Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A 400m ride of my life in an avalanche in Gulmarg Ski Resort, Kashmir

With more snow falling on a very sugary layer of snow, conditions have turned lethal in Gulmarg Ski Resort, Kashmir. The layer is sitting on what could be described as ball bearings and is creating a layer of friction that is setting off slides on all aspects. Gulmarg ski patrol kept the field closed for 2 days, and rightly so, after the storm performing essential avalanche control work ensuring the main bowl was safe for snow riders.

I was guiding 3 clients - ‘The Love Party’ when we decided to score some cheeky turns above 1st bowl skiers right which was advised as considerable risk in the backcountry. I could see 5 tracks that h and been made in this area and then the skiers had traversed back – still room for a few and to bug out back into the controlled area of the main bowl. We headed in and I stopped skier’s right close to the ridge anticipating to traverse back before the bowl steepened into the critical 35 degree + zone. Rich was loving the sweet 40-50cms of fresh powder as we all were hitting the wind lip and carving it up. He’d already been nicknamed ‘The Loneranger’ as he’d strayed a couple of times, but nothing serious and this time he kept going further near to the entry into the guts of the chute. I thought to myself ‘bugger we’ve gone too low and this feels sketchy’ and headed towards him going far lower than initially planned to start a traverse out and get the hell outta there. The 3 clients Jules, Rich and Michele were at a safe point so I started to traverse, as we were going to go one-by-one. The next I knew the slope cracked in front of me and before I could do anything, I shouted ‘Avalanche’ I was accelerating down a narrow couloir being tossed and turned upside down and feeling that drowning feeling I’d felt twice some years before.

The weight and strain of the snow was draining as I struggled underneath the snow fighting with my arms and every ounce of strength I had, I felt like giving up but thought ‘you either fight to get on top or you’re a gonna’! The Taylor omelette with 2 pouched eggs on top for breakfast gave me the energy to really fight but suddenly I was accelerating and must have reached between 50-60kms per hour (observed as one of my skis flinged meters into the air) it became a blur of blackness and suffocation, ‘must kept fighting’ I thought but at this stage with the gaining speed I thought I was toast, the speed just kept on increasing. I kept fighting and struggling thrashing my arms and suddenly after the 30 second ride I slowed up with the weighty snow compating around me and with my head coming to a rest just out of the snow as I was buried horizontally. I gasped for air and realised I’d come to a stop finally which seemed like an eternity. I gained my breath as my heart tried to burst out of my chest and struggled to raise my hand out of the snow to signal to my clients. Rich was on the scene within about seconds it seemed and pulled me out – good job he had gone straight for a visual search and had spotted me very quickly. I was 2 skis and I pole less so if anyone finds some K2 King Fujas with Craigieburn and Sunstone stickers on them please let me know. I couldn’t care less about the skis – that's what insurance is for right? I was a live and had a real close call - life had flashed past me but I had grabbed it and had the survival instinct to not give up but to fight to the end - but I had got lucky as I had just missed rocks on both sides of the narrow choker in the couloir travelling at speed and walked away with no injuries!

My 3rd avalanche in my ski career one at Craigieburn, Chamonix and now Gulmarg. I was thankful that the clients had taken on board the Sunstone avalanche training at the start of their 10 days and were already experienced backcountry riders. A very slick response indeed. We made our way back to the main bowl as I shared a ski with Jules to get across the exposed slope as quick as possible to avoid further risk. I had ended up 400m down 1st bowl near the very dangerous ‘Shaggy’s Face’ so named because ‘Shaggy ‘ an Aussie guy was taken by a large avalanche back in 2007 and had tragically passed away.

This is a real reminder to take maximum care and precautions when approaching backcountry terrain. In hindsight it was never my intention to ski this slope but putting turns above it and putting ourselves in that situation, in hindsight, was risky and we should have avoided this area altogether. As the saying goes ‘the last powder turns are often the best’. Fortunately I’ve still got loads more to come!

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