Brushes with the White Death

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The Independent Online
"IT WAS LIKE being carried over a waterfall. I was just below the surface and when it came to a halt I could move my arms and was able to free my face. But that was all."

Sue Baldock's memory of the day she was engulfed in an avalanche in the French Pyrenees is as vivid now, 20 years on, as when it happened. She was one of a party of five British ski-mountaineers descending in poor visibility to a mountain refuge when there was a thunderous roar from above.

Avalanches are an accepted hazard for mountaineers. For all the care that is taken to keep off steep, unstable snow slopes or to avoid overhanging cornices, sooner or later bad luck or the necessity to take a chance in order to avoid a greater danger, such as sudden storm, will end in a brush with the "White Death".

One member of Mrs Baldock's party wrote of trying to swim with the stream - a textbook survival technique, but easier said than done. Another man died. He was buried deep with his head facing down, his rucksack on top of him.

For Tom Prentice, former editor of Climber magazine, an encounter with the "White Death" came in 1992 as he and a fellow mountaineer snuggled into sleeping bags during an attempt on Thalay Sagar in the Himalayas.

"Suddenly there was a whistling sound and the tent started flapping. Then, bam, everything started spinning round and round. We knew we were travelling fast downhill. I thought, 'I'm probably OK until we stop and then I'm going to be buried'."

The wreckage of the tent stayed on the surface. They unzipped what had become tangled nylon bags and tiptoed across the snow debris at 6,500m in their socks. Boots and gear had been lost. "I kept going until we got down off the mountain and then I burst into tears, just a great release of emotions," Mr Prentice said.

At least none of these survivors was caught in the kind of maelstrom that forces snow into its victim's mouth and lungs, causing rapid suffocation. Joe Simpson, the best-selling mountaineering author, came close to such a death as he was swept off Les Courtes, above Chamonix.

"Wet snow jetted up my nostrils, packed my mouth, pushed me down harder," he recalled in his book This Game of Ghosts. But as the pain in his chest mounted and he was about to lose consciousness, Mr Simpson hit a rock, the snow was jolted from his mouth and he could breath again.