On the 16th of February, I, Andrea and Maria got caught in an avalanche in Kittelfjäll. An avalanche that had all potential to be lethal to all of us, and we made it by luck or coincidence. This is my recollection of the events that day. I guess writing my own story is part of my mental healing, but it is also to show what mistakes were made, and how I will try to learn from them. Hopefully then I will never end up in a situation again where I am not sure if my best friends are dead, or live with the burden of being part in a decision that ends up killing someone I hold dear.
This story has already been written as seen through Andreas eyes here, and I think on most accounts the stories will agree, but I still feel the need to write my recollection, if nothing else than for my own sake, so here goes.
The day started out better than most, a fresh 10cm of snow and mango in the breakfast cereals. I was in company of good friends, Andrea and Maria, in the hostel in Grönfjäll, just a few minutes drive from Kittelfjäll. Andrea had the shingles and Maria has had her fair share of elbow problems, so we were going for an easy day. Visibility was not that good either, as it so often is in the Swedish mountains. Temperatures were just below freezing, and there was a little bit of snow in the air. The wind was blowing a bit in the valley, enough to make us turn down alpine terrain even if it wasn’t for all the other things I just mentioned. A day of nice chill laps in the birch trees it was.
The day before we spotted an interesting line facing straight towards Borkafjäll, and we decided to scout it. It was all below treeline, but since we saw it head on it was hard to judge steepness and convexity from our vantage point on the other side of the lake. Skinning up we followed a low angle ridge, and we had severe collapsing on the flats in the woods. The day before we did a proper snow profile on the lopes of Borkafjäll, and had some funky layers. Most alarming was maybe the thick slab of heavy storm snow that fell during the last 10 days. Warm temperatures made it sinter quite well, but once our column collapsed it did so with a very clean shear.
Unfortunately, for the first time this season there was no rutchblock chord in my backpack, so I did not do any ECT, but I guess we would have got some nice results. In other words, the snow pack was a bit unstable, and we were very aware of it. A decision was made early on when walking through whoomping meadows to definitely not go above treeline, and not expose ourselves to anything from above. None of us are avalanche experts or professionals, but scrolling through this and Andreas blog you can see that it’s at least not our first time out on the mountain for any of us.
Anyway, we followed our ridge, jumped a few test slopes, and generally had all avy antennas out. We got whoomps but no cracks and we could not get anything to move on test slopes. When the ridge merged with the main mountain, there was a bit of traversing to do before we could get to where we thought the line was. By then, all whoomping had ceased a while ago. As soon as we went from completely flat to maybe 20 degrees slope, we did not get any more obvious signs of instability. Still, as I said, our antennas where out, we followed strict protocol of passing one at a time and did several hand shears, all showing good cohesion and eventually a clean shear when enough force was applied.
However, not trusting the snow pack we kept looking for signs of instability. All decisions were taken as a group, and the veto right was to my recollection very explicit. Several times the question “is everyone ok with this” or “anyone not feeling allright” was raised. So we proceeded, without incident, to where we thought our line was. It was a shallow ridge exposed to wind, the snow pack was very shallow. We practically stood on the rocks. I went down and looked at our presumed line. It was very convex, and hard to really get a feel for how steep it might be or where we were to end up. No eyes on the rider from a safe spot was possible as far as I could see. I still think it might go, but right there and then, with that snowpack, I pulled the plug. I went up to the girls and told them I thought it was a no go.
There was no discussion, and I don’t think there was any disappointment either. We did not really have any big aspirations for that day anyway, we just wanted some nice powder skiing. So we started to head back. If we traversed the slope in the other direction for maybe 500m to 1km, we knew there was good and safe skiing to be had. We also knew there was another party there, a bunch of friends of mine, and it felt nice to hook up with them and just do a couple of nice laps before heading home.
Since we didn’t want to traverse just in the treeline, we decided to ride down and walk along the base of the mountain instead. But we wanted to ride down, not skin down, so we needed to traverse a little bit to get some fall line, which is exactly what we did. Still full protocol, one at a time and all that, but maybe a bit more relaxed since the “big unknown” of that unknown line was gone, and left was the familiarity of the familiar area we were headed to.
We were just about were we wanted to ride down, when we reached a tongue of snow with no trees on it, and this is where we lost it. It looked so good, and it was very mellow, I judged it to not be steeper than 30 degrees. Some strange kind of summit fever got into us, and I suggested that we might just climb 30m or so up the tongue, to get a couple of nice turns before we hit the trees. The decision was as far as I remember instantaneous and unanimous. The problem was that visibility was just as poor as before, but instead of having just rocks above us, we now had this tongue, and we could not really make out how it looked. It ended 100 or 200m (distance, not vertical) above us in something that could have been a rock, but it could also have been a cornice.
I started my first switchback up the little snow field, but after just a few meters I got a large collapse. I followed my natural reaction to back down, and shout to the girls that this was not a good place to be. I was not scared, and I did not believe I triggered anything right then, but just like most other skiers I don’t like to be on sloping collapsing snow fields. Collapses are a powerful sign of instability, and I was convinced. So we backed down, and stood all three together with a few tiny birches just above us and a few just below us, in a presumed safe spot. My mind had already started making alternate plans, I was set on transitioning right where we were and just ride down in the trees, and this is what I was scoping lines for. Then I heard a faint rumble, and looking over my shoulder I saw a white wall of snow come roaring down the hill towards us. The avalanche was probably at least 3 meters high by then, it looked like it would swallow us in one piece, which it also did.
From then on, time went both fast and slow at the same time. I might have panicked and started running backwards, but I am not sure. In any case it would not have mattered, the avalanche was several hundred meters wide and we had nowhere to go but down with it. I remember my board halves tearing off my boots more or less the same instant we got hit. I just had changed to a Dynafit setup, and for that I am eternally grateful. Then we might have been jammed to the birches below us for a little while, before getting washed over them and down in the trees below. It was like swimming in a cat 4 rapid, but without eddies. I remember spitting snow out of my mouth and thinking “This is it, this is how I die”. I was not sad or upset, there was no time to get such feelings. It was more a realistic assessment of what was going on in that exact moment, and the most plausible consequences.
Then the snow stopped, just like that. I was below a little birch, and all around me where debris.
I don’t know how deeply buried I was, or how I got out of there. All I can remember is seeing Andrea 10m or so above me, and fighting to get there. When she answered my calls, saying she had airways and she was ok, I spotted Marias’ helmet 10m upslope. She had it on her backpack, and I realised she was flat on her stomach. I ran up there, made sure she had airways and grabbed my shovel. I looked at her, and asked if she was OK. She was pale, and said she had a broken leg.
When it comes to these things, Maria is not the one to mess around. If she says she has a broken leg, I believe her. But, when I started excavating her and I struck her leg with my shovel, 1m from where it was supposed to be, I realised how bad it was. The femur was broken and dislocated about 90 degrees. The guilt and shame that filled me at that moment was petrifying. Right then, I felt I was responsible and to blame for the accident, for her pain and for the rest of her season that just disappeared like that. Oddly, there was no sense of relief that we all were alive, at least not right then. Just waves of guilt and shame. I also felt very powerless against Marias’ pain. None of us have any medical training, and although we all carried first aid kits, between the three of us all we had was one ibuprofen. One! Not much when dealing with broken femurs.
I called the emergency number, and described our situation. Time was then about 12. After a while I got to speak to a local police (i think), and I directed them to our location. It would take them several hours to get there with snowmobiles and on foot. I lent Andrea my shovel and helped her free herself of her backpack, so she could sit herself comfortably. She thought she had a broken leg inside her boot, and later it turned out both her legs were broken.
I got in touch with Mattias, who was touring on the other side of the slope, where we were headed before we got caught. I knew he was in a group with at least one with medical training, and I realised I needed all the help I could get. When they understood our situation, they arrived fast. Including making sure the slope was safe to enter, they cannot have taken more than half an hour. In the mean time, I was useless at consoling Maria, or doing very much else for that matter. I tried to keep her warm, sticking gloves, jackets and what else I could find in my backpack between her core and the snow, and covering her with my down jacket. She was shaking from cold, shock and pain, and it was devastating to not be able to do anything about it.
It was a huge relief when Mattias, Martin, Oskar, Linda, Desiré and Johannes showed up.
With them taking care of Maria and communicating with rescue personnel, at least I could be useless without having anything specific to do except to wait for rescue and keeping warm.
Eventually a local snowmobile shredder made his way up the slope and was able to deliver some morphine, and after a while mountain rescue were on the scene as well. The ladies were packed into rescue sleds, and I will never forget the screams from Maria when they straightened out her leg and placed her in the sled. I almost threw up, tears were not nearly enough.
Eventually we were all down and on the way to the hospital in Lycksele, where they took great care of us.
So, what went wrong? Some might argue that we should not have been in the backcountry at all that day, and it’s hard to say they are completely wrong. However, I would argue that there was safe skiing to be had, and we almost had it. From a knowledge perspective, what I missed wast that remote triggering at that distance was possible in that snowpack. Observationally, we did not note that the slope all of a sudden was way more loaded than just a few meters before, and this in combination with the exposure from above should have sufficed for us to not go any further. But, even if we did not notice these two points, the incident could have been avoided. If we had stuck to our original decision to not expose ourselves from above, that would have been enough. In some way it shows how a good protocol can make up for a large information or knowledge deficit.
I think this is key. We had a good protocol, and if we had followed it through and not let our guard down, I would not be writing these words.
There are still a lot of ifs and buts I will have to live with. What if I had not suggested that we should climb those few extra meters for example. However, I have been assured by Maria and Andrea that it was a group decision, and that there was no pressure except for the one each of us put on ourselves. I really like to believe that this was the case, and I know that any non-guiding backcountry traveler is really only responsible to and for himself, but those ifs and buts and the memories of Marias’ pain will stay with me for the rest of my life regardless.
Another question worth answering is, will I keep doing this, after it nearly killed us?
Just as I never doubted that it was me remote triggering that avy, there was never a doubt in my mind, during the whole course of events, that I would not go out there again if I only had the chance. There are risks to all activities in life, from the obvious risk of death when driving a car to the risk of being left without a salary when pursuing ones dreams. Life seems like and endless stream of risk management, and in the midst of it we also need to live. This is my life, this is what I do, and what makes me into me. The feeling of carving a nice arc down a pristine mountainside, hitting a nice pillow drop or just waking up in the mountains with the body full of anticipation is what I would call life. It would be a very hard thing to give up, and I will keep going at it as soon as I can.
I want to extend my deepest thanks to everyone who helped with the rescue, from Martin, Mattias, Linda, Oskar, Desiré, Johannes, to PB, local snowmobile hero, Mountain rescue, ambulance and hospital personnel in Lycksele and Umeå. You saved our asses that day, there is no way to repay that.