Survival Case Studies: Caught in an Avalanche

Living through a slide is just the beginning

Jul 12, 2012
Outside Magazine
Caught in an avalanche

   Photo: Illustration by Kagan McLeod

The first question my good friend Conrad Anker asked me when I told him about the avalanche was “When did you decide to live?” I knew the moment.

It was April 11 last spring, and I was in the Tetons scouting locations for a film shoot with Jeremy Jones and Xavier de Le Rue, two of the world’s best big-mountain snowboarders. Maybe 10 seconds after I’d dropped into my line, the entire mountain seemed to release. The avalanche grew until it was like an ocean, with waves of snow ripping down the slope and snapping off trees at the base.

I kicked my skis off and was swept over a cliff. When I landed, I was plunged deep under the still-sliding avalanche. The pressure crushed me. I felt as though I’d left my body; I seemed to be watching myself from afar. It was suddenly calm, and I had the rational and impersonal thought that this—here, now—is how I die. Then I realized that if I’m conscious and having this internal discussion, I must be alive. I decided to fight. The world came rushing back with the roar of the avalanche, and I tensed every muscle in my body against the pressure.

Two thousand feet later, I  came to a stop, buried up to my chest on the valley floor. In the moments after, my priorities—family, friends, ambitions—were stacked with clarity. Four days later, I was supposed to fly to Nepal to join an expedition to ski the world’s fourth-highest peak. I decided not to go. I was beaten down and ashamed.

I dropped out of my normal life and went to Mexico to surf for four weeks. Looking back, I was struggling with post-traumatic stress. I was on edge for months. If I didn’t have two other expeditions in the works, I might have stayed in Mexico for 10 years. A month later, I climbed and skied Denali, and three months after that I finally completed the first ascent of India’s Shark’s Fin, one of the hardest climbs of my career. I’m not saying I wiped the slate clean after what happened—that experience goes everywhere I go. But working in the mountains isn’t just my job; it’s what I live for.

Expert advice from Laurence Gonzales, author of Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why

1. Recognize that there’s a problem and that it’s totally normal. The causes of post-traumatic stress range from extreme—combat survival—to common, like losing a loved one. Telltale symptoms include difficulty concentrating, sleeplessness, and jumpiness.

2. Take time. It used to be that combat veterans were forced to discuss the incident immediately after a trauma occurred. That caused suicides. The new rule is to talk to people you trust and not to force it.

3. Distract yourself. Post-traumatic stress is like being stuck in survival mode. Override that instinct through rhythmic, goal-oriented activities like writing, surfing, or knitting. (Who wouldn’t want a crocheted hat made by Jimmy Chin?)

4. Create rituals. Structure your emotional response, and allow yourself to feel bad about an incident one day a year—not the whole year. On January 23, 1945, my dad was shot down and survived a 27,000-foot fall in his airplane. When I was a kid, my family held a special dinner every January 23.

5. Rewire your brain. Repeated positive exposure overrides negative feelings. Cut your finger chopping onions? Chop more onions. Just be slow, deliberate, and very aware while you’re doing it.