After a murky start we were blessed with another good morning with excellent visibility + TJ's Avalanche

29 November 2008

November 29th.

After a murky start we were blessed with another good morning with excellent visibility. The wind featured again and was strong enough to shut down the Aero-Ski coming out of Tignes. I thought a quick trip to the Fornet was in order just to have a look at the state of the mountain, and what a quick trip it turned out to be! As soon as we arrived on the Col we made a demi-tour and headed back to the Bellevarde/Borsat/Tommeuse sector. The wind has done some serious damage but last night’s wind did drift in some nice snow, which had a creamy feel and was lovely to ski. I forgot to mention yesterday that Radio Will is back after his travels and it’s great to have him back. (I for one am a big fan of his, even though he does make fun of the Hammers.) I’m busy each afternoon with Red Ray who is helping me gut and put back together the studio that Gill and I have acquired over the summer. Thanks Ray as it would be a daunting task alone! Andreas has been busy as well turning his place down the valley into a stunning Chateau. Brilliant work! Anyway, enough of all that. We could get 10 to 15 cm’s of snow tonight, which would be fantastic. Stay tuned.

TJ’s Avalanche

Avalanche Experiences
Or How to Recognise a Serious Situation When Happens

In no way do I want to belittle the events of 8th April 2007 on the Crête des Lessières, Val d’Isère. There have been too many good people who have been lost to this phenomenon to be flippant about this type of event. A lot of us have known acquaintances, friends or even family who have paid the ultimate price for venturing out in search of the thrills of off-piste skiing.

As off-piste ski guides our job is to try to find slopes and snow conditions which challenge us a little but hopefully produce the soft powder that we all love. After long periods of stable weather these particular slopes become fewer and further a field, especially towards springtime as the heat of the day and the suns rays change the surface snow and gives it a crust. Ultimately we’re only left with the prospect of spring snow skiing which has its own delights, of course, but doesn’t compare with the sensation of floating on air that powder snow does.

This day’s group was made up of good skiers of long experience, used to our way of skiing. They had discipline and patience, and enjoyed the climbing as well as the descents. This included my eldest son, Hamish, who was out on holiday with the family. I put him at the back for the run down as he had the second of my small two-way radios. Everyone had a backpack with their personal off-piste kit of shovel and probe and of course, was equipped with avalanche transceivers.

Hence the decision to take my group up on to the Crêtes de Lessières where I had been eyeing a slope that was a favourite of mine in the days when the Teleski 3000 was operational. This particular day it meant climbing up with skins and “couteaux” but at least there’d be no competition. The climb was easy, despite the hard transform crust on the west face. However, it did mean that the traverse of the ridgeline would be a mixed affaire due to the lack of snow on the same climb exposition.

By the time we had reached the small summit beside the radio relay antennae (a good 100 meters past the closed tunnel), the group was already spread out and with the prospect of the mixed walking/skinning traverse of the ridge to come, I was reaching a decision to look for a shorter route into the Northeast face. Such an opportunity supplied itself with a well-covered entrance into the tunnel slope which I’d spied as we had climbed the ridge. With a week of stable, fine and warm weather since the previous snowfall and what I gauged to be a stable under-layer, this seemed a good option and the first touch was gratifying. There was 20-25cms of fresh snow.

We all knew the drill. I had explained that although this was not the slope I had intended, it would provide a good way down if we traversed out towards the bottom to avoid the rocky section. Not an ideal slope, as we try to choose ones with a clear outrun and no obstacles. Needs must. The snow had been deposited laterally from an easterly wind flow and we had all seen its effect on the Albaron where, at high altitude, an enormous slab had avalanched the previous week. Here, the effect would be to load the right hand side of the shelved slope more than the left. So when I felt the soft texture of the snow I was reassured that I was not dealing with a slab.

It was good to be once again on a good pitch with the prospect of everyone enjoying the powder snow conditions. I was vaguely counting the turns and gauging the moment when I would have to cut out on a traverse. There wasn’t another untracked slope of this quality anywhere near the resort (except the one we were meant to ski, further along the ridge). As I slowed down prior to stopping, finishing a left turn, my right pole-plant started disappearing down into the snow. It was as if my collapsible ski pole was collapsing. I looked to my right at the line of the shoulder beside me and realised I was still moving (“I know this one”) …only now I was lying on my back (yep, been here before) looking down the slope where I was still heading. This is the roller coaster ride just about to wind itself up. I grabbed for my air-bag handle and missed (did I put it in at the top of the slope? It was only a couple of minutes ago, but I had a guilty feeling I’d forgotten). Too late; it’s time to concentrate and spread my weight as much as possible over the surface of the moving carpet of snow that now has me in its power. The terrain drops away further down so I can’t see the slope. I know it’s only my problem as the team is safely waiting at the top. It’s 200-300 metres down to a “replat” where a shelf will stop my downhill rush. Just a few rocks between me and it…….

So far the morning had gone pretty well, but this wasn’t on the agenda when we started. Before describing the next few seconds and the subsequent actions by all the players, I’d like to point out a couple of instants where I could have listened to my inner voice and changed the events of that day.

First day of the week’s skiing for the group (although not necessarily the first days skiing for everyone) and I’m back into our group lesson regime. All this means is that the skiers tend to be a lot more homogenous in their skill level and experience and they like the walking. I was still looking for powder snow whereas all my colleagues were content with the spring snow conditions on offer. The weather’s good and the forecast is good and I’ve decided to equip the last of the group who hadn’t heard that we needed couteaux that morning. Right there I could have decided that the effort to get the extra equipment from the shop was not worth the time… but it was, and I knew it.

When we arrived at the ridge top and I looked at my watch and the line up of the group, alternatives were already being considered in my mind. They’re never as good, obviously, but sometimes take on an unlikely glossy sheen because options are being shed and choices reduced. It would not have been the first time I’d have come to a situation where no option was good enough and back down the same way was the smart choice. But I had no such premonitions or strong forebodings of impending danger. I now have a theory about why the slope gave way but I’ll deal with that later with the rest of my story.

I must say, now, how grateful I am that, firstly; my team reacted so well. Secondly; how efficient the Val d’Isère pisteurs service really is and thirdly; what a fantastic variety of generous people we at Alpine are lucky enough to have as clients and friends. I am recovering slowly but surely and have had an amazing number of well-wishers and offers of help to speed it along. I thank you all so very much.

The second part of this report will not take as long to materialise as the first part, I promise. It is a different story, in a way. Over my thirty plus years of off-piste skiing this scene might sound familiar a handful of times. These things have happened before. It doesn’t detract from the overwhelming sense of freedom we feel every time we arrive at the summit, head of the valley or top of the slope. I guess that’s why we keep doing it….

….Just a few rocks between me and the bottom of the hanging valley that was the end of our pitch. To be precise there were two bluffs that showed rocks coming through the snow. This is the new short cut that I’m taking and I’m floating quite well on this moving carpet of snow. But not well enough. The first thing I’m aware of is that the view has gone but at the same time there’s an incredible outside force that grabs my leg, yanks it down and out from me and throws it away just as suddenly. It was like a shark attack. It elicits a cry which I’m sure no-one can hear as I’m underneath this white mantle now..but it goes on.. now I’m thrown head over heels down and hit my head hard on the next contact. Another cry, shorter, more disinterested. I’m tumbling now; another thud on my lower back this time.. just a grunt of recognition this time, as with the last contact above my right eye.. And thankfully it stops. Peace!

The fine white dust settles and I’m lying behind a considerable mound of snow(photo1a, behind David on left), on my stomach, looking obliquely back at the slope that I’ve just come down. As far as I can see up the hill to my left the slope has been swept of fresh snow. But, although I’ve been thrown out from the bottom of the slope I can only see a hundred metres or so. I can’t see the fracture line or my group.

Taking stock of the situation, I know I’ve been incredibly lucky. I know my left leg is not good (thank goodness it wasn’t the right leg which has already had an arthroscopy). My legs are partially buried as I’m not quite lying in a horizontal position, and this is keeping them nice and cool. My small walky-talky is in my jacket so I reach in and call Hamish up at the top of the slope to let him know I’m OK but damaged. I need to inform the security services of our situation so I put down the small radio and dig out my professional radio from another pocket. Chris Souillac is somewhere below me so I call him and let him relay the message. Blood is starting to make a mess of the snow in front of me from a head wound and I’ve just grabbed a handful of snow to press on it when I see a wave of snow heading for me down the same avalanche path. Wooah! Head down and hope for the best. My position behind the piled up snow has created a ramp that the new avalanche can’t resist so, having buried my head for an instant, I look up to find everything exactly the same .but whiter.

Robert has made his way down to me so I explain what’s happened and ask him to look in my back-pack first-aid kit to see if he can find a bandage for my head which is still bleeding.

Things are starting to calm down and I can see some control imposing itself on the situation but my small radio is about six inches underneath my right arm, buried from the last avalanche and I can’t get to it. I’ve lost contact with the rest of the group! I don’t quite realise the importance of this till the next minute. “Look out, Robert, here comes another one!” and another wave comes down around the corner. It works just the same as the previous one; bury our heads and over the top it goes.

Now there are four of my clients in front of me (Robert, David, Ray and Jo) and my leg is starting to get uncomfortably cramped. My bandage is trailing around in the snow so I grab bits of it to compress onto my head wound. But the next avalanche coming down is enormous and I cry out for everyone to bury themselves down in the snow. It hurtles down with an altogether more ominous noise. I clasp my hands over my head and hold on tight as the impact, “WHUMPFF!”, hits the pile of snow beside me and moves everything. The clasped hands are thrown apart as my whole body is forced up and sideways and this time I find myself buried. However, the snow is light and I can scoop it away from my face and uncover my head.

A scene of complete desolation lies before me. A few seconds ago there were four busy people in front of me and now, a white winter carpet with not a soul in evidence… Heads start appearing as the four start to re-emerge from the avalanche debris. Only one of us needs some assistance as she has been bulldozed flat on her face and can’t reach behind herself to push the snow away.

All accounted for! The last two members (Penny and Hamish) arrive down at the bottom and it seems there is no more of the slope to come down on top of us. Once more I retrieve the bandage that’s trailing in front of me and try to stem the bleeding from my head wound. Hamish is on hand to hold the pressure on to my head.

The helicopter can be heard in the distance so I know it won’t be long before it arrives and brings it’s own type of confusion to the scene. I try to organise everyone to clear up and secure all the equipment around the site as all too quickly it arrives and drowns us with it’s propeller wash. Clouds of fine snow particles are whipped around us and the effect of this, melting on the skin and then evaporating in the wind current, freezes all exposed skin. My hands are exposed, gloves lost, and Hamish, I see, is wearing just a short sleeved shirt! I think we’re all heading for mild hypothermia shortly.

The rescue team are quickly disgorged from the helicopter and it it’s off again to stay clear of the exposed slopes above. I know the team leader well and he doesn’t hesitate to bemoan my choice of ski slope. Unbeknown to me, his message back to the rescue centre is being overheard by my wife, Joanna, who is by now down at the bottom of the Lessière Chair. “..55 year old professional.” rings a bell and it’s dawning on her that this is not great news for the family.

The evacuation is a pretty speedy affair as I’m able to give the pisteurs all the information about the group and my injuries. As standard procedure, a “matelat coquille” ( a sort of bean-bag which has all the air sucked out of it so that it forms a rigid stretcher in the shape of the body) is placed under me, pumped and wrapped around me, ready for the helicopter to take me down to the valley floor. The total weight of this load is not light and the team do well to man-handle me to a safe position for the pilot to land and load. It’s all down hill from here. This whole operation has taken about 15 minutes and the short ambulance ride to the medical centre another 5. It’s impressive. I’ve always realised how efficient the Val d’Isère Security Service is, but once again the proof of it’s high standards is something to behold.

Of course my vantage point has limitations, staring up from my stretcher, but up until now I’ve been lucky to have been fully conscious and quite exceptionally focused. Being wheeled into the x-ray room and partially unwrapped I start to lose a grip and any control I thought I had on events going on around me. I stutter out my answers to the doctor as hypothermia starts to wrack my body with violent shaking. Everyone leaves the room as the x-ray camera tracks over my body automatically with reassuring mechanical whirring noises. The full scanning process seems to take no more than three minutes and the report comes back that there are no broken bones. So, there’s just enough time for a quick family reunion before I’m bundled back into an ambulance for a half hour trip to Bourg Saint Maurice Hospital.

From here begins the next stage in the saga which is still on-going. Recuperation. In the background reports are being filled out, plans made, transport arranged and doctors time booked. The French health system has kicked in and as time goes by I’m left to wonder at the complexity of all the different organisations co-operating to give succour to my abused body. All went well until they delivered me to the wrong hospital in Grenoble and wheeled me around awhile before finally deciding on the right one. The fellow patients I met along the way were generally in a worse state than I was but with injuries that would probably have healed faster (they were a lot younger). I was certainly lucky that the painkillers they gave me worked pretty well except on the first night at the Hôpital du Sud. At 2.00am I awoke with a spasm around the tendon under the kneecap that felt like I’d just re-enacted the accident! However, I wasn’t allowed another of the painkillers they’d been giving me. They ended up giving me another anti-inflammatory and that did the trick.

The operation was carried out on the Friday afternoon. Dr. Saragaglia and his team reattached three ligaments with the aid of some fancy material and three staples, then left a sign saying “Don’t Touch!”.

Coming around from the general anaesthetic was really bizarre as I’d had a dream that slotted in perfectly (as they do) and was in the process of informing the nurse that there was some mistake (can’t remember what it was) when I had to apologise because I just realised where I was. I thought the operating theatre was a garage with fancy lights. The staff were fantastic and it wasn’t long before the physios was pushing me to do several circuits of the third floor corridors with the aid of some crutches. I even had some very kind visitors to drop by and cheer me up. Believe me it all helped.

A week later I was let out and managed to organise an ambulance back to Val d’Isère to pick up luggage that was strewn over various parts of the resort. The change in status from a captive invalid to a (semi-) mobile being with liberty is quite astounding. Not necessarily easy as relative fitness is quite an issue. For a long time the question of keeping the leg up at regular intervals becomes important. The swelling and discomfort that it caused is something that preoccupies your mind when it starts to become obvious. Wayne was the perfect host even putting on a welcome back/farewell party at the end of the week when it was time to head down the valley and catch a plane home. It was great to see so many familiar faces again and heart warming to have so many well-wishers build me up for the trip home.

I did manage to buy some wine and a card for the pisteurs who don’t actually like being singled out but like to have a collective “thanks” at the end of the season. Of course everyone at the shop lent their support for my leave-taking. Plenty of insults and bad jokes.

So now it’s down to the exercises, physio and time to get the this leg back into some sort of shape for what ever comes next. I’m planning on going back out to Val d’Isère again towards the end of this coming season, hoping that in the intervening four months I’ll regain the flexion, stability and strength which will allow me to work professionally again. I’ve had time to reflect all these long months without a clear future, about the responsibilities that I have back here with my family. Although my wife Joanna has supported me through a long career of skiing that I have enjoyed over some thirty something years, I am conscious that there should be a limit to the hardship that these absences inevitably cause. Historically, I have had the longest retirement notice of anybody I know and it’s (probably) time to .think seriously about it.

Thanks to Min and Charlie, my friends from Aime, a shuttle was arranged so that I could leave on the Sunday, nine days after my operation and two weeks after the accident. A pretty fast turn-around from the previous physical state to the crutch wielding figure that needed three seats on the plane trip home. The new reality has grown on me over the intervening months as I’ve tried to concede the least amount of ground possible to my normal existence. Having to sleep on my back for the first month meant sleeping in another room for fear of waking the household with bouts of snoring (who, me?). I discovered Crocs and a zip-legged pair of cargo trousers for changing the dressing. Bit by bit the healing process has advanced through the varying stages of rehabilitation so that today, on my penultimate Consultants appointment, he has announced that he is very pleased with the recovery so far. The flexion hovers around the 90º mark but will improve more slowly if I keep at the exercises and physio.

There’s a plan ahead to try to get back to Val d’Isère for a short time in March/April and to ski/work if all goes well. However, I remain cautious about the extent to which I will regain the flexibility of my left leg.

Meanwhile the summer has been very busy with the embroidery business not to mention the comings and goings of family members. Hamish is well into his third year at university in Edinburgh and Roland has started an agricultural course just outside Edinburgh, having really benefited from his year at Brymore School in Somerset. My rugby coaching continues at the local club and school and I even ran the touchline today (hobbled, really). It’s still not a pretty sight but it’s a what you might call a “functional gait”.

The photos that were sent to me after the avalanche have been and still are very useful so I want to thank Ray and Penny for those as well as later ones that Hamish took. It was one of these that caught my eye as it was taken just a short time after the accident. It showed a line of cloud coming from the East intersecting with the Lessière ridge and would indicate a warm front passing over Val d’Isère. This would certainly explain the more fragile nature of the snow pack and would possibly have helped to trigger the catastrophic collapse of the under layer when I skied on that slope. These are signs that we are aware of and look for as the day progresses. There seemed to be no sign of this front as we left the ridge to descend the northeast face, but the weather in the mountains can always change so quickly.

In the end it comes down to “margins for safety” and you can apply that to the snow pack stability, weather condtions and forecast, as much as to the choice of slope and route choice. There could always have been a longer period left for the snow pack to stabilize (the longer the better) but the original choice of slope didn’t have the same risk factor that the slope I found myself on did. So, again, emphasis must be placed on the importance of second choice or alternative choice itineraries being selected for their safety merits. This is not always easy to carry out when the you feel obliged to come up with the “goods”. The scales by which you measure these considerations start to move out of focus, even for short periods. My first choice slope was skied next day with no problems being encountered.

Lastly, the potential for complications after the initial avalanche took me to the bottom of the pitch was obvious if one was aware that only part of the slope had slid. Because of the configuration of the pitch it was clear that the first 20 metres would be the trickiest as it was narrow and the same exposure. After that the slope opened up to the left and changed orientation, facing more easterly. Of course there was less snow on this face as was evidenced by the number of rocks showing through. Which was the safest route down for those still at the top of the slope?.. The right choice is dictated by the loading of the slope. As I explained to the group before I skied down; the pitch was cross loaded by a southerly wind (from right to left), so the right flank had to be avoided. Side-slipping down around the left hand side, joining up the exposed rocks would have led everyone to the part of the slope that had already slid and then down over the avalanche path. If everyone followed the same track there should have been little risk of aggravating the unstable nature of the snow pack on our pitch.

It’s true that “depth hoare” snow crystals are more prevalent around exposed rocks but the weak layer in this case was a shallow temperature -gradient (depth hoare) layer isolated on the north-east exposure on the right hand side. I hadn’t fully appreciated the extent of this layer until some weeks after the event, I had quizzed Hamish on what he had seen from the top. As soon as he mentioned hearing a “whumpf” sound and seeing a wide plume of snow shoot up from the snow pack I realized the extent of my error of judgement. Two layers of unconstituted snow were superimposed on this exposure and the lower one had transformed into this weaker “hoare” crystal. The fact that it didn’t collapse the whole slope at the same time but peeled away in sections, was an indication that the danger was more localised than it had been earlier in the week. The extra pitch angle and lack of support for the top snow layer at the spot where I set it off was just enough provocation to set the avalanche in motion.. and the rest is history. Having lost any support it might have had from underneath, the snow-pack that was left became more fragile, not less. It was, perhaps, unavoidable that the subsequent slides came down as members of my group made their way towards me. Having lost contact with them at this point it was too late to warn them what was happening. Lesson 1. Don’t put your radio down on the ground. Group contact/communication is too important.

So now that the new season is almost upon us, you must not hesitate to sign up and learn more about this side of skiing. It really is less about personal performance and all about supporting each other and enjoying the adventure.

The supporting photos are helpful in understanding the pitch angles and orientations so I’m hoping they can be posted in a way that will make it easy to refer to. One of our plans for the new season is to up-date our web site so that everyone can post their points of view and benefit from the inter-reaction of our groups. I’ll certainly try to update the site on further advances with the injured leg. Meanwhile, let me again thank everyone for their generous support which has eased the load during my rehab.

I hope to see you all again soon.

TJ Baird

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