A guide is your best guarantee to avoiding disaster on the slopes

EDMONTON – “SLUFF!” The very word strikes fear into the hearts of … nobody.

But it should. You can drown in a metre of water and you can die in a metre of snow.

Tom, the lean Austrian guide (stand-in for Brad Pitt in Seven Years in Tibet), was giving us the pre-tour avalanche clinic. “Even if you can, don’t cry out,” he said. “Save your breath. You’ll be able to hear people walking, hear them talking, but they won’t be able to hear you.” Like being a ghost. “Concentrate on breathing normally, be calm.” He smiled. “Go to your Happy Place.”

Tom told us not to give up, to fight it as we were being swept along, try to get the skis off, of course throw away the poles, and push the bigger blocks down, get them under you. “Keep your pack on, though. It’s good protection if you go into the trees. And try to get your feet downhill, like in whitewater, to protect your head.”

I’d been told you were supposed to “swim” in an avalanche and pictured myself doing an elegant breaststroke in a big surge. But once you hit the trees it would be more like running rapids in a rock-filled canyon.

Tom showed us delicate crystals of hoar frost. “Hoar frost is like a layer of potato chips on top of the snowpack,” he said. “When the new snow falls it can’t bond with the layer beneath. So the weight builds up, the potato chips crack, and the snow lets go.”

We had the gorgeous Olivia as a backup guide, because her husband Robson had ridden an avalanche into the trees. It wrapped his leg around a trunk and broke the bone in two places. She said, “There was so much pressure it was sort of like he was in traction at first, so it didn’t hurt. He wasn’t buried and he started to dig himself out. But when he got loose the muscles snapped back.” She chuckled, “There was some serious shouting at the helicopter pad before they got him medicated.”

I imagined my snapped leg stretched around a tree, like one of those yoga poses that feels like it’s ripping your bum off, and then the stretched-to-the-limit muscles letting go and the shattered bone bashing into itself. I think I’d do more than shout.

“Dig in from the side,” Tom said, “They’ve done tests in Norway and found this is best. If your probe hits a body two metres under the snow, you go down the slope two metres 25 centimetres and you start digging. Five guys. One in front and two on each side to push the snow away. Then, after a couple of minutes, you move to the side and the next person comes up. It’s like a conveyor belt.”

It worked. The point man hacked away at the snow face with quick hard strokes and the other guys swept away the rubble. There could be a body down there – perhaps one of your friends – with his nose and ears and mouth packed hard with snow. Maybe alive, turning blue, unable to cry out. “Yah,” said Tom. “It fills your mouth and throat, goes up your nose, into your ears. It even gets under your eyelids.” You choke before you freeze.

“That’s the other good thing about going in from the side,” Tom was saying. “Your victim may have a broken back and you don’t want to have to lift him out of a deep hole.” I always thought being buried in an avalanche would be a gentle way to die. None of this sounded inviting.

The sun blazed down on the glacier and granite spires cut into the sky around us. Beautiful, but Tom said, “See those little slides under the rocks? Those sluffs? That happens when they get sun-warmed and then the snow releases.”

He told us to ski straight over the hollows, not to stop. “It’s more complex up top,” he says. “They’re probably fine, but if it wasn’t, it would be a lot of paper work for us,” he grins.

Mountaineers love euphemisms. Like dentists who say, “You may feel some discomfort” instead of, “I’m putting a shaft of hard steel into your soft flesh,” guides use gentle terms like “release,” and “sluff,” which sounds like something you might buy an exfoliant to achieve.

They’ll say conditions are “complex” instead of dangerous, and, my favourite, that the route may be “a trifle exposed” – which means you’ll be on a knife-edge dangling over a 2,000-metre void staring at sharp rocks ready to pierce your body.

The skiing high up was perfect – light powder, moderate pitch. We stayed away from the steep slopes because they might release. I shadowed my brother Norm, a fine skier with the rhythm of a jazz drummer. “Just bounce,” he said, “Don’t work so hard.”

Suddenly I hit the groove. Skis light, body weightless, euphoric. Shhhh … shhhh … shhhh … I could hear every grain of snow in each rhythmic pass. Lost in the moment. I look great, I thought.


Pride always goeth before a face-plant.

Now I’m face forward down the slope, legs tangled, one arm deep under me, one free above. I wave to tell the group I am all right. Nothing hurts, yet it is strange. I feel cosy, enfolded, but immobilized as if in plaster.

When I try to shift my hip, it twists my knee, the way you’d rip a turkey drumstick off a carcass. And though my head feels pillowed in the snow, when I try to raise more than my eyebrows my neck screams.

A little panic sets in, just a little, there at the edge along with the cold. The glove on my hand that is jammed in the snow – as far as my arm would take it when I plunged – has slid partly off and the snow is hard against the veins of my wrist. Cooling my blood.

You wouldn’t want to stay like this long. Or rather, what you’re trying not to think is that this really wouldn’t take very long. “This” being (you try not to think) your death.

“Hey!” shouts Tom. “You OK?”

“Great! No problem!” I lie cheerfully. “I’m just a bit stuck. But it’s OK, I’ve gone to my Happy Place.”

They dug me out. It took longer than I expected and I was soaked and cold. “Didn’t you hear the ‘whumpf’?” said Norm. The ‘whumpf’? So I had not fallen. I’d been sluffed. I had triggered a small slide that swarmed round my boots, toppling me.

My mouth and nose were clear, but it would have been easy to go face down. The good news is 95 per cent of the time, avalanche victims are not buried completely. The bad news is that if you are buried, you’ll be unconscious in four minutes.

If your friends ski over the next rise before regrouping, you’ll be out before they have stopped.

After fifteen minutes, while they have a drink, eat a granola bar and make rude remarks about your technique, you will experience brain damage.

After twenty-five minutes, as they grumble, put on their skis, and climb back up to look for you, there is a 50-per-cent chance you are already dead.

By 130 minutes (maybe it’s snowing and they can’t find you right away) you have a 97-per-cent chance of being dead. Waiting for a rescue team is not an option.

New survival gear such as avalungs, though effective, can actually be dangerous because it induces a false sense of security (and in the heat of the moment you may not operate it effectively). “What people forget or don’t know,” says Edmonton guide Zac Robinson, “is that statistically most rescues fail. People buy this equipment thinking it’s a magic charm, but it won’t keep you out of an avalanche in the first place. The only equipment that will do that is your head.”

In 93 per cent of cases, an avalanche is triggered by the victim or someone in the victim’s party, so you can do something about it. One thing you can do is use a guide: less than two per cent of fatalities happen to professionals. They are the ones with the experience to read the terrain – and make the hard choice to stay off that gorgeous slope with a load of new snow. You want to be with them, rather than with your buddy who says, “It was fine last week.”

Most avalanche fatalities are fit, educated, middle-class and male, and, in ascending order, climbers, snowboarders, back-country skiers, and snowmobilers.

I ride a motorcycle, so I understand the attraction of noisy, motorized thrill-seeking. But I don’t understand going out in known avalanche conditions. At the winter motorcycle show, I saw young riders doing heart-stopping flips off jumps. Crazy, right?

But what if the manufacturer had issued a warning that there was a ‘moderate’ chance the ramp would collapse? Would they still do it? And what if right before the show the manufacturer had upgraded the warning to ‘extreme’, which meant that the ramps could collapse and bring the roof down on 200 spectators. Would the show still go ahead?

The problem is that champagne powder, the light, fluffy stuff you can blow off your glove – it goes right to your head, makes you take chances. And avalanches are not always great tumbling masses that fill a valley with roar and spray and slabs the size of Volkswagens. They can be cute, white ghosts that trip you up and snug you into a tight embrace. Even a little sluff can kill.

Ted Bishop is professor of literature at the U of A and the award-winning author of Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books. He is working on a history of ink.

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