Being buried alive in a snow avalanche is a terrifying end to a lovely day of enjoying the slopes. When an avalanche hit a group of skiers in the Alps, the disaster was caught on video. After watching it, you'll either never want to go back-country again or be motivated to finally take that avalanche safety course.
Top image: An avalanche near Zinal, Switzerland in 2007. Credit: dahu1
James Mort, Daniel O'Sullivan, and their friends were skiing in Les Crosets along the Swiss/French border this January. After a large storm dumped a meter of snow on the slopes, they were eager to enjoy the fresh powder.
A typical back country warning sign. Image credit: Canadian Avalanche Centre and Revelstoke Mountain Resort
The avalanche risk was high — at least a 4 on the danger level, large natural avalanches are likely and human-triggered avalanches near-inevitable. To reduce their risk, they stayed within the bounds of the ski resort on slopes that were fairly low steepness and low exposure.
The North American avalanche danger scale is the same as the European scale, using colours instead of patterned flags.
In the afternoon, they decided to venture back-country: in bounds, but off the official groomed runs. Theirs were the only tracks: they were delighted to have a totally fresh slope to ski. Their skis were breaking through a thick layer of hoarfrost under the powder, producing a "muffled 'wumping' sound," a classic indicator of a weak layer all too ready to break and cohesive slabs on the verge of collapse. They decided to ski the short, sheltered gully anyway.
The characteristic "whumpfing" sound of collapsing snow, cracking, and shooting cracks are all indicators of an imminent avalanche as thin, weak layers and cohesive slabs are primed to collapse. Image credit: Avalanche Canada/Andrew Nelson/Matt Reynolds
James Mort led the way. He describes it as being the deepest powder run he'd ever skied, with very low visibility from clouds of powder. When he was about 20 meters from the bottom of the gully, he noticed the surrounding snow start to slab and break away. Recognizing an impending avalanche, he straightened his skis and tried to out-run it. He slammed into a wall of snow at the base of the gully, bringing him to a total stop and ruining the escape plan. With almost no time left, he reached as high as he could with his left arm and ski pole straight up. When describing the day's events, he writes:
As the snow piled higher and higher, It became darker and darker until I was surrounded by an eerie black silence, broken only by the sound of my slow breathing and racing heartbeat.
"Okay" I thought to myself;
From here, we can watch his companion Daniel O'Sullivan's view of what happened next:
After the avalanche hit, Andrew took off for help immediately, collecting a pair of ski patrollers from the resort. The other two, O'Sullivan and Leonard, started searching for Mort. All of them carried shovers and poles to probe the snow, but Mort's avalanche transceiver was useless since none of his friends carried a transceiver of their own to locate it. Buried alive under meters of snow, Mort worked to control his breathing, and kept his head enough to wriggle and stretch his upraised arm. He got lucky: the pole broke the surface, and his friends spotted its waving tip and dug out his face.
Rescuers practicing a conveyer shoving technique during a training course. Image credit: Avalanche Canada/Brent Strand
Even after Mort could breath, he still wasn't out of danger. He was standing upright, the silver lining of having crashed into the wall of snow at the base of the gully, but his head was still 1.5 meters below the snow surface. All of them were at the base of a hillside with hangfire: precarious snow capable of producing another avalanche that could bury Mort and his rescuers. It took the three friends and two ski patrollers nearly an hour to dig Mort out.
Searchers learn how to perform a basic rescue line probe during an avalanche training course. Image credit: Torridon & Kinlochewe Mountain Rescue Team
Mort is incredibly blunt in his write-up of the events. He knows their group made mistakes: They went backcountry on a day they knew was very risky. They were overconfident about slab stability, and didn't turn back after observing clear indicators of high avalanche danger. Not everyone in the group carried a full avalanche pack of shovel, probe, and transceiver. They didn't notice the deep snowdrift blocking the bottom of the gully, a terrain trap that almost killed Mort. When the avalanche started, Mort tried to outrace it instead of following the standard advice of cutting cross-slope to try to get outside the avalanche's path. Once they found him, Mort's rescuers started digging without using their probes to clearly establish where he was, risking injuring him with their shovels.
What do do if caught in an avalanche. Image credit: Alaska Rendezvous Lodge and Heli-Guides
But they also did some things right: They skied in a group, had some supplies, and awareness of what to do if an avalanche happened. They sent for help immediately — Andrew's return with ski patrol would have saved all their lives if a secondary avalanche had buried the searchers. They kept their eyes out for any signs of their buried companion, and Mort did an excellent job of giving them that sign. They found Mort quickly, and he was dressed warmly enough to survive the long unburied. Avalanche rescue is urgent and highly time-sensitive: odds of survival are a high 91% if found within the first 18 minutes, but drop quickly over time. Most importantly: everyone walked away alive.
It used to be that most people who died in avalanches were fieldworkers out doing their jobs. Now it's becoming ever more common for recreational backcountry users to get caught in the disasters.
Avalanche fatalities by activity within the United States between 1950 and 2014. Image source: Colorado Avalanche Information Center
If you want to head off the trails, the most important thing to do is get educated. It doesn't matter if you ski, snowboard, snowshoe, ride a snowmobile, or do something entirely different: if you want to play back country, the easiest, quickest, and cheapest way to reduce your risk of death by avalanche is to increase your knowledge and skill. Start with a good online tutorial and talk to experts. Take an avalanche safety class from a certified professional, carry the right tools, and know how to use them. Find or train a companion to be just as prepared when they head into the back country with you. Check avalanche safety ratings before you go out, and talk to others you encounter on the slopes about what they've seen that day. Don't blow off the risk — even a small avalanche can kill you.
After reading through far too many avalanche reports and mortality findings, I have one final piece of advice for surviving an avalanche: Don't do that "one last run" of the day. If you start noticing signs of an increased risk, or are getting tired and sloppy, just stop and head home.
Search and rescue dog awaits by a pack full of avalanche safety gear during a training session. Image credit: kameraschwein