In an instant, success and elation change to turmoil and struggle. I fight, but my actions are useless. It feels like I’m being pulled through a vortex. Time stops, it’s silent. I wonder if this is maybe what the eye of a tornado feels like, yet at the same time, I know exactly what is happening—will the impact bring darkness and peace or a life-altering injury.
Hope mixes with fear and everything moves even slower. The impact never comes. I’m buried and the clock is ticking. I try to yell out but there is no sound, only snow.
By Chris Christie
April 16, 2013. Just four buddies with a plan to head into the mountains and hit a north-facing local classic. At the base, we observed some recent avalanche activity so Jimmy Martinello and I opted to ascend a long, steep couloir on a slightly different aspect where we could better manage the risk.
On our climb, we dug a few quick pits to check the snowpack and found nothing alarming. We kept climbing, with growing confidence, for a couple hours until we arrived at the exit and small rollover where a possible weakness in the snow pack usually exists. We bypassed that concern and gained the ridge towards the summit with high spirits.
And perhaps our guard was down. Jimmy had reached low-angle terrain, only a few metres from where we would transition from climb to ski. He walked ahead to get a shot of me exiting the couloir and that’s when our entire world shifted—just a little, but enough. Avalanche.
I see Jimmy dive onto his ice tool in an attempt to self-arrest as I lunge instinctively for my peripheral safe spot. I stumble, fall, and curse as the realization hits. The moraine is 1,800 feet below us and I’m about to go for what may be the last ride of my life.
Sliding headfirst and face down, I attempt to spin while reaching for my inflatable avalanche airbag system. I feel the trigger at my fingertips, but the accelerating chaos makes it impossible to pull. I realize I’m already suffocating, as the aerated snow in the slide’s core has sealed my airway. Everything is weightless, dreamlike.
How long has it been? I’m still moving, fast. Gravity pulls the slide down the path of least resistance and we – I assume Jimmy is with me somewhere – fly out of the couloir on a dogleg and are rocketed over the same cliffs we had climbed past just hours before. I’m certain it’s only a matter of time before I strike something.
“I’m still moving, fast. Gravity pulls the slide down the path of least resistance and we fly out of the couloir on a dogleg and are rocketed over the same cliffs we had climbed past just hours before. I’m certain it’s only a matter of time before I strike something.”
I feel a tremendous weight on my body and sense I am coming to a stop. I thrash, no concept of which way is up, and try to roll with the momentum—knowing this could be a defining moment. Darkness changes to light, and hope, as I struggle with every ounce of fading energy to maintain a reference to the light. I ignore the blackness.
As I come to a stop, I cover my mouth with one hand and punch up towards the sacred light. I am entombed in snow, but one arm is free! I’m able to dig the snow away from my face and try to take a breath. My airway is clogged with snow and ice.
Biting off my glove, I claw at the snow in my throat and try to yell out. The pressure and weight on my body prevents me from expanding my diaphragm. I claw more icy chunks from my airway and then, within a mere minute of terminating my slide, my friends are on me and clearing the compacted snow from my body.
“Where is Jimmy?” I call out, thinking about his family and kids at home. I begin to tremble when I hear his voice—he had also been swept off the mountain, but he is alive.
It takes time. Jon and Trevor assess our injuries. Jimmy has a sore neck, but we feel confident he can evacuate himself. I have a knee injury, but I can move. My eyes feel scratched from snow crystals that had packed under my eyelids in the slide. It takes time to regain our composure, and simultaneously, reality begins to sink in.
“I feel responsible for the decision making and angry at my intuition. Where were the alarm bells? What did we miss? Where did we go wrong? We looked for an obvious message, some golden bit of avalanche wisdom to pass along, but there wasn’t one.”
I feel responsible for the decision making and angry at my intuition. Where were the alarm bells? But mostly, I feel humbled and relieved. We are alive.
What did we miss? Where did we go wrong? Jimmy and I believe a simple change in aspect and a buried surface hoar layer on the summit ridge is what unravelled our plan, but we’ll never know for sure. We looked for an obvious message, some golden bit of avalanche wisdom to pass along, but there wasn’t one.
We all assume personal risk in the mountains and I always take into consideration healthy fear, intuition, patience and a solid knowledge of mountain travel when decision-making. The mountains are the real deal. With the steady influx of backcountry enthusiasts, there has never been a time when the pressure for fresh powder has been greater.
Arm yourself with knowledge and stay practiced in all aspects of mountain travel and rescue. As humbling as this accident was, the hope is that this personal account creates further discussions in safe mountain travel.
We want to hear from you. Are athletes, brands and media doing enough to promote avalanche safety? Let us know what you think here.
Find an avalanche education centre near you: