“As the snow piled higher and higher, it became darker and darker until I was surrounded by an eerie black silence, broken only by the sound of my slow breathing and racing heartbeat.
Okay, I thought to myself; You’re dead.”
January 30, 2015 – Les Crosets on the Swiss-French border. Australian skier James Mort and his three friends were just a week into their month-long ski trip when a storm brought more than three feet of fresh snow in a 48 hour period.
Although the avalanche risk was a 4/5, the men were eager to make up for the dry conditions during the week prior. After spending most of the day playing it safe, they decided to head off-piste for fresh tracks in a wooded line known amongst locals as a safer option due to its short length and low pitch.
Met with incredibly deep powder, the four men bombed down the face simultaneously – mistake number one. The snow began to slab and break away as they neared the end of the run, and while three of them stayed above the slide, James Mort wasn’t as lucky.
I looked up just in time to watch the avalanche envelope me. The last thing I managed to do before I was completely buried was to reach as high as I could above the snow with my left arm and ski pole. This may have ultimately saved my life.
Able to see Mort’s pole poking out of the snow, two of the men rushed to his aid as the third flew down to notify ski patrol. Luckily, one of the men was armed with a shovel and a probe – but Mort was the only one carrying a transceiver.
They began to dig, and finally excavated Mort’s helmet beneath 5 feet of snow.
Although his face was uncovered, Mort wasn’t out of the woods yet. Covered by 5 feet of snow and positioned under the pitch that had buried him, he was at serious risk of reburial if another avalanche were to occur.
Swiss Ski Patrol quickly arrived, and despite five men digging simultaneously, it was almost an hour before Mort was completely uncovered. Remarkably uninjured, James Mort wants to share his story to teach others the importance of avalanche education.
From that afternoon onwards everybody made a pact to never ski off piste again, even inbounds, without everybody in the group carrying a complete avalanche pack containing a transceiver, probe and shovel. More importantly we were all taught a very big lesson about decision making, reading conditions and observing terrain traps… Do not follow my path, always practice conservative decision making when in the mountains taking into account the local avalanche conditions.
Mort was incredibly lucky – more than 75 people have died in avalanches this year in Europe alone. If you’re heading out of bounds, always carry a transceiver, probe, and shovel – and make sure you know how to use them.
Check out this directory of avalanche education classes in the US, and know the North American Avalanche Danger Scale.