What’s it really like to be caught in an avalanche?
Words: Aaron Jacobs
Everything is dark, quiet. Buried beneath five or six feet of packed snow, my arms and legs and even my fingers are stiff and immobile, as if anchored in dry cement. I am too consumed by oppressive black silence to feel particularly cold or to notice the moisture entering the narrow gaps in my jacket around my limbs and waist. Dense clumps of snow force their way through the once sound buffer between my body’s heat and the mountain’s cold.
Fortunately my pants aren’t forced around my ankles or stripped clear off my body.
Fortunately I’m buried in a comfortable and natural position, still in one piece without any broken bones, open wounds, head injuries or snow-filled lungs and windpipes.
Fortunately my friends and instructor are standing with shovels on the sunlit surface above, ready to dig me out and set me free.
Yet even as I remind myself repeatedly that this is only an exercise, I panic. Two minutes is all the drill demands of me, not a whole lot considering the fifteen-minute window of opportunity before a buried avalanche victim’s survival becomes truly doubtful.
Breathe, Aaron, breathe. Slowly… You’re okay, you’re safe. Your two minutes is almost up.
It almost works — I relax, my breathing slows to normal — but the calm is always temporary and after a few moments, the darkness and silence return.
Why can’t I hear them up there? They buried me too deep or forgot where they buried me. Their counting is wrong. This is more than two minutes.
I’d signed up for the avalanche safety seminar the previous week, after meeting Sam, the event’s organizer, at the Bar Mont Blanc, a gnarly little piste-side bar above Vallandry. Sam had crossed the valley from La Plagne to distribute flyers and posters promoting a daylong program of avalanche education.
After hanging a poster or two, Sam sat down with a beer and explained the details of the seminar to anyone that would listen. Sam’s training methods include new exercises that include extensive lessons in survival. In a controlled environment and under close professional supervision, trainees are lead through drills designed to simulate the horrible and complex realities of being caught and buried in an avalanche — before they actually are. Sam’s thoughts on safety and preparedness struck me as similar to the basic tenets of SCUBA instruction. Diving is statistically a very safe activity, largely because the training and certification process is dedicated entirely to safety. Though most divers will never run out of air underwater, all trainees learn how to respond to an empty tank.
I ran out of air during one of the first dives I made after my initial SCUBA certification. Because my training had familiarized me with the sensation of an empty tank, and taught me how to react to the situation calmly, I was able surface safely. Having learned that lesson the hard way, it seemed like a good idea to sign up for Sam’s avalanche seminar.
On January 31, 2007, sixty skiers and snowboarders congregated in the French Alps on a powdery ridge above the wooded slopes of La Plagne’s Montchavin - Les Coches for an all day training course and seminar on avalanche preparedness. Sam gathered all of the participants into an attentive herd and asked the French and English speakers to separate so that he could address us separately. Eventually he broke us down further, into groups of ten or twelve, and asked us to wait patiently for the pisteurs who would lead the various activities, lessons and workshops. Our group began with a comprehensive review of proper and efficient use of avalanche transceivers, probes, and shovels. As we huddled together, testing and adjusting our gear, our beacons hummed collectively, like an orchestra tuning up, a digital choir attempting to harmonize.
Effective transceiver use depends not only on technical know-how; practice and familiarity allow us to remain calm and controlled, to trust ourselves and our equipment, to proceed without panic or confusion. The emotional trauma and intensity of seeing a friend steamrolled by an avalanche is severe enough without the added stress of self-doubt.
We averted our eyes while the pisteur buried an active transceiver in the snow. One at a time we scanned the area with our transceivers: tracking and locating the signal’s source. Once our beacons placed us within a metre or so of the signal’s source, we quickly marked reference points and dug for the hypothetical victim.
My turn: I jogged slowly downhill, chasing the device’s erratic beeps, swivelling slowly back and forth. As the beeps grew louder and steadier, I dropped my beacon’s volume to further isolate the signal’s origin. The signal strength increased for a few moments and then dropped; increased again; dropped again. I was receiving readings from two separate sources, as if our hypothetical avalanche had claimed multiple victims.
In the case of this drill, I knew that the second, weaker signal meant that another trainee had accidentally left his or her beacon set to transmit --- a common, often devastating mistake in a rescue situation. I followed the initial signal and ignored the other. Had I been in a real-life rescue, I would have had to choose. Maybe one transmission was more likely to be a friend’s and the other was a stranger’s. Maybe one signal originated in a dangerous area and I’d be risking my own life by pursuing it. If one victim was closer, more accessible and with greater chances for survival, I might follow his or her beeps. Nightmarishly, I might have to act blindly; choose randomly - all the more reason to avoid putting more than one rider in harm’s way at a time.
While we waited for each other to carry out and complete the exercise, we fiddled with our gear and discussed past experiences skiing, trekking, and snowboarding in wild, wintry backcountry. A group of us decided to blindly throw a transceiver down a nearby slope to see who could find it first. One of our buddies launched his transceiver and the rest of us switched ours’ to ‘receive.’ When none of us picked up the signal, the kid realized he forgot to switch his unit on before tossing it. He spent the rest of the morning searching blindly for his beacon. Forgotten power-switches and dead batteries are frequent killers in the backcountry.
Conversations about the perils of avalanches are often infused with black humour. While discussing rumours of a new transceiver that hooks up to the user’s pulse so that rescuers can prioritize victims based on who is alive and who is dead, someone called Ed commented, “If you don’t see a pulse you dig up the guy’s snowboard and put it on eBay." Another trainee said they’d read about a prototype transceiver that stores personal information and a photo so that individuals can be identified during and after rescue. Someone joked that if such devices ever became available, he would upload a photo of a supermodel so that the rescuers flock to him first.
After we all completed the victim-recovery drill, each of us locating the hidden beacon within acceptable amounts of time, we moved onto the next workshop. These next exercises were not as technically complex as the transceiver drills, but they would be physically challenging - with grave and ultimately terrifying implications.
Sam looks like just another ski bum, just another one of us. His face is dark and dry, beaten to leather by sun and dry wind. He’s got a scruffy beard and a taut smile of small, slightly crooked teeth. Pushed and filtered through his French Alpine accent, Sam speaks English in a soft, mellow drawl, a European equivalent of buttery, California surfspeak. He probably is just like us, but as the rest of us maintained our ongoing volley of morose jokes, Sam wasn’t smiling.
Sam has been buried in, and rescued from, two separate avalanches. The first time, he was located and rescued relatively quickly. The second was the result of a training scenario gone wrong. While drilling rescue workers in known avalanche terrain, Sam strapped on a transceiver and dug himself in under a light cover of snow to test the trainees’ response times. After failing to locate Sam within their set time-limit, the trainees left the staging area and returned to their starting place. Several minutes later, as Sam stood to leave his hiding place, his shifting weight triggered a collapse in the snowpack and he was buried. Having not seen the avalanche, the rest of the team waited for Sam to return from his hiding place. It wasn’t until Sam had been trapped for over twenty minutes that the rescuers suspected something was wrong and went to dig him up. Although fifteen minutes is considered the upward limit of how long a buried avalanche victim can survive, Sam was alive and breathing.
Kneeling in front of a vertical wall of snow, with our group huddled around him, Sam told us about his own his experiences with avalanches and stressed the importance of understanding exactly what it feels like to be an avalanche victim before you actually become one.
After removing our hats, goggles, hoods, and sunglasses, Sam had us stuff our heads into holes in the snowy wall. He packed snow in the spaces around our faces and heads, forcing us to familiarize ourselves with what it felt like to breathe — or attempt to breathe — through heavy snow. With my ears, face and head buried, I got a severe ice cream headache that began behind my eyes and in my temples and shot to the back of my skull and down my throat and spine. My ears and nostrils filled with snow. My lips, clenched tightly to prevent myself from inhaling and swallowing snow, burned and went numb. Breathing was impossible.
While the rest of us struggled to warm our ears and cheeks, Sam rattled off a list of weighty consequences we’d likely face if engulfed and buried by an avalanche. We should expect — at least — to be stripped of our gloves, hat, and goggles. Our pants would probably be gone as well, ripped to pieces, or forced down around our ankles. We might have broken limbs and flesh wounds. We won’t be buried in any semblance of a comfortable position. If buried close to the surface, we’d possibly hear dispiriting discussions among rescuers and transmitted over their radios. “I think we’ve lost him," or, “this must be the wrong spot, let’s move on," or “we’ll find the corpse after the spring thaw." Sam ordered us, with firm, militaristic severity, to think only controlled and positive thoughts, even after hearing that we’ve been left for dead. Remember that these are professionals and they WILL find you. Tell yourself that you are not dead, and you will not die, even if the rescuers above think otherwise.
We followed Sam down and around the underside of a thick, crumbling wind lip. He had us dig two sharp, slender ditches in the snow. Each ditch: four to five feet deep, six or seven feet long. As instructed, we removed and assembled the shovels from our packs and dug our own graves.
Having been buried himself, Sam knows that trapped beneath actual avalanche debris in the real and unforgiving backcountry is not the proper time or place to experience these sensations for the first time. He wants backcountry riders to know how dark and quiet and heavy snow can be. He wants us to understand what we are up against. He wants us to resist the urge to panic no matter how intense that urge is.
Tracker went first. He laid down at the bottom of our shimmering, silver grave, covered his face with his hands and forearms, and as he settled in, the rest of us began shovelling. While the ditch filled with snow, Sam ordered us to pack the snow down with our shovels. As we slapped the snow, Sam jumped onto the burial site, stomped a few times with all of his weight, and began pulling arm-loads of snow onto the site from the crumbling mound above. He ordered us to shovel and pack more snow over Tracker’s grave.
Once Tracker was fully buried, we huddled around the area where the open grave had once been. There were nervous glances and mumbled curses. I was wondering how I could get out of this or if there was a way to cheat.
After two long minutes, Sam instructed us to quickly, carefully, dig Tracker free. We took rapid, shallow jabs at the snow with our shovels, switching to the cushioned forgiveness of our gloved hands as we approached his face and body. When we finally uncovered Tracker’s head, he spat out a mouthful of snow. “That," he said, “was horrible."
I was up next. Having seen Tracker’s mouth and nose fill with snow, I was intent on keeping my hands in front of my face so I could create an effective breathing space. During the winter of ‘05 -‘06, one of Europe’s deadliest in recorded history, two skiers were buried in a Les Arcs avalanche. Although they were covered by only a few inches of snow and were found within a few minutes, it was too late. Snow had flooded their mouths and noses and filled their lungs. They’d drowned.
Four feet below the wide, chunky halo formed by my friends’ booted feet, staring at the cloudless sky and the hovering ring of shovels, I cupped my hands in front of my muzzle. Shovelled and kicked, the snow fell in over my goggled face, coat front, and board pants.
Everything is dark. Everything is silent. I can still move my limbs well enough to shape that bubble of air. With a quick series of heavy compressions, the snow gets tighter and harder. I cannot move. I remember what Sam said about the possibility of hearing voices and rescue teams on the surface, but from four feet deep I don’t know how that could be possible. I hyperventilate. I talk to myself, tell myself this is a controlled exercise, that I’m in good hands. I tell myself that this rehearsal might one day save my life. I try to cozy myself with warm thoughts about how this exercise will bring me closer to my fellow riders. I manage to slow my breaths and relax my muscles. Then I feel a thump — Sam has jumped on my chest. My lungs empty of air and my palms are pressed firmly against my face, collapsing my breathing space. As my breaths quicken, they’re choked by my hands and muffled by the extreme pressure of packed snow.
Before I can even fail an attempt to scream, I’m aware of the gentle pokes and scrapes of shovels on my jacket and pants, the cushioned flicks of gloves dusting snow from my head and face. The darkness is replaced by fleshy faces and toothy smiles, reflective sunglasses, and hooded sweatshirts set against a backdrop of blue, winter sky.
Stiff with cold and anxiety, we moved on to study the snowpack with renowned avalanche expert Alain Duclos. We used our shovels to cut a series of vertical walls in the snow so that we could see the many layers comprising the snowpack. While pushing, poking, and prodding the layers of snow, Duclos offered a brief overview of how variations in the snowpack’s depth, composition, temperature, and history contribute to stability.
After lunch, we regrouped in the bar adjoining Sam’s shop, where Alain gave a lecture and showed a series of slides and video clips, illustrating the maths and science behind avalanche awareness and risk assessment. He made it clear that while the behavior of snow and the factors that contribute to avalanche can be understood through theories and equations and history, the bottom line is that there is no sound way to accurately predict when and where avalanches will occur. In fact he insists the conclusions drawn by studying the science are often meaningless, since a snowpack that theoretically should fail frequently won’t, while slopes that should be stable often slide. Duclos attributes a large number of avalanche fatalities to this phenomenon. After observing and travelling in “red light" terrain without incident, it is easy to grow decreasingly cautious and take bigger risks, as if avalanches were some kind of myth.
One photograph, in particular, gave everyone a good scare. A shallow, wide, and unremarkable slope with trees at the top and the bottom, a slope of no more than 27 or 28 degrees and three perfect S-shaped tracks running from top to bottom. Who would think twice about the safety or stability? Three people had descended and proved - if further proof were needed - that it was safe. Later, Alain explained, a fourth skier descended between two of the extant tracks, and one of his initial turns triggered a fracture that began above the skier and ran across the entire width of the slop. The resulting avalanche swept the skier several hundred meters downhill, crushing him in the trees below.
No one would have predicted the slide. It was a freak.
Ironically enough, Duclos attributes a large number of accidents to classes and seminars like this one. Too many people take a class and think it means they have the knowledge, ability, and experience to venture casually to the edge. As if a half hour spent studying the snowpack qualifies you to identify weak layers. Or just because you’ve found a buried transceiver in less than a minute, you can find and uncover your friends just as quickly. Or, just because you’ve been buried by your friends, you’re prepared to be buried by an avalanche… and survive.
The course left me and most of the others more frightened by our new awareness than emboldened by it. We reflected painfully about times when we acted so stupidly, when accidents could have happened, or did. Only one thing was certain: although we cannot change the snow, weather, or terrain - nor would we want to - we can adapt our own behavior to create a safer backcountry. As we continue to practice and prepare, we can urge others to join in and, if possible, take the course we’d just taken: go get buried alive for two minutes and then tell me you won’t be more careful next time you’re hiking some ridge the morning after the snowstorm.
After the day of training, we all felt a deep, sincere and crucial sense of camaraderie and closeness. We had proven to each other that we could and would do our best to find and rescue each other from a danger inherent to our shared passion. There was a sense of, “I might not know you, I might not even like you, but I will dig your ass out of a snowy grave, and I know you will do the same for me."
My lips, clenched tightly to prevent myself from inhaling and swallowing snow, burned and went numb. Breathing was impossible…
If buried close to the surface, it’s common to hear dispiriting discussions among rescuers and transmitted over their radios. “I think we’ve lost him," or, “this must be the wrong spot, let’s move on," or “we’ll find the corpse after the spring thaw."
Although fifteen minutes is considered the upward limit of how long a buried avalanche victim can survive, Sam was alive and breathing…
As instructed, we removed and assembled the shovels from our packs and dug our own graves….
No one would have predicted the slide. It was a freak…
Tom Murphy, Avalanche Survivor
Tom Murphy survived a massive avalanche whilst on holiday in Les Deux Alpes last spring. This is his story…
When did the avalanche happen?
It happened on March 2nd , at about 12 o’clock in the afternoon.
Which run was it on? Is it accessible?
I took the lift up to the top, nearly 3400m. The day before we followed the chairlift down and then across to your right, but this time I just went hard right from the top. I thought I was going the right way but I wasn’t. For a little while I thought I was on the piste, but the visibility wasn’t great. Then all of a sudden it was clear blue skies with great fresh powder, and I was thinking “this is great! This is what I’ve come snowboarding to see." But a little further on is where it all happened.
Was it a run people often do?
No. People have actually been found dead at the bottom of the run I ended up on! It’s not somewhere you’d normally go off piste.
Had it snowed recently?
It was snowing the whole week. We got there and it was snowing, and we were lucky in that sense – although the visibility wasn’t great.
How much snowboarding experience have you had?
I started in 1999 and have been for two or three weeks every year since. I also did a season in New Zealand.
Did you have a transceiver at the time?
I didn’t, no. I had a walkie-talkie and a mobile phone.
Were you with anyone else?
No. The guys I was with went out for a few beers the night before but I took it easy and went out early. I was there for a week so I wanted to get as much done as possible.
What actually happened?
After a while the cloud was behind me and it was beautiful blue skies with fresh powder everywhere. No tracks, no one. I’m thinking “this is absolutely amazing" and I’m going down this big face. The further I go down it keeps narrowing towards this valley, where I didn’t know at the time but there’s a big frozen waterfall. I can’t wait to get back to the bottom and take the boys up. I stacked it a couple of times, then I set off again and came to another heel edge stop. As I stopped I remember looking down, and about 20 metres either side of me the snow started to crack. It felt like a lifetime but really it all happened so quick. It was like slow motion. There was nothing I could do; the momentum of me stopping had triggered an avalanche.
What happened next?
It all just dropped from under me. Because it had been snowing for a few days there was a lot of fresh snow – I’m guessing about two or three metres. As I’m in the avalanche I begin tumbling around. All of a sudden I see blue skies and then it goes black. Imagine you’re going up and down, up and down - one minute I’m in the avalanche and then the next thing I know my head’s out the avalanche, then I’m in again. It was like being in a washing machine. Every time I see blue skies I’m stretching my neck and my body trying to gasp for air, because it’s like you’re drowning in water.
It sounds like a surfing wipe-out.
It was exactly like surfing – no different. You feel like you’re drowning because you’re actually swallowing snow.
What was going through your mind?
The only two things I was thinking was, “I need to get out of here, I’m going to die in a minute. What do I do? What do I do?" And the second thing was just to gasp for air. At one point my instinct told me to straighten my legs and hope that I catch an edge so that I can somehow flip out of it. So I stuck them straight out in front of me and I ended up catching my heel edge and popping out to the side. It felt like popping out from the tube of a wave. I grabbed a nearby rock and held on for dear life as I watched the avalanche continue on down the valley. If it had taken me down there I would have been taken over sheer drops, hit rocks and smashed myself to pieces. I would have died.
Were you buried?
No. I was buried as it was moving but fortunately I wasn’t completely buried when I came out of it.
Did you make your own way back to the piste?
This is where the story goes on! Basically, over about 11 or 12 hours, I threw myself down two very large drops, about 30m. There was no way back to the piste, I’d been taken by the slide for about 400m and I’d already dropped about 1500m before that, so the only way out was down. It’s actually an ice climbing route so there was no way I was hiking back up without the proper gear. I was sat at the top of these drops for about two hours, hoping and praying, and thinking “I can sit here and freeze to death when it gets dark, or I can do something." In the end I lowered myself as far as I could over the belly of the rock and slid down. I managed to land in two big potholes that the waterfall had carved out and which were full of snow. Around it was just rock. Then I ended up on a tiny little ledge and I stood there for about seven or eight hours and I was eventually rescued.
No way! Did someone spot you?
No. What happened was, I’d had no service from my mobile phone all day. Eventually I thought “Right this is it, I can’t hang on any longer – my walkie talkie’s dead, it’s 9 o’clock, it’s dark, no one can see me." So I tried one more time and played around with it and managed to get some service. I texted my family and friends to say goodbye, and rung my friend who was in one of the bars in town. I told him I was up the mountain and had been all day, and he needed to get a helicopter or I was gonna die. He thought I was joking and it took me about three or four minutes to persuade him. I was eventually picked up by the mountain rescue about four of five hours later. They winched me up to a helicopter on the second attempt.
Has it altered your approach to snowboarding? Do you still ride?
I haven’t been yet because it only happened this spring, but I am gonna go this year. You know what it’s like, it’s great fun!
What would your message be to the readers?
If you want to go off-piste, get a guide, take transceivers and all the equipment, and wear protection. I was wearing padded shorts and I swear without them I would have been paralysed by the rocks.
Sounds like you’re a lucky boy.
Definitely, without a doubt. 100%.
… There was nothing I could do; the momentum of me stopping had triggered an avalanche.
… You feel like you’re drowning because you’re actually swallowing snow.
… All of a sudden I see blue skies and then it goes black.
Winter Safety Talks
If you’re interested in learning more about avalanche safety, including how to use off-piste equipment and recognize danger signs, Snow & Rock are organizing a series of talks in the UK this month. The speakers are all mountain guides with the highest international qualifications. They include Kenton Cool, the only European to summit Everest five times, and fellow guide Guy Willet from Chamonix, who has many couloir first descents to his name and a diploma in high altitude medicine and physiology.
The talks are aimed at regular skiers and snowboarders, though there will also be one higher level of talk; Advanced Avalanche Awareness at Kensington Snow & Rock.
The dates and venues for the talks are:
Weds. 7th Nov. Advanced Avalanche Awareness with Nigel Shepherd, Kensington
Tues. 13th Nov. Avalanche Awareness Essentials with Guy Willet, Birmingham
Weds. 21st Nov. Avalanche Awareness and Steep Skiing with Guy Willet and Kenton Cool, Monument
Tues. 27th Nov. Avalanche Awareness Essentials with Nigel Shepherd, Hemel Hempstead
Weds. 5th Dec. Avalanche Awareness Essentials with Guy Willet and Kenton Cool, Chill Factore (Manchester)
Tickets cost £2 with the proceeds going to Mountain Rescue which is carried out on a voluntary basis throughout the UK . All talks start at 7 pm. For tickets phone 0845 100 1000. For more information check out Snow & Rock
Image One: Andrew Hingston; Image Two: Jeff Curtes; Image Three Jeff Curtes; Image Four: Greg Von Doersten; Image Five: - ; Image Six: Jeff Curtes.