What It Feels Like To: Survive an Avalanche

Ever feel like you've been encased in concrete?

January 11, 2019

By Clarke Ross / Photo: Daniel Stewart

I’m the youngest of three kids and we were a skiing family, which means I was on skis by the time I was five, which was back in the early 1980s.

A few years ago I had a job whose perks included occasionally getting invited on pricey business boondoggles, which is how I found myself enjoying a day of cat skiing just outside Golden, B.C.

When you’re cat skiing, you ski in a group. A guide goes first, then the guests. Then another guide—the tail gunner—goes last.

We were near the end of the day and had been mostly skiing in the trees because the avalanche risk was high, but by the end of the run the trees had thinned out and there was only a series of chutes in front of us. The front guide went first and it was fine, and a bunch of other skiers followed after him. When it was my turn to go, I heard the skiers yelling at me to “go left,” so I took a neighbouring chute that was only 25 feet away.

I dropped in, and I very clearly remember thinking that it looked like just about the most perfect run I had ever seen.

And then all hell broke loose.

I took two turns, and immediately the ground was moving below me, throwing me instantly off balance. People always say you’re supposed to try to swim out of the snow and I may have tried to do that, but all I remember was pure panic.

The closest thing I can compare it to is the disorienting effect you get when a wave slams you when you’re surfing and you’re tossed around and have no idea which way is up—except it lasts a lot longer.

After I came to the rest, only the top of my head and my right hand were sticking out, which was extremely fortunate. The tail gunner was there almost immediately. The speed of the snow actually melts it a bit as it’s moving, and then it comes to a stop with such force that it truly is like being encased in concrete. When you hear about people being able to dig an air holethat wasn’t what I was dealing with. I literally couldn’t move a muscle.

I took two turns, and immediately the ground was moving below me, throwing me instantly off balance.

My group started to use their hands and shovels to dig me out. It took about two minutes and even when my body was 95 percent clear, I still couldn’t move my arm at all because the snow was a solid mass.

I think I was in shock, but I remember someone asking me if I could ski down on my own and I said yes. I recall not being able to click my left heel into my binding, so one of the guides clicked it in for me. It turns out the reason I couldn’t apply any downward pressure is that the fall had completely severed my Achilles tendon. It evidently just rolls up like a blind when it’s cut like this. But I was so full of adrenalin, I actually skied down to the cat with it, which, in retrospect, was a very bad idea.

I actually thought I was going to ski the next day, but when I woke up and couldn’t walk down the stairs, I knew something wasn’t right.

I ultimately had my leg in a hard cast for three months and a walking cast for a few months after that.

As soon as I got the cast off, I was back to skiing—I just love it too much to let the freak accident keep me away. I take my son up to Whistler every Saturday and last year for my 40th birthday I went heli-skiing with some friends. I still think about the avalanche when I’m in the backcountry and look up at a massive cornice of snow—but then I think about how much I love skiing powder and how great it is to avoid the lift lines, and the feeling of fear goes away. 

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