11:50

Avalanche

I never saw it. All I heard was the shout of the guide, ‘Avalanche! Avalanche’ - and I knew it must involve me. I didn’t even look but dropped my poles (you ski in powder without the loops for exactly this reason) and pulled the rip-cord of my airbag. Whether the explosion of the bag, or the avalanche, pitched me forward I will never know. Instantly I was being washed forward in a grinding, churning mass of snow. The noise was intense but I was on my front and sliding downhill face-first – that much I knew. Was I holding my breath? I presume so. Survival kicked in. If you ski off-piste you think about avalanches: if you don’t you’re a fool. Cover your face I remembered. I made a sort of breast-stroke motion to get my hands to my face; without success as they kept getting swept away.

Then it stopped. From a growling, alive, thing it metamorphosed in an instant into a silent clamp. Silent that is apart from my breathing which was now loud in my ears and filled with adrenaline and physical exertion. I opened my eyes. White. Tried to move my arms which were outstretched and slightly behind me. Not a finger. Cold. No pain. Breathing; fast but unimpeded. Why? I have no idea except that I may have jerked my head back in the last split second before the concrete set. I knew I had to slow my breathing down. With each slowing breath I fell into a state of something akin to a trance; calm. Clearly, and this is very memorable, I had a lucid thought: ‘if this is it…..it’s not such a bad way to go'. No life flashing before me. No fear – just the realization that a lack of oxygen would mean that I would loose consciousness and die of slow asphyxiation; die in my sleep.

Practicality returned. Who was in this with me? There were eleven in the party. I knew there were around five below me and stationary. Had they been caught too? I knew that there were at least three well behind me, one of whom was, ironically, an avalanche expert from the Canadian government. Three to dig out eight: no good odds. Then I heard, very muffled and feint, a voice counting…. ‘eight, nine…..two in….go, go!’ I knew then that I would probably get out and, sure enough, I felt the compression of snow above me and a hand appeared in my vision scraping snow away from my face.

I have been asked if you could get yourself out of an avalanche. It took about five minutes for two people to free each limb in turn and I was only about a metre down. I think not.
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