We hear a lot about people dying in big avalanches after venturing out of bounds and taking unnecessary risks, so I’ve always tried to be hyper vigilant in that type of terrain and have luckily never had to deal with a life threatening situation.
I religiously carry an avalanche transceiver and rescue kit, only ski with partners that have the same, regularly renew my emergency training and take a methodical approach to route and contingency planning. I’d consider myself experienced in backcountry terrain, tempered by a healthy respect of what can go wrong and how to deal with it.
So, it’s with a large dose of humble pie that I want to share the closest experience I’ve had to dying while skiing – on a green run, in-bounds at one of Japan’s most regulated resorts, Naeba.
Naeba is a surreal mountain that has a huge kilometre long Prince Hotel at its base, largely frequented by Japanese and Chinese families attracted to the high quality infrastructure and extensive beginner slopes at the front door. We arrived in the middle of a huge blizzard to find that only the lowest lifts with access to these green runs were operating.
The morning ended up being much more fun than we expected, with a few pockets of powder under the lift towers to track out while the weather kept the crowds at bay. The best lap we’d found involved traversing across a flat cat track and dropping through about 20m of trees onto the green piste below. Knowing that we’d be in bounds all day we were skiing without any avalanche safety gear.
My ski partners were slightly in front of me and I yelled “I’m just dropping in here” as I cut right into the small stand of trees while they skied ahead through a parallel glade. I was going very slowly off the cat track and about 4m into the glade caught my right ski tip under a branch. While my ski stopped dead, the inertia of 90kg of middle aged man kept moving forward and I went head over heels, face first into the snow in what seemed like slow motion.
My right ski was still jammed tight under the branch and my biggest fear at that point was the weird angle my foot was at, so my focus switched to jiggling my ski around to get it free. What I hadn’t paid much attention to was that I’d fallen on the cusp of a reasonably steep drop off into the forest below. As I wriggled to get my ski free, my body ended up being naturally sucked closer to the edge of the slope, so that by the time the ski did pop free I was started sliding head first down the hill.
All of this was still in slow motion and I was more worried about being embarrassed if someone cruised past of the cat track and saw this old dork stuck in the snow. As I started sliding down the embankment I quickly realised embarrassment was the least of my problems as I ploughed head first with 60cm of fresh powder snow piling in on top of me. My ski poles were ripped out of my hands as I picked up speed and my survival instinct kicked in.
With so much snow collapsing around me I luckily remembered what I’d told my kids a few days earlier if they fell over in deep snow themselves. “Get your hands to your face and try and dig an air pocket so you can breathe!” This was easier said than done whilst sliding down hill and simultaneously trying to slow myself down. As soon as you start breathing in snow the sense of suffocation starts to hit and panic sets in.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see I was sliding close to a small tree trunk, so all my effort shifted to grabbing onto that and stopping myself sliding further. By this stage I figured I’d probably slid about two body lengths down the slope – just enough to be out of view of the cat track. If I couldn’t self extract, then I’d be relying on someone seeing my skis sticking out to come and rescue me – as happened to this woman in Jackson Hole the day before.
Grabbing the tree worked to stop me sliding further, but I could still feel all the snow from above piling in on top of me and the view through my goggles suddenly went dark blue. Was I now 10cm or 1m under the snow? Holding the tree with my left hand, I managed to get my right hand to my face and dig the snow away enough to keep breathing. This was the most terrifying point of the experience, as I had the sensation of suffocating with no sense of how deep I was or how much more snow might collapse on top of me.
From pure instinct I tried to yell “Help”, immediately realising how muffled and useless it was to even attempt. My little emergency whistle was attached to my jacket zip, but that was pinned underneath my full body weight with no way to get to it. In stopping on the tree, I also realised that I now had 2 skis wedged into the snow above me while I was hanging head first down the slope.
The threat of more snow collapsing onto me seemed to have subsided, so I used all my remaining strength to jiggle the skis out from above me and get into a sitting position right side up. The thought of unclipping my bindings flashed through my head, but I quickly realised if I couldn’t get them on again I’d be stuck in chest deep snow with no way to get back to the run. It was only at that point the seriousness of what had happened hit me – things could have easily gone a slightly different way and I’d be stuck upside down 10m from a cat track suffocating.
I took a good few minutes to catch my breath and bring my heart rate down, texted my ski buddies to let them know where I was and then switched focus to finding my ski poles. While there was 60cm of fresh snow, this was on top of 40cm from the day before and another 50cm the day before that. As soon as you try and climb up hill in that kind of snow you’re just sinking deeper and deeper, so after five futile minutes of trying I realised my best best was to ski out, catch the lift back up and try and find them from above. It took another 15 minutes of digging to finally find both expensive ski poles within a 5m radius.
This experience was a huge reality check for someone that considers themselves experienced and capable. In a split second, what seemed like a two turn zip between a cat track and a green piste cascaded into a potentially fatal scenario. The things that saved me were good luck, not panicking too much in the heat of the moment, focusing on being able to keep breathing and having the physical strength to free my skis and self extract. Things might have been very different for someone smaller.
The only thing that would have helped in this scenario was having a ski buddy above me who could see what happened and could ski down to assist. If they’d been spotting from below there would have been nothing they could do other than ski off to get help.
The main lesson is that deep snow is potentially fatal no matter where it is, so ski accordingly and follow the same backcountry safety practices as you would whether it’s 10m or 10km from the nearest piste.