By Sky Schwartz. January 28th 2020.
Back country skiing
I really enjoy off piste back country skiing and have done it in a number of Alpine ski resorts. In previous years my father has hired a ski guide to take my brothers, my friends and myself on backcountry day trips. Last year we wanted to start exploring more off piste routes alone and so we bought our own avalanche transceivers, spades and probes so that we were properly equipped to self-guide ourselves. As I have completed my A Levels and worked the end of last year my friend and I decided to spend the first eight weeks of 2020 skiing in the Trois Vallee area based in Les Menuires.
It saved my life
Just before we left the UK my friend and I both bought self-inflating avalanche airbag haversacks. These are super expensive in absolute cash terms, but the investment has turned out to be worth every pound because on January 28th it saved my life.
Buying an avalanche airbag
We bought ours on the Facewest ecommerce site and discussed the different products with a very helpful person from their sales team. I already own an Ortovox 35L climbing haversacks and really like all their design features so felt good in buying the Ortovox Free Rider 22 Avabag (2.44kg) in the Yellow Stone colour.
I accepted that all the inflations systems from the different brands are trustworthy and so I also wanted a pack that was robust, had space for a spade, probe and any extra clothing but was as a light as possible.
The exhilaration of off piste
My father has been the one that has taken us off piste from a younger age, navigating through rock faces, skiing down all the pylons of the lifts, jumping over avalanche barriers and finding any areas of untouched snow to carve turn after turn.
In spite of this adventurous spirit he kept on at me to wear the Ortovox every day and always turn on my Barryvox avalanche transmitter even when we have gone out for a day skiing down the pistes. His point is that we all never know when we will go off piste during a day and never know when an avalanche could happen, even in what look like the safest conditions.
New snow arrives
There had been no new snow since we arrived on January 5th when it started to snow on January 25th solidly for two and a half days creating about fifty centimetres of fresh powdery perfect snow.
It stopped snowing on January 28th and my friend, my brother and I set off from Les Menuires to get to the top of the 2804m mountain Point de la Masse where a long mountain ridge extends from it with wonderful off piste slopes flowing down the Vallon Du Lou. We got to the top on the first lift of the day and traversed from the mountain top along the side of the ridge keeping as high as possible.
Then we skied down carving turn after turn into the fresh powder snow. We are always very careful to never ski one above each other, always set off one at a time to keep an eye on each other and leaving a large gap between each skier.
It was such fun that we took the lifts up and skied down two more times, carefully using the same tracks to traverse as these had already proven safe and were as high as possible.
An avalanche catches me
As I turned to ski down the pristine slopes for the fourth time, I suddenly felt the snow beneath me move and I was thrown onto my back. My immediate reaction was to try and stand up, but I quickly realised I could not get up nor could I ski. Lying on my back I waited for a second to gauge the depth of the avalanche and whether it would continue to move. It was clearly serious and dangerous as it started to drag me under. I was now right in the middle of the avalanche as it headed down the mountain, and this was really a bad place to be. Instantly, with the snow starting to cover me I pulled the handle that was poking out of the special pocket on the Ortovox haversack left shoulder strap. My first pull was a soft tug and slightly to my horror nothing happened, so then I yanked it hard and I then felt the canister go off, rapidly inflating the bag. Over the previous weeks I had been really concerned that the exposed handle would catch on a ski lift or the ground if I fell over causing an accidental inflation of the bag. As a result, I had kept the handle semi zipped up with just the end T piece sticking out. I suspect now I was being over cautious because the system clearly requires a strong tug to activate the inflation system, but that was not obvious beforehand.
Saved by my avalanche airbag
My situation completely changed the moment I inflated the bag because I was literally taken up out of the avalanche snow that was covering me and onto the surface. I did not have to try and swim my way out which I had always heard was the only way to save oneself but felt impossible to do as I was dragged along and down with my boots still attached to my skis. To my surprise the inflated bag quickly slowed me down so that I was no longer being dragged down the mountainside by the avalanche and stopped moving all together.
My brother, who had been traversing behind me along the ridge and had not been caught by the avalanche, instantly skied down beside the avalanche in line with me as I was dragged in the snow. His wanted to be ready to ski straight to his last sighting of me with his Barry Vox transmitter and avalanche probe as soon as the avalanche stopped.
Incredibly, because of way the bag lifted me on top of the snow, I literally stood up and skied immediately off the avalanche area.
In my mind I wanted to immediately assess if my brother or friend had been also caught up and be ready to conduct a search. As it happened, they were both safe and we joined up together and skied down the valley to a lift. When we stopped a mountain ski guide came up to me and showed me how to depress a button to deflate the bag and fold it away in the correct way. It is worth mentioning now that we discovered afterwards that it is worth having a back-up cylinder, because we only found one shop across the whole Trois Vallees who could recharge my deployed one which was rather a shock. Also a clear instruction panel is needed by the cylinder connector showing clearly how to reset the special pin in the avalanche bag before screwing in the new cylinder.
Our avalanche statistics
Later that day, my brother and my friend and I calculated that the avalanche was about thirty meters wide and about one hundred meters long and went about one hundred meters down the mountain before coming to a stop. In terms of my experience I reckon I was swept down about ten meters while I was realising what was happening to me. Then I was dragged a for another five meters as I tried to stand back up, then another five meters as I worked out I had to really tug the handle and finally I probably floated down another twenty meters with the bag inflated, though the avalanche kept going down the mountain when I eventually stopped moving.
Reflecting back on the experience
As I look back at the experience, I felt totally helpless and powerless while in the avalanche. I literally could do nothing and had no control of what was happening to me at all. Before deploying the avalanche airbag I am comfortable to say it was very frightening, but on deploying it, and being lifted out of the snow and on top of it, I felt so much better and confident I was going to be safe. To then just stand up and be able to ski straight away was sort of unreal.
There are a number of learnings that we have taken away from the experience. Of course the first is to be disciplined to wear the avalanche haversack and have the handle ready to deploy all the time, because I can pre plan which days I will be on or off piste because opportunities arise across every day, even if there has been no recent new snow. It was also salutary to be caught in an avalanche on a traverse that we had already skied three times before that morning because it proves you cannot predict what is going to be safe or not. Thinking back we remember that the sun had started to appear the fourth run and it had become warmer over the morning, but it has demonstrated to us that we cannot rely on the fact that there are well worn tracks in the snow to indicate the route is safe and free from avalanche.
In conclusion for me, as I have learnt that it is very hard, perhaps impossible, to know when an avalanche may occur even if one thinks it is possible to read the situation. It is vital that all skiers in a group systematically wear and turn on the avalanche transceiver because over a day one skis on and off piste sometimes in an unplanned way. The experience of actually being caught up in the snow and force of an avalanche has made me totally convinced that an avalanche airbag is a lifesaving piece of kit, and though they are costly, they are a small price to pay to save your life.