ON A series of avalanches recently devastated Switzerland and left eight dead – including a British and an Irish citizen. There have also been a number of fatalities in France as local risk levels rise after heavy snowfall.
Most people will never experience the horror of an avalanche, but unfortunately professional snowboarder and photographer Johno Verity did 13 years ago – and captured his terrifying experience with the camera. He told Telegraph Travel what it feels like when the unthinkable happens:
“In 2008 I was in New Zealand, near Mount Cook. Ironically, I was there to do an article about avalanches for a television series called Gethin Jones’ Danger Hunters. A huge storm had come and we were stuck in the hotel for days. On the first day with blue skies, we jumped into the helicopter. We got to our place and there were two entries in this run. I went for the gentler one because I was filming and the plan was that I would go down and film professional snowboarder Eric Themel jumping off a cliff. Everything felt good, although the light was pretty flat and my guide warned me about a terrain trap on the ground – a kind of pit in which the slope suddenly went up.
“I got going and was building up speed pretty quickly, so I took a turn to slow down. Eric fell off the cliff and landed 30 meters away, and around the same time I noticed there was a lot of snow in the air. I remember being upset because I knew it was going to make filming difficult. But I looked around and the whole slope dissolved. Everything went from smooth to cracked. And because I lost my speed while turning, I couldn’t drive away. But the area that was moving was the size of a soccer field, so it was impossible to avoid him anyway.
“I knew I had to stay on the snow, but I had been thrown to the ground and couldn’t get up because I was moving with the snow. It felt like I was on an assembly line. I realized I was going to go into the pit my guide mentioned and I did. I was turned on my front and everything got heavier and darker. I experienced this terrible fear – I knew that there was tons of snow piling up on me.
“But suddenly I was flying through the air. As the snow piled up, the weight pushed me down and over my lip. I landed, slid 200 meters down the mountain, and came to a stop. The snow was in my nose and mouth, wedging my throat. You are told to cover your mouth and blow an air hole in an avalanche, but in reality you are lucky if you can move a finger. I tried to make an air hole, but I was tired of staying over the snow and I needed air badly.
“I didn’t go to the hospital, although it definitely affected me psychologically. It was my closest near-death experience. But the next day I went snowboarding – getting back on that horse meant everything. I was a professional snowboarder for 12 years when this happened and I knew quite a bit about avalanches, so that didn’t really change my mind about them. But it’s just crazy how you can have the best day of your life and then be so close to the worst. “
What are the reasons for the recent avalanches in the Alps?
There are several theories, including the suggestion that when there are fewer ski lifts in operation and skiers and snowboarders avoid the crowds, more people will be away from the slopes.
Avalanche expert Henry Schniewind, founder of Henry’s Avalanche Talk from Val d’Isère, emphasizes, however, that the overriding factor is still the heavy snowfall. “The main reason is the combination of fresh snow and unstable snow underneath, which results in a weak layer,” says Henry. “With unstable snow cover and fresh snow, anyone on a slope with a steepness of over 30 degrees is likely to trigger an avalanche. 90 percent of those who have experienced an avalanche trigger it themselves, and there are fewer people on the mountain, so there is no snow compaction, so the snowpack is unstable. ”
The world-famous avalanche expert Dr. Jordy Hendrikx, Director of the Snow and Avalanche Lab at Montana State University, points out that avalanches are often caused by the failure of deeper snow layers and that even the most heavily used slopes are still a risk. “While ski compaction affects the surface snow, it has little effect on deeper weak layers, so slopes with tracks are not necessarily safer slopes,” warns Hendrikx. “If you hit the right (or wrong) spot, you can still set off an avalanche.”
However, there are concerns that skiers and snowboarders are reckless and forget about basic safety precautions. In a recent interview with The Telegraph, legendary snowboarder Xavier de le Rue – a former world champion and avalanche survivor – shared his own warnings about the dangers off-piste.
“It really doesn’t take much. The mountains, especially in winter and especially in the snow, are unpredictable and regardless of your level of experience, you can always be tricked, ”he said.
“On a day when there’s powder, it’s sunny and you’re with your friends, it’s really hard to think about safety and think that in a split second everything could turn out to be the worst day of your life”, said Xavier.
“People should never think that it is the resort’s responsibility to protect them, even when they are on freeride routes and everything is open and normal. You shouldn’t necessarily have that as a freerider, ”he warned.
Johno Verity is Director of Photography at Indeedproductions.com. His footage of the incident can be viewed here.