What it feels like to be trapped in an avalanche

Tamara Hinson
·5-min read
 Johno Verity
Johno Verity

A series of avalanches has devastated Switzerland recently, leaving eight dead – including a British and an Irish national. In France, there has also been a number of fatalities, as local risk levels are increased following heavy snowfall.

Most people will never experience the terror of being caught in an avalanche, but professional snowboarder and photographer Johno Verity unfortunately did 13 years ago – and caught his terrifying experience on camera. He revealed to Telegraph Travel how it feels when the unthinkable happens:

“In 2008 I was in New Zealand, near Mount Cook. Ironically, I was there to film a piece about avalanches for a television series called Gethin Jones’ Danger Hunters. A huge storm had descended and we’d been stuck in the hotel for days. On the first blue-sky day, we jumped into the helicopter. We got to our spot and there were two entries into this run. I chose the more mellow one because I was filming, and the plan was that I’d ride down and film pro snowboarder Eric Themel as he jumped off a cliff. Everything felt fine, although the light was pretty flat, and our guide warned me about a terrain trap at the bottom – a kind of pit where the slope suddenly went upwards.

“I got going and built up speed pretty quickly, so I threw in a turn to slow down. Eric dropped off the cliff and landed 30 metres away, and at around the same time I noticed that there was a lot of snow in the air. I remember feeling annoyed, knowing it would make filming tricky. But I looked around and the whole slope was breaking up. Everything went from being smooth to having cracks in it. And because I’d lost my speed by turning, I couldn’t ride out of it. But the area which was moving was the size of a football field, so getting out of its path was impossible anyway.

“I knew I had to stay on top of the snow, but I’d been knocked down and couldn’t get up because I was moving with the snow. It felt like I was on a conveyor belt. I realised I was going to go into the pit my guide had mentioned, and I did. I got flipped onto my front and everything got heavier and darker. I experienced this bloodcurdling fear – I knew tonnes of snow were piling on top of me.

“But suddenly I was flying through the air. Because the snow was piling up, the weight of it pushed me down and over the lip. I landed, slid 200 metres down the mountain and came to a stop. The snow was in my nose and mouth, jammed down my throat. You’re told to cover your mouth and create an airhole in an avalanche, but in reality you’re lucky if you can move a finger. I’d tried to make an air hole but I was knackered from fighting to stay above the snow, and I’d desperately needed air.

“I didn’t go to the hospital, although it definitely affected me mentally. It was my closest near-death experience. But I went snowboarding the next day – getting back on that horse meant everything. I’d been a professional snowboarder for 12 years when this happened, and was pretty clued up about avalanches, so it didn’t really change my opinion of them. But it’s just mad how you can be having the best day of your life, then be so close to having the worst.”

What are the reasons for the recent avalanches in the Alps?

There are various theories, including the suspicion that when fewer ski lifts are operating, and skiers and snowboarders are keen to avoid crowds, more people are heading off-piste.

However avalanche expert Henry Schniewind, founder of Val d’Isère-based Henry’s Avalanche Talk, is keen to stress that the overriding factor, as ever, is heavy snowfall. “The main reason is the combination of new snowfall and unstable snow beneath, resulting in a weak layer,” says Henry. “With an unstable snowpack and fresh snow, anyone on a slope with a steepness of over 30 degrees is likely to trigger an avalanche. 90 per cent of those caught in avalanches trigger it themselves, and with fewer people on the mountain, snow compaction isn’t happening, so the snowpack is unstable.”

Avalanche safety | Top tips
Avalanche safety | Top tips

World-renowned avalanche expert Dr Jordy Hendrikx, director of Montana State University’s Snow and Avalanche Lab, points out that avalanches are often caused by the failure of deeper levels of snow too, and that even the most tracked-out slopes still pose a risk. “While ski compaction will impact surface snow, it does little to impact deeper weak layers, so slopes with tracks aren’t necessarily safer slopes,” warns Hendrikx. “If you hit the right (or wrong) spot, you could still trigger an avalanche.”

But there are concerns that skiers and snowboarders are being reckless and forgetting basic safety measures. In a recent interview with The Telegraph, legendary snowboarder Xavier de le Rue – a former world champion and survivor of an avalanche – shared his own warnings of the dangers of heading off piste.

“It really doesn’t take much. The mountains, especially in winter and especially in snow, are unpredictable and no matter your experience you can always get tricked,” he said.

“It’s really hard on a day when there’s powder, it’s sunny and you’re with your friends, to think about safety and to think that in a split second everything could turn and become the worst day of your life,” said Xavier.

“People should never think it’s the responsibility of the resort to keep them safe, even when they’re on freeride itinerary routes and when everything’s open and normal. It’s not a mindset you should have as a freerider,” he warned.

Johno Verity is director of photography at indeedproductions.com. His footage of the incident can be viewed here.