IT LOOKED LIKE A HEARD of white buffalo stampeding down on me. I just had time to yell down to the others, "Avalanche! Hang on!" before it hit me with the force of 10,000 pillows. It was shockingly painless. I catapulted backwards, and my mechanical ascender held briefly to the fixed rope. Then it snapped and I sailed off into space.
Five of us were climbing 20,298-foot Parchamo, a Nepalese peak about 30 miles west of Everest. For the past ten days we'd been trekking up the Thame Valley to reach our 18,500-foot high camp, on the Tesi Lapcha Pass. Now we were going for the summit, and my altimeter had just clicked over to 20,000.
I accelerated to the speed of the avalanche and could do nothing but softly tumble, arms and legs flailing. In spite of my speed, time slowed. I traveled deep inside the mass. Snow pressed me down and held me up. I thought, This is different.
I had time to understand that it was beautiful. The light was a soft translucent blue that became brighter or darker depending on my depth. I never saw sunlight, but could periodically see the surface. The snow looked like tumbling blue dumplings. I watched as one large block skidded beside me for what seemed a long time. It was squarish at first but disintegrated as it slowly rolled over, then veered away. The snow blocks were not malevolent. It was as if they were escorting me, emotionless companions, as we traveled together on the road to hell.
I didn't think I would die, but I hoped I wouldn't. This thought never left my mind. Objectively, I realized I could die; subjectively, I wouldn't allow it. I had to live. Plummeting, I fought to reach the surface, but I couldn't. I forced my head up and gasped for air. I'd fight until my last breath.
Ultimately we slowed. The deceleration happened suddenly but softly, like a truck plowing into a snowbank. I was facedown, headfirst, thinking, Uh-oh, dead people stop facedown.
Then there was a second surge and I was propelled forward again. It flipped me over and sideways. We lurched to a stop with an audible crunch, the first sound since impact, and I finally saw daylight. I wasn't surprised to find myself on the surface, but I did feel an eerie satisfaction. I had been swept a thousand feet down and now lay at the very toe of the slide. My ride lasted perhaps 30 seconds.
The fight left me exhausted, with that creepy feeling of coming out of anesthesia. With the little strength I had left, and before the snow totally cemented me in, I struggled to free my arms and legs. I lay as if on a crucifix, arms spread wide, hips high, back arched inelegantly. After freeing myself from my pack and digging out, I realized that I was alive—and alone.
The fleeting rush of having survived was preempted by concern for the others. I saw one friend partially buried nearby and dug out his face. I thought surely some of the others were dead, and I held my head in my hands, inconsolable and utterly spent. But slowly, miraculously, everyone was found or dug out. As we collected ourselves and what was left of our gear, I glanced at my watch: It was 7:45 a.m. The day had barely begun, yet it was already defined for a lifetime.