In the opening pages of the novel The Silent Land, by Graham Joyce, Jake and Zoe are caught in an avalanche in the fictional town of Saint-Bernard-en-Haut. They’ve come to the Pyrenees resort to ski, finding themselves at the top of the pistes alone; they’ve beaten the holiday crowds. The two head down into the powder. They are halfway down when the avalanche hits them. The scene is horrifying. As Zoe fights the panic rising in her body, continually telling herself to calm down, calm down, she methodically begins moving every muscle in her body, trying to find air pockets and scratching at the snow above her head. The loosened snow doesn’t fall onto her head, because, she imagines, there isn’t enough room for it to fall. Then it hits her. The snow isn’t falling because she’s upside down. Her head is buried six feet under.
She hyperventilates for a while, battling between the two sides of herself–one that wants to give in to the panic, the other that realizes her only chance of survival is to conserve the small amount of oxygen left. Eventually she succumbs.
For anyone who has ever wondered what it’s like to get buried in an avalanche, read this book and find out. It’s horrible.
I’ve been caught in a few avalanches, and I’ve willingly jumped into a tiny snow cave and been fully buried in order for my avalanche dog to find me. I agree with Zoe about the panic. Once it starts, it’s almost impossible to stop. First the avalanche tumbles and swallows its victim. One must swim and fight hard to stay on top of the snow. Then, once the snow solidifies, the trick is to calm down and conserve oxygen.
According to NWAC, four victims were buried and killed in avalanches in Washington State this year. These fatalities all occurred in the backcountry, outside of ski area boundaries. At Crystal, we experienced the most severe avalanche cycle seen in decades. According to Ty Anderson, who started patrolling at Crystal in the early years, it was the worst he’d ever seen.
With more backcountry users than ever, I fear that avalanche fatalities will rise unless we arm ourselves with proper equipment and, most importantly, knowledge. For those that venture into avalanche terrain repeatedly, it is easy to assume that the slopes won’t slide. When snow sparkles, swallowing all sound and reflecting a purity found only in the mountains, it’s almost impossible to consider the worst–that the whole thing could turn dark and ugly and horrific.
So I suppose I’m heartened to read about an avalanche burial in a novel with a review in the New York Times. Perhaps that means this particular danger is entering the collective mind of our culture, that it is finally registering. Or maybe I’m reaching too far here.
Skiing powder has been one of the greatest joys of my life. I recommend it highly. But I also know the risks. To pretend that I, too, would never find myself upside in a snow tomb like Zoe is just hubris. Instead, I think about it constantly, even obsess over it at times, perhaps hoping that by being prepared for the splitting slab, I will somehow forestall that particular outcome.