Racing Into an Avalanche with the Alpine Disaster A-Team

The first one off the ridge, Jaccard plunged into the powder and glided downward across a wide snowfield. His two friends followed at a safe distance, a few dozen yards behind. Then Jaccard turned his skis down the 45-degree slope and shot through a pass between hills. He skidded over ice patches and plowed through drifts, picking up speed, trying to suss out a route in the trackless snow. He made one turn, then a wider one.

Then he sensed trouble.

Up ahead, the wind had gone to work on the fresh powder that had been coming down all week, whipping the snow into an enormous drift—a huge pillow-like mound, known as a windslab, or plaque à vent. Jaccard had spent enough time in the mountains to apprehend the danger of this sort of drift. The new pile of snow, resting precariously atop the old, unstable snowpack, could break off and charge down the slope at the slightest disturbance.

Jaccard tried to slow himself; he swerved but couldn’t avoid it. Suddenly, he was upon the drift, and then he heard an ominous, low rumbling sound. Turning his head, he saw behind him a fissure open in the snow, 40 yards back, triggered by his body weight. He watched as gravity took hold of the dislodged snow, sending it down the hill. The enormous white wall was sliding in his direction.

Jaccard scrambled atop a rise, but the avalanche, moving now at 60 miles an hour, quickly met him. He felt the immense weight of the wave as it plowed into his back, tearing off his skis, fracturing one of his vertebrae, and pummeling him down in the direction of the ground. As the snow gathered all around him, Jaccard groped for the cord on his airbag and gave it a ferocious pull just before he was fully engulfed. The movement released 200 liters of compressed air from a steel cylinder, which ballooned a dual airbag system to life. He hoped the inflated device would carry him above the smaller bits of snow and ice, and keep him from being buried.

But it wasn’t enough. The torrent was unrelenting and Jaccard could see the bright whites and blues of snow and sky now give way to darkness. For the first time, he felt the cold rolling over him, beginning to encase him, choking off any access he had to air. Instinctively, Jaccard stuck his hands over his mouth. Then, finally, all went still.

He was lying facedown on his stomach with his legs extended, unsure of just how much snow he was sealed beneath. With his hands near his face, a small pocket of air had been fortuitously preserved near his mouth, but breathing was already getting difficult. Then, crackling over his walkie-talkie, he heard the urgent voice of one of his companions

“Joël, do you hear me?”

The microphone dangled on a cord extending from his backpack. But he couldn’t answer. He couldn’t move his arms. He lay immobile, struggling to breathe for about three minutes. Then everything faded to black.

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