The Silence of Avalanches

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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.

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4 responses »

  1. This makes my stomach hurt just thinking about it. As sledders, we’re backcountry ALL. THE. TIME! Now that my husband is old (don’t tell him I said that) he’s settled down and doesn’t ride the crazy stuff anymore, and he’s never been caught in an avalanche, but out here, that’s just dumb luck. We haven’t had many avalanches this year – because it still so friggin cold! – but last year was epic. Several riders were caught in them and I hate hearing it on the news.
    I don’t think I could read the book – talk about a horror novel.
    Jen

  2. Egads. I just glanced at the first line of this post and couldn’t stop myself from reading on. You write about this subject so evocatively that I just have to say, thanks for the sudden attack of claustrophobia, Kim! 🙂 Seriously, though, I’m glad someone knowledgeable about avalanches is talking about it, as I hear more and more stories about backcountry skiers going through this horrific experience. I heard a recent NPR interview with a backcountry snowboarder here in Colorado who survived against the odds. He had one of those inflatable safety devices, but no time to deploy it, and was just lucky to land sideways near the top, with a pocket of air around his face. He has two kids – another good reason to keep sharing information that may save lives.

  3. Another great post. Maybe I’ve missed a post with your opinion, but do you agree with the new state law to make skiing out of bounds against the law? (I think I hear the Gov signed it into law.) I’m not sure where I stand on that one. Ha, I obsess about earthquakes in our region since we’re overdue for catastrophic events. Now what avalanches that would trigger!

    • Jill,
      Thanks for the reminder. I’ve been meaning to post about that new legislation. Coming soon. Once, during an earthquake I was skiing in the backcountry near Crystal. Since I was skiing powder, I didn’t feel the earth shake, but my skiing partner felt it and started yelling at me to get out of the way. We both assumed the quake would have shaken loose some avalanches–and I was in a very exposed chute–but nothing happened. We just happened to be in the middle of a very stable cycle.

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