A Personal Account & The Lessons Learned From Surviving An Avalanche By Roger Pierce

 

 

Mid February 2012 saw some fantastic skiing conditions in the French Alps. Fresh snow, cold weather and blue skies. Our small group set out from Linga on a perfect morning and following two descents and a short hike, we were stood at the top of what I thought would be another great ride. Unfortunately, that wasn't quite how things worked out. We set off along the ridge at first then gradually, started descending through perfect untouched powder. Shortly after staring down, something didn't feel quite right.
Hard to explain but suddenly I was very uneasy. This was a straightforward route, one I'd completed many times previously. I halted pretty much immediately and indicated to the others to do likewise. We were stood in what I felt was a relatively safe spot and I asked the guys to stay put. At this point, I have to admit that it occurred to me to retrace our tracks on foot to the ridge and find another way down. This would have been a real pain but not impossible. Instead, I decided to descend first to check the slope below. Once down I would indicate to the others which route to follow. This turned out to be a big error of judgement!
I was aware that the slope steepened and that there were some cliffs and gullies below me. I had passed through these on previous descents and on this particular day, despite my unease, I was attracted to do so again with such great conditions. I suppose you would say I was looking for trouble but I figured that I would take a look....maybe....and if I didn't fancy it I could always pull out right to easier slopes. In any case I would direct the others down in this way.
Somewhat nervously, I set off skiing quite quickly with open turns to avoid overly loading the snowpack. As soon as the slope steepened I heard the crack. I looked to my right and saw the slab, maybe 12 inches deep, moving away from the rest of the slope. I was stood just left of Centre and clearly remember saying to myself "oh ****, try and stay on your feet". I'd rehearsed mentally for this moment plenty of times and the game plan was normally to go straight. Unfortunately the plan didn't allow for dangerous ground below but this was where I found myself, still upright on my skis but going frighteningly fast on a large slab of moving snow that was now starting to crumple around me.
Things were happening very quickly but I was in absolutely no doubt as to how serious the situation was. If I tried to stop I would just be engulfed by the avalanche and carried or dragged through the cliffs and gullies. If I managed to stay on my feet I would basically be launched into mid air at high speed and who knows what would follow.
I was fast entering a narrowing gully, amazingly still standing and very close to the left edge of the moving snow. I think I saw a split second opportunity to break left to higher ground and hopefully deceleration. I guess it was the only option open. Apart from the fact that I did try to do this, I'm not truly sure what happened next. I remember seeing a tree, or maybe just a tree trunk and I remember the sickening impact as I hit it. I have described the next bit as having the impression of a dimmer switch turning a light off,  lights going out. Next thing I knew I was falling and tumbling.
What follows is the brief, unedited description of events that I wrote in hospital the day after the accident and at the request of a member of staff. It's pretty brief and I'm not sure how accurate as I couldn't really be bothered but it describes some of the events as I still remember them...

...I remember very clearly moving fast, in a head first prone position, submerged in the snow below the cliffs and fighting for the surface. I recall thinking "I'm wearing my transceiver, the lads have the kit to find me and dig me out". In fact the plastic case of the transceiver, (an ARVA), was badly smashed, presumably in the collision with the tree and was possibly what broke my ribs however, it's testament to the construction of the unit that it was still transmitting perfectly when checked several days later.
I also remember knowing with total certainty which way it was to the surface. My son Zac suggested that this was perhaps a skill gained from spending countless hours surfing and learning to deal with the washing machine effect in biggish waves and finding your way back to the surface when screaming for air. A good theory and maybe combined with some basic instincts (which I will return to later) what ultimately enabled me to get out.
I knew exactly which way to go and the feeling of the snow compacting around me as the avalanche came to a halt was worrying and terrifying so i got on with digging or maybe "doggy paddling" my way furiously upwards would be a better description. I'm a bit claustrophobic at the best of times and I wasn't planning on hanging around a second longer than necessary.
Shortly before surfacing I saw a bright light up and just left of me and followed it to the top. Was this the sun shining through the snowpack or something else? Whatever it was seconds later my head popped out into bright sunlight and I was struggling to breathe like a fish out of water.
Certainly, the temperature of between 15 and 20 degrees below zero and the cold powdery snow that enabled me to use my arms and move around were key factors in surviving the accident.
One thing that definitely contributed to my escape was not wearing the straps around my wrists on the ski poles. A habit I have got into when skiing off piste or amongst trees and one I will continue to encourage. I had full use of my arms and was able to dig for my life once I sensed I had stopped moving. Without the ability to do this its anyone's guess how long I could have remained under the snow.
Back on the surface and struggling to breathe, barely able to move, getting covered again by a further snow slide from above and subsequently being helped to a small cafe and a rendez-vous with the pisteurs was a painful and scary experience. The lads were great with Zac and David making their way around the steep terrain and skiing on to alert the ski patrol. Trefor somehow managed to find both my skis in the avalanche debris and gave me the choice of either waiting for a helicopter or trying to get to civilisation under my own steam. As the slopes above us were obviously unstable, we decided to try and move asap. With great difficulty, a lot of help and a few telling offs from Tref (for announcing I was going to have a bit of a sleep) we managed to traverse maybe a mile back to the piste together. Very soon the pisteurs arrived and did a fantastic job of looking after me. After a short ride in a sledge I was in a helicopter and off to the clinic in La Chappelle. Several x rays later and with an uncertain number of broken ribs diagnosed, it was an ambulance ride to hospital in Thonon for further checks and observation...


So, what lessons have I learnt?

Well firstly I'm not qualified to go into analysing what happened to the snowpack but clearly it had become dangerously unstable. On the day the Avalanche risk was not high but it was not that low either. Pisteurs, instructors and locals all agreed I had been extremely unlucky but there is always a risk....Always!
Don't ignore inner feelings that you may experience. I never really wanted to be on that slope but somehow ended up there. If something tells you its wrong there is plenty more mountain out there to ski and always another day.
Never, ever be afraid to turn back if the opportunity exists. This is the big one for me. I knew we could walk back out but also that it would spoil the morning. I didn't want to do this and I didn't want to be the bearer of bad news to the others. We could have all been caught up and badly injured or worse.
When I was genuinely concerned about the situation, I still went looking for excitement in the more dangerous terrain. Why? I don't know but total madness! If you are concerned, worried or unsure, try and escape by the safest option.
Consider not wearing wrist straps when skiing off piste. I'm convinced this saved my life.
Wear a helmet. Fortunately I was doing so on the day, but I don't always. I hit that tree very hard, fell a considerable distance and then was carried along in the avalanche a short distance. Anyone of those could have been fatal without a helmet.
How many times have you heard it, but when off piste, transceivers, shovels and probes are the minimum plus a mobile phone. Also consider refusing to ski off piste with those who are not carrying these essentials as they may well end up becoming a liability themselves or unable to assist in an emergency situation. Finally, on equipment, Air Bags. Seriously consider wearing one. Almost everyone I have spoken to on the subject has posed the question "but in an avalanche, do you really think you'd have time to pull the trigger?" In my case, I'm one hundred percent certain I would have been able to do so. No doubts in my mind. No question I could have pulled it when the slab broke initially. I also believe I'd have been able to do so after the fall when I was being carried by the avalanche. I wasn't panicking and flailing wildly...no way, I was totally focused on survival thinking clearly and logically about my actions and my equipment and I was using my arms effectively. So, why not be able to pull it? I'm not stating that every situation is identical but for me it's a "yes" and let's finance it,  if you were about to collide with a tree, fall and tumble through steep terrain and cliffs and finally, be caught under fast moving snow, who wouldn't prefer two big inflatable cushions wrapped around them? Please have a serious think about it.
Don't ski off pistes alone. I admit I have done so many times but there is no way I could have recovered my skis, got them back on my feet and made my way to safety without Trefor there to help. I remember just wanting to curl up and sleep.
Put the others in your party before yourself. The hardest thing for me to deal with in the aftermath were not the injuries or the pain but the words "we could have all been killed" replaying themselves over and over in my head...particularly whilst lying awake at night. Considering that the group that day consisted of myself, my teenage son Zac, my brother in law Trefor and good friend David, that simple statement holds a very personal, powerful and ultimately terrifying message.
When chasing excitement or adrenaline rushes, try and have a thought for family and friends. I'm well aware that I take risks in certain activities that I pursue and I try hard to always manage these risks. But is that really any excuse? It's a bit like a delicate balancing act for me. Despite growing older and less fond of pain, I still crave the thrill of uncertainty and danger. But at the same time I love my family dearly and know that I worry them all. It's totally selfish and I've no real explanation apart from not being able to help myself. Really its inexcusable and unfortunately, this wasn't the first time my family had received news that I'd been involved in a serious skiing accident. I must apologise to them all and thank them for their endless, support, help and understanding.
With hindsight, I had a very lucky escape from an extremely dangerous situation and one that could have killed or seriously injured me in a number of different ways. I didn't trust my senses, made a bad call to continue when I felt uneasy and an even worse one in the route I attempted. As events unfolded, I believe I made key snap decisions and took the best options available to me. Pure luck got me through the middle bit and in the end, my survival instincts and physical condition got me out of there. Apart from damaging about 8 ribs, (some of which were badly broken but miraculously didn't puncture my lungs or cause further complications) and a few bumps and bruises I was physically okay. Mentally, very shaken, badly upset, huge emotions of guilt, a little bit wiser and extremely frustrated at not being able to finish the season off or to paddle a surf board. This is still a slight issue at times but my ribs are pretty much okay now and I did get to ski again at the end of the season with even a few gentle off piste excursions during the late spring.
I hope reading this will make people think a little. Most importantly, make people hesitate for a moment before saying "let's go, it'll be alright". Most of us have done it at some point, let's face it! Most importantly, never be afraid to trust our natural intuition, and never be afraid to say "no" and to turn back. Our basic instincts have evolved for good reason over many many years and generally they serve us well. That February morning I overruled mine with serious consequences. Fortunately for me they didn't desert me but eventually I believe saved my life. I listen to them far more now!


Thanks for reading. Have a great season and ride safely.

 

 

 

 

 

- for some more tips on safety on and off the piste - click here.