'I was buried alive during an avalanche in the Swiss Alps'
Peggy Harris relives her sobering lesson in the perils of avalanche season
Sunday 20 January 2008
Last March we went to the Valais region in Switzerland for a weekend ski tour. Ski-touring enables you to get to areas of the mountain where there are no ski lifts and so no crowds. Our plan was to spenda couple of days skiing up to the summit, then enjoy a beautiful descent in fab snow.
Three of us set off on Saturday morning – my husband and I and a friend. The conditions were strange; there was rain and wind, but the avalanche risk was only two out of five, so we thought that even with the tricky weather it was a good day to go out. I have more than a dozen years of mountain experience and my husband more than 20, so we know what we're doing.
By noon there was one last slope – a big rising traverse – to cross. A party of six were ahead, almost halfway over it. We decided to spread out a bit, leaving 30m between each of us – the theory being that if an avalanche did hit, it would take out only one of us. I checked my transceiver – a small gadget that emits a signal, so if someone goes under the snow, you can find them – and made sure I was all zipped up, because if you're not, the power of an avalanche can rip off your clothes.
I set off first, but halfway across I heard a big explosion that stopped me dead in my tracks. At first I thought it was a plane but then I looked up and saw a huge cloud of snow coming towards me. I realised it was an avalanche. I thought it was headed for my husband so I started shouting at him. He tried to warn our friend, but he was listening to his iPod and didn't hear.
When I turned and looked up again I realised a 100m wall of snow was coming towards me. The party in front had triggered a fracture line and the whole slope had gone. I stood there watching it, desperately trying to undo the waist-strap on my rucksack, when my legs were suddenly blown out from beneath me.
A lot of people are knocked out in the second they get hit, but I was conscious the whole time. I can only describe it as like being in a washing machine with some bags of half-set concrete. The pummelling you take is unreal. It just went on and on. I remember getting angry and thinking, "OK, you can stop now, I've had enough." I went hundreds of metres down a gully full of stones and jagged rocks.
Finally, I came to a stop. I was able to move my hands and thought, "Brilliant, I've survived." Then another round came and this time it threw me head over heels. You're meant to keep your hands in front of your face, but that's impossible. This time when it stopped I couldn't move; I was trapped. I had just enough time to realise it was probably the end. Then I blacked out.
It was thanks to a guy in the party ahead that I am alive. He used to practice a lot with his transceiver – so much so that his friends used to take the piss out of him. He knew exactly what to do. I was buried about 70cm deep and under for about 12 to 15 minutes. Usually when you're under for 15, you're a goner. Your lungs fill up with snow and you die of oxygen deprivation.
After they dug me out all I remember is having my cheeks slapped and saying "I'm so cold" over and over again. My husband said my legs were bent at strange angles. I think we waited for more than an hour for the rescue team. I kept passing out.
As soon as I saw the helicopter I relaxed and almost gave up. The rescuers shoved a chemical pad down my front, which started radiating an incredible heat, and then took me to intensive care.
One of my lungs was full of snow and the other was two-thirds full. Incredibly, I had only three bruises – each the size of a golf ball. I've had recurring nightmares about being crushed since.
I have been ski touring again, though. I went out one beautiful day a few weeks ago. The conditions were superb but, even so, my heart was in my mouth and it was impossible to forget that this time of year is avalanche season. I can't imagine life without skiing, especially this kind of skiing, but I do know that I'm incredibly lucky to still be here. *
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