I was in an avalanche a few years ago. I wrote this about it:
Avalanche near Saint Foix.
“Look out” someone shouted, but before I could turn I was struck from behind by what I assumed was a very heavy skier, who knocked me flat and pinned me face down with all his weight as we slid uncontrollably down the slope. Then I realized I was in an avalanche.
I had arrived in Val d’Isere that morning to join the second week of an off-piste skiing holiday. The others had been skiing for a week but I had come by overnight ski-train ahead of the new influx.
It hadn’t snowed for a while and the off-piste was skied-out; so one of guides had offered to lead a day tour from Saint Foix. It’s not much skied there and has some good off-piste, so I decided to go.
We were already a large group of seven, but the 3 leaders were having their day off and wanted to go as well. They decided to follow, lagging a little behind so as not to count as part of the group.
We were driven by mini-bus down to Saint Foix, a small resort between Bourg St. Maurice and Val d’Isere. It was a fine morning, clear and sunny with crisp snow.
After several lifts we arrived at the top of the ski area and started off straight ahead on a long traverse, leaving the lifts and pistes behind.
After a mile or so we stopped and took off our skis, and applied skins to our ski bases with varying degrees of skill. We stripped off our jackets and started a long diagonal up the mountain.
We climbed steadily for about an hour and a half, passing left through what had seemed a coll into a flattish area between peaks, perhaps a small summer lake, and finally, refusing the obvious coll ahead, climbed a bit further up to the Coll d’Argentiere.
We rested and took off our skins. The start would be quite tricky.
Although generally the snow was well settled, the start was shaded and still soft. There was a steep gully that any snow-slide would take us into so we went one at a time to minimise the stress on the slope.
Collecting around the corner, after a short steep section we surveyed a magnificent, wide, even slope, stretching untracked for about half a mile. The snow here was settled and not steep. Perhaps 35º at the start but reducing to a steady 30º after that.
“OK”, the guide told us, “you can just ski as you like now”.
He started down and we all followed in rapid succession.
I was third in the bunch and concentrating on my turns when I heard someone shout “Look out”.
Perhaps if I didn’t have a tinnitus I might have had a couple of seconds warning, but it wouldn’t have made much difference. The avalanche struck me from behind and hurled me onto my face, pinning me there as I was propelled on what must have been the forward edge of the snow mass, rapidly down the slope, my arms spread in front of me as I tried to keep my face above a cloud of snow, sliding down and down as though we would never stop, totally unable to make any choices, just being carried helplessly till the pounding eased and I found myself lying stationary in a heap of tumbled chunks of snow, totally winded.
I rolled half onto my side and realised I wasn’t buried. I tried to take a gulp of air but I couldn’t. I had inhaled snow and my mouth and throat were clogged with it. I spat and managed to cough up a chunk of the snow. I could just draw in a little stream of air but I wanted to gasp it in. Keep calm I told myself, you won’t suffocate. Just wait and the rest will melt.
All I could do was half sit , half lie, for several minutes unable to respond to the shouts behind me and someone calling my name.
Slowly my airway cleared and I recovered from my battering. Eventually I was able to look around.
I was in a wilderness of lumped and tumbled snow, about 30 yards from the final front edge. Behind me broad trail of debris led up and up to distant figures. I had been carried about 300yards.
It turned out the last person of our main group had set it off on the rest of us. He must have skied some critical bit that we hadn’t.
The 3 group leaders following us had seen him ride a raft of crust for a few seconds before falling into the tumbling snow.
He and the guide ended up below me and the others deposited at various points in the rubble above.
Amazingly the only one needing to be dug out a little was the guide. He was swearing steadily (it was his first avalanche too, as a guide anyway).
Other than a couple of slight strains and lots of bruises we were all miraculously unhurt.
The steady, gradually easing slope had prevented the snow piling up and had simply let it run out of energy.
One of the women was crying in shocked reaction.
Initially we seven found we had lost all our equipment, but as people picked their way down the slope they collected about half the skis and sticks, and even a few hats and goggles. I was lucky, I finally had both skis and a very bent stick and borrowed another.
We were many miles from the bottom and in a different valley from the pistes. We had to call a helicopter to take those without skis home.
Finally it arrived and the others climbed in as the guide and the leaders and I, and one other, skied off to complete the run.
Later that week we made three lines in the local paper. Some English skiers in an avalanche at Col d’Argentiere. No one hurt.