What is it like to be caught in an Avalanche?

by Mike Meysner Jan/2009
This article has been read 7,178 times

Samuel Meysner then 16, was skiing off piste with two friends, when they set off an avalanche. Samuel (an expert skier) managed to stay on top of it, but one of his friends was buried for 20 minutes. He was very luckily rescued and got away with 2 days in hospital and a broken ski pole.

Badly shaken, Samuel was unable to talk about it for a long time. Recently he agreed to an interview about the event with 'Izzy' for a local school project.

He has kindly sent the interview to UKClimbing.com.

The story is a sharp reminder of the dangers of powder snow, even when close to the piste and crowds.

Avalanche Argentiere Chamonix (spot the people), 208 kb
Avalanche Argentiere Chamonix (spot the people)
© john tuck, Mar 2005

Winter Essentials DVD cover, 32 kb
Izzy: Where were you skiing?

Samuel: I was skiing with two friends in Lenk, Switzerland after a normal snow fall (about 30cm new snow). We'd already been a bit off piste and we were traversing underneath the chair lift to see what was round the corner. Because lots of tracks went that way (lots!), we weren't too scared about an avalanche risk.

Izzy: How did you start the avalanche?

Samuel: We were traversing a slanted slope underneath a chair lift following lots of recent tracks, and I had a little too much speed so like usual I went slightly above the other tracks in the powder to slow me down and then there was a big bang and a loud crack before the snow started to give way beneath my skis.

Izzy: How did you get out of it?

Samuel: As soon as I heard the bang my instinct reaction was to get away, I don't know what I did but then I was skiing down the slope on top of the avalanche. I recalled someone saying "if you can't outrun an avalanche, you have to move out of its way" so that is what I tried to do (easier said than done when you're going about 60km/h down a bashed-up slope on an avalanche) I skied to the side until it felt like safe ground and I had trouble stopping but when I did I turned around and saw only one of my friends, Anatol, was waist-deep in snow.

Izzy: What was it like for your friends?

Samuel: Another friend, Florian, wasn't so lucky and got completely buried under the snow. He was skiing. Both him and the boarder were behind me so when the avalanche swept them away; they managed to swim on top of it next to each other until just before the avalanche came to a stop, the skier got pulled down under the snow. My friend heard him shout help so he knew the rough direction where he was buried. The Rega [Ed: The Swiss helicopter rescue service] and the mountain team had helped Anatol out and they had starting looking for Florian by the time I arrived. They had taken out their avalanche poles and started poking around. We had to form a row and poke up the slope and then back down until after 19 minutes someone felt him under the snow. The Rega men then took over completely and shovelled 1.5m down to him! He was completely unconscious and frozen with snow all over him. He was helicoptered off the mountain and taken to a hospital in Lausanne. He can only remember the bang of the avalanche and hearing Anatol shout that you have to try and swim on the moving snow to stay above it.

Izzy: Where were you skiing or boarding? Were you on the piste?

Samuel: Florian and I were skiing and Anatol was boarding. We were about 80m away from the piste.

Izzy: Was there any warning before you went up the mountain?

Samuel: We had looked at the avalanche risk which was a 3 to 4. We were wary to go off piste the first time but since everyone was doing it, we were sure it was not a problem.

Izzy: What effects did it cause to the mountain?

Samuel: The Ski station had to clear up our mess with the press and the police etc... But otherwise nothing apart from the fact that the section were the avalanche occurred was blocked off so no one could ski there.

Izzy: What did it sound like?

Samuel: At first a very loud and scary bang, then came a long crack before the snow gave away.

7am wakey wakey; an avalanche drops in on Chopicalqui, Peru, 101 kb
7am wakey wakey; an avalanche drops in on Chopicalqui, Peru
© ScottMackenzie, Jul 2008

Izzy: How did you feel during and after the avalanche?

Samuel: When I stopped and turned around I didn't really understand what had happened and where Florian was, but then I heard Anatol shouting and I understood. It was hard not to panic especially when it took me about 5 long minutes to walk back up to help search for Florian. When we were looking for him we were just hoping/praying we would find him before it was too late. When he was found and dug out and we saw that he was unconscious and frozen and we couldn't do anything else to help him it hit us what had happened. After about 30 seconds he must have woken up because he was murmuring about being frozen: Like a drunk he didn't stop saying: "kalt, so kalt!" This was the worst part, with the Rega flying about 10m above you and the snow flying in all directions and seeing a friend like that...

Afterwards when we got back to the chalet and talked about it and had rung Florian in hospital, and his parents, we were relieved but still very shaken. He stayed in hospital for 2 days. He had snow in his lungs and mild hypothermia.

Izzy: What advice would you give to anyone caught in an avalanche?

Samuel: I don't know...

Izzy: Was there any consequence for you and your friends for starting the avalanche? ( e.g. a fine )

Samuel: We were not part of the Rega association so normally we would have had to pay at least ten thousand francs. But this was taken care of by the ski resort and Florian's insurance.

Izzy: Was there a rescue team involved? If so, how long did it take them to reach you?

Samuel: This impressed me the most: after not even 2 minutes the Rega was already flying above us and dropping equipment and men off to help. Someone on a chair lift had radioed for help. The helicopter landed on a little flat land slightly of the piste. About 10 minutes later another helicopter came with some search dogs and a doctor.

Thanks go to Samuel Meysner and Mike Meysner for this article.

For those climbing in the UK:

Watch a video story about an avalanche:

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