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Avalanche accident Arlberg

13.12.2012

"The landslide occurred on a north-easterly, windy slope. I rode with a guide. We had climbed up with skins from the SW. There was no previous evidence of spontaneous avalanches. It was early season, and there had been fresh snow and wind in the previous two days.

We went with our skis under the rock face at the top of the slope and started the descent from about 2500 meters. It was a short distance to the edge of a rock face (ten or fifteen turns or 50 meters), my guide went first to the left edge of the rock face to check the conditions. After a short while he gave me a sign that I should follow him. I started at the bottom right next to the tracks of the guide. After five laps I heard the guide calling my name. I looked up to a wall of loose snow that seemed to be 2 meters high and at the bottom was a half meter high standing wave of thick snow. The standing wave seemed to be moving towards me. It was a bit windy, so I never heard a telltale crackling or thumping. My first warning of danger was a scream from the guide. 

Finally I noticed that I was at the beginning of a gutter. At first I tried to go out on skis, which turned out to be in vain. As I approached the rock face, I gave in to the inevitable and began to prepare for the ride. I threw off my poles and grabbed the release handle of the ABS® backpack. I was wearing medium-weight gloves and it took me two attempts to get a good grip on the handle. The first attempt was with my right hand alone. I grabbed the handle wrong and my hand slipped off. The second try I went with both hands and got it quite easy. If I had had heavier gloves or mittens, a one-handed pull would never have worked. In the future I would pull the handle with both hands from the beginning.

I felt the airbag deploy as I drove over the weir. There was quite a fall over the cornice, maybe 20 feet. I fell straight down with my feet for a few seconds first. I was completely covered with the snowpack, so I couldn't see anything. The fall must have ended in a pile of snow that had come from the cornice in front of me. The landing was soft and I stood still for a second or two, but then the snow from above started to pile on everything in a short time and became very heavy. At this point the snowpack started to move quickly and threw me upside down. I suspect that my bindings were thrown out during the very first turn after the fall from the cornice. The turns were deliberate, not fast and not slow. At the beginning of each turn I could see the white of the snow all around, but not the sky. The snow was light enough so that I could push it away from my mouth, breathe and do a few breaststrokes. At the bottom of the rotation it was completely black, and the weight of the snow prevented any kind of movement. I went through 3 or 4 full cycles and then I think I was thrown off a small cliff. Just before I went over the cliff, I was at the end of a rotation, and then the weight was suddenly gone and I could see white. The rotation stopped, I was in a prone position and felt weightless, but still surrounded by snow. After a few seconds I landed hard and hit a rock on the side of my right lower leg and my knee.

After the impact there was a slight pause as the snowpack compressed around me, then again at freight train speed down the fall line. I felt another turn, and then the sliding began to slow down. As the speed decreased, my body stopped slipping and continued the undulating movement from the prone position, head first downhill. Then the avalanche seemed to come to an abrupt stop, I was rolled onto my back and continued sliding until I came out of the snow cover on the valley floor completely uncovered.

Two interesting notes about the ABS® backpack: First, I think that because of the backpack I kept sliding to the top of the snow pack and kept coming back close to the surface. This allowed me to catch some air with every turn and swim a little higher. Secondly, I think the backpack helped me to stay in a prone position when I fell off the cliffs with my head above my legs, so that my legs could absorb the impact instead of my head, neck or shoulders".

G. D.

Photo: Tegan Mierle