January 10, 2014 6:52 pm

Skiing in Alagna: a survivor’s first-hand account

Robin Kennedy, Ed Kingsbury and Bruce Torrey

From left to right: the writer, Ed Kingsbury and Bruce Torrey – cold but alive, waiting for an air ambulance after the avalanche

It’s just a little slide of snow. It’s moving slowly but seems surprisingly heavy. My knees are buckling under the pressure and now the whole slope seems to be moving . . . 

My love of skiing started as a child of six with family ski holidays in Europe. The Alps were my Narnia, magical mountains trapped in winter; the dangers hidden in the sun-kissed snow. I was quickly seduced and the spell would never be broken.

Before long, I was exploring off-piste, like a growing number of others relishing the chance to escape the resort crowds. The passion became increasingly consuming, and led me to ski on seven continents. Last February, I visited Alagna, a remote Italian village that I had read about in these pages.

It’s only small but this is definitely an avalanche and it’s pulling me in. I know I should try to ski out to the side. But I’ve got skins on my touring skis; my bindings are in walking mode. I can’t get out. I need to stay on top; that’s why I never use the wrist loops on my poles – so I can break free and start swimming . . . 

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IN Winter Sports

Anyone who has experienced the sensation of carving turns in fresh powder will understand why it is addictive. The exhilaration is often caught in the daft grins at the bottom of a particularly steep descent or the exaggerated stories that accompany après-ski drinks at the end of a day’s heliskiing. But the risks are real. 93 per cent of people dug out of avalanches within 15 minutes survive but thereafter your chances plummet. 73 per cent of deaths result from asphyxia and 24 per cent from trauma. Three cubic metres of snow weighs about a tonne.

It’s too late. I’ve been smacked from behind by a sprawling wave of snow; wrapped up within and dragged down. I’m choking on sharp, frozen shards; being jostled about as I try to bring my hands to my mouth to create an air pocket. Then suddenly, everything is quiet. It’s dark. I can’t move. I can’t breathe. I’m buried alive. Panic sets in and I try desperately to claw away the snow but I can hardly move my hands. My heart is beating fast. I remember instructions to dribble so I’ll know which way is up. But I already know which way’s up. I’m on my back and I can’t move. I can’t breathe. Is everyone else buried too? Is anyone going to find me? Is this it?

As my brain is starved of oxygen, my thoughts turn hazily to my family, abandoned love, business ventures half-cooked and opportunities wasted. I reason that, perhaps for me, this is the best way to go. If I make it out, I vow to start enjoying my life more, stop letting work absorb me completely, perhaps find a wife and settle down.

It had been the perfect morning: our group of five friends, led by a guide, enjoyed turn after turn in 30cm of untouched “pow” beneath deep blue skies. Halfway down the Balma valley we sighted a couloir above and decided we wanted to ski it. With our skins slapped back on to our skis for the climb towards it, the guide went first, safely crossing the slope. Tentatively, I had followed. A small amount of snow began sliding below me but then a huge slab fell away from above, scraping us down with it.

As if in a dream, I start to hear distant voices and the frantic digging away of snow above me. Light seeps slowly in till the sun pierces through. Hands are upon me. Fingers gouge snow from my mouth. I cough out blood-splattered flakes as shovels free me from my icy grave and I start to breathe normally. I’ll live to ski another day.

Two friends were also caught. Bruce had fought hard to stay on top and was located quickly with his hand sticking out, still visible above the snow line 20 metres down the slope. Further down still, I was buried over a metre below the surface. I was located after three or four minutes and retained consciousness. Ed had been directly behind me but fared much worse. He was swept past me, over a rocky ridge and engulfed two metres under for almost 12 minutes, losing consciousness and tearing the ligaments in his knee.

We survived, thanks to the transceivers we were wearing, the essential equipment we were carrying and the quick thinking, fast digging and reactions of the local guides and the two other friends in our group. The guide who helped dig out Ed said that in the 25 rescues that he had been involved in, Ed was only the fifth skier to emerge alive.

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