What it feels like… to survive an avalanche
I was on a snowboard following a friend down a slope in New Zealand in 2008, when I looked around and saw that the snow – about 20 metres either side of me – was starting to move.
It was right after my friend landed a cliff jump and I did a big turn, so I’d just kicked up a bit of snow as I tried to slow myself down.
That’s when I realised what was happening. The entire face covering the mountain was undulating – it was an avalanche.
I had knowledge of avalanches so I immediately knew how dangerous this situation was. Cascading snow can reach speeds of 100mph, so sometimes people are killed by being smashed into things.
But that didn’t help me. Once in it, I was totally helpless, so if anything my knowledge just made me more fearful as I knew how much danger I was in and how unpleasant my death could be.
When people are caught under snow, it will set like concrete around them. I was pretty freaked out as soon as I realised what was going on.
Ironically, we’d gone to Mount Cook in New Zealand to film for a programme about people getting caught in avalanches.
For this reason and because I had been a professional snowboarder for 10 years by that point, I knew that if you were caught in an avalanche, you should do your best to stay above the snow.
I had been told you should also try to keep your hand over your mouth in case you were trapped under the snow because it would give you more of a chance to breathe. In practice, though, it did nothing.
As soon as I clocked what was happening, I sat down and slid with the board in front of me. I was trying to assess the situation, but it was so hard to see anything because there was so much snow up in the air.
I was knocked down by the movement of the snow as it sped up faster than me. I’d just made a big turn to slow down to get the shot. If at all possible it is essential that you stay on your feet, as your best chances of surviving are to ride out of it, out run it and cut to a safe area to the side.
For this reason it’s always important to know your exit plan in case of a slide.
We weren’t on a designated ski slope so we knew the risks and luckily had a helicopter circling above because we were filming.
About 200 meters down, a huge wave of snow came from behind me and I was suddenly flipped onto my front. At this point, I was very stressed. I knew I was going to get buried so my main concern was how deep I’d end up.
My thoughts just turned to staying on the surface but as soon as the second wave of snow hit me, there was nothing I could do. I was like a fly being flushed down the loo. Totally helpless.
I tried swimming backwards with my arms, and that worked for a bit, but once I was hit from behind with the second wave of snow I was completely out of control.
Tonnes of snow started to pile on top of me and I became buried underneath it all. I felt a huge weight on me at one point but this didn’t last long.
It felt chillingly comfortable, although I was horrified because I realised if it were to stop, I would’ve been encased in ice and very possibly several metres under the snow. I could’ve died being entombed under it all.
The force of the snow was incredibly powerful. I tried everything to battle with it though it had no effect whatsoever. I was trying to cover my mouth, but that made no difference and my mouth was jammed full of snow.
I know now that I’d been dragged into a dip in the mountain but the weight of the snow that was flowing behind me pushed me through it and I was taken inside a massive wave that blasted out over the edge.
My experience went from being under the snow feeling a massive amount of pressure and darkness to a moment later feeling weightless as I was thrown out. Then I continued on down the mountain for another few hundred meters inside a huge wave.
I knew I was now on the surface so I had a chance of survival. I was doing everything I could to keep myself above the snow but I was also trying to push it out from my throat so that I could get some air. It was hard not to panic.
The whole ordeal lasted about 40 seconds, but it felt so much longer.
I ended up sitting on the surface down near the bottom of the slope and luckily there was a good group of people there, who had rushed to help – a guide and some really experienced riders.
My friend had also been caught in the avalanche but he’d not been buried – he’d been flushed out to the side of the slide a few hundred metres above me.
When you go into the snow, you need to learn about the conditions and make sure you are properly equipped. I always ride with an ABS (Air Bag System) now – but that is the only bit of kit I didn’t have back then.
Essentials are a transceiver, shovel and probe. The former is a device that you wear strapped to your body that always sends out a signal. If someone in the group is trapped, then you all turn them on to search mode and it helps you find people.
You need to know which conditions are the most likely to avalanche and to avoid them. If you’re on a face that you think could release then check your exits, work out where the snow will go if it avalanches and where the safe zones are.
Sometimes – like in our case – it’s impossible to predict the unknown. It also goes without saying but once you’re on the face, always stay alert.
If you see the first sign of it breaking up, you’ll have only a split second to point it to that safe area. You should ride slopes one at a time, keep an eye out for the other riders when they set off, and question is it worth it – the feeling of a few great turns compared to being entombed in ice slowly dying of suffocation.
It’s hard to know whether riding the slope one at a time would’ve helped in my situation, but there was a very weak layer in the snow so it was always going to be touch and go for it breaking.
Once you’re caught in an avalanche there’s very little that you can do.
In hindsight, I’d say possibly your best bet to survive would be to try to conserve your energy. I’d been fighting it for so long that I was gasping for air at the bottom.
I was lucky that I was spat out and not buried. I think if I had been and had very little air to breathe, I would have died quickly.
I’ve always had a healthy fear of avalanches and now – more than ever – I remain very keen to stay safe in the mountains.
I’ve been lucky enough to experience many amazing things in life, surfing, cliff jumping, rides in helicopters, a Lamborghini on a race track but for me nothing beats the feeling of riding fresh powder.
I know the risk it entails but for me it’d be a tragedy never to do it again because of the chance of getting caught.
As told to Will Gray.
Johno Verity is a cameraman and producer for Indeed Productions. See his work on YouTube here and follow him on Instagram here.
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