. Now, aged 30, I was "living the dream", running my own business in Chamonix, and skiing more than 100 days a year. But the dream was about to turn sour as I confronted my worst fear: avalanche.
We were equipped with transceivers, shovels, probes, and a sound knowledge of the mountains around us. We had checked the weather reports, and consulted the pisteurs - those responsible for safety on the mountain - even bringing one of them, Olivier, with us. We had prepared as well as we could. Or so we thought.
From the top of the Grand Col in Les Arcs, our first pitch was a 35-degree slope of fresh powder. We took it one by one to make sure. Looking back, all we saw were six perfect tracks. As we made the 40-minute climb to the summit, skis and boards strapped to our packs, we could see the North Face of the Bellecote glacier opposite, the village of Nancroix below, and the familiar peak of La Grive on our other side. The snow felt firm and good.
Two of my friends were making a ski movie, and when we reached the top of the ridge, Rich and James started setting up their cameras, while Tracker and Olivier checked out the snow, cutting through it with their skis to test its stability. When the cameras began rolling, I dropped in. Three turns in, as I approached a gully, things started to go wrong. The others saw it before I did. I had triggered an avalanche. They yelled, but concentrating on skiing, and with my helmet on, I didn't hear.
The first I saw was snow rippling up around my skis at the top of the gully. I had a sensation of moving that had nothing to do with my skiing. I was already travelling pretty fast when I realised that I was on top of slabs of moving snow.
Strangely calm, I tried to ski to the side to get out of the way. On the video, it looks as if I was going to get out, and even I thought I'd made it. But I wasn't fast enough, and as the avalanche grew and took hold, it dragged me back.
From the ridge, the film shows me being pulled out of sight, then it cuts out as Rich stopped the cameras. All my friends saw as I disappeared into the gully was a cloud of fast-moving powder.
When my first ski was ripped off, I was still standing. But, seconds later, as the slabs broke up around me, I was swept under the surface by a massive surge, beginning a ride I will never forget. My second ski was broken off almost immediately, and my gloves and poles were ripped from my hands. I started tumbling through the snow, aware only of picking up speed. I had heard many times that the best way to survive an avalanche was to "swim" to stay on top of the snow. What I now know is that this is an automatic survival instinct. I swam for my life.
Mountain guidebooks also say that pissing yourself helps your chances of survival since it helps rescue dogs to find your location. That is an automatic reaction, too.
I must have stayed close to the surface, although I had no idea where I was or even which way was up. I was crying out, fighting for breath and inhaling as much snow as air. As I gasped, my lungs began to fill with powder, and I tried to cover my mouth to create an air pocket.
An avalanche is a lonely place, and as my brain became increasingly starved of oxygen I no longer had the strength to keep myself afloat. I became resigned to dying, thinking: "OK, so this is it. It's not so bad." I had nothing left and knew my friends would never get me out in time.
Above me, on the ridge, Olivier had tried to follow me down so that he could get an idea where to dig when the avalanche stopped. He had set off a second slide, had managed to get out safely, but was stuck on a rock and couldn't see anything but the cloud of powder I was in. The rest of my friends were left, terrified, on the ridge, powerless to help either of us until the world had again come to rest.
When it did, I was back on top of the snow. Miraculously, I was travelling backwards, suddenly looking up at blue sky. I spun round into a sitting position. Wide-eyed, still not breathing, riding the end of the avalanche like some magic carpet, I realised that I was going to survive. I quickly cleared the snow out of my mouth, threw up, then started to gulp tiny breaths back into my lungs.
I didn't stop to think before I started running. Having come out alive, my biggest fear was to be buried in a second slide. It was slow progress in deep powder, but I finally collapsed into an exhausted heap about 100m from the spot where the avalanche ended. I was the length of four football pitches away from where I'd started.
I already knew that I was unbelievably lucky. I was covered from head to toe in snow, without skis, poles and gloves, and in shock, but otherwise unharmed, except for a throat made raw from breathing in sharp snowflakes.
Only weeks before, one of my friends had been killed in an avalanche, probably about the same size. Mike had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and had died on a similar, perfect powder day. So why did I survive? Partly because the nature of the slope meant that my slide started wide, narrowed into a gully and finished wide. Possibly because I was wearing a helmet and didn't hit my head or pass out. Maybe because I lost my skis and poles so early and swam to keep myself close to the surface. Perhaps because I'm light and float more easily. But mainly because I'm an exceptionally lucky girl.
- Contributors can log in for advertising-free pages.