I’ve had some close calls in my life. My last one wasn’t close, it was right under my feet and over my head.
On February 16th 2014, I, Martin and Maria remotely triggered an avalanche in our “home” mountain range in Kittelfjäll, Sweden. The avalanche broke about 100 m above us and caught and partly buried us all. The crown was roughly 300 m wide and the path was about 400-500 m. In some miraculous way, we all survived and got away with minor physical injuries – I broke both of my legs, got a crack in my chin and a hell of a black eye, Maria got a dislocated femur fracture, while Martin strained his groin and got a small bruise (I am starting to think that he is unbreakable). In time, our bodies and minds will heal, but I suspect that the process will be long and winding. There are so many questions banging against my forehead: How could we let this happen? Where did we go wrong? So many emotions swirling around in my chest; guilt, fear, shame, and an immense gratefulness of being alive.
To learn for ourselves and hopefully provide others with information that will reduce the risk that the same mistakes are done again, we will of course write a full avalanche report of the incident. However, to process what happened that day, I also want to write down in my own words what happened that day in Kittelfjäll.
So here it goes.
It had been a hellish week. The Saturday before, I detected a weird rash on my butt. For some reason I immediately knew that I had acquired the shingles. It swiftly spread all over my right butt cheek and thigh. Very foxy and quite painful (it felt like someone put electrified needles into my ass). Since I am a bit of a hypochondriac I was a bit reluctant to go to the mountains when the weekend approached, but it had been snowing really well for Sweden and Maria had agreed to come, so I just couldn’t stay home. Consequently, I, Maria and Martin packed up Steve and headed for Kittelfjäll after finishing work on Friday. Since Maria had a bad foot and two bad elbows, and I had my shingles, we all agreed that we would take it real easy and just do half days.
When we arrived in Kittelfjäll, the temperature was substantially higher than I had expected. It was very close to freezing, and I remember fearing that the skiing wouldn’t be all that good. However, the next day when we headed out towards Borkan, the snow was all creamy and sweet. As usual, we dug a couple of pits. Our compression test showed a surface instability. With just a few taps from the wrist, the surface layer collapsed. After good number (about 20) of harder taps, a deeper layer below all the new storm snow collapsed on a clean shear. We wanted to do a ECT, but had forgotten our strings and were therefore unable to test propagation. From our CT, we drew the conclusion that there was high risk of a surface release and a smaller risk of a deep avalanche. We therefore decided to take great care in choosing our ascent and descent. Of course we made sure to spread out as we traversed risky slopes and skied one at a time.
It was a glorious day. I was so impressed with Maria. She used to snowboard, but due to her bad foot, she had taken up skiing just 3 months earlier, and now she was skiing like a snow queen and even doing some drops! Martin was doing his premier in hardboots and dynafit toeclips. He said he felt a bit like RoboCop, but I must say he got some pretty nice turns in. At the top of Borkan, we spotted a line on the backside of Kittelfjället. Some open fields, some big trees and the usual mountain birches on what seemed to be a slope with decent inclination. It was very close to where we usually ride, so if it was no good, we could always head in that direction. We decided to check it out the day after.
After three fun runs we decided to let our bodies rest and head back home to charge them with some wine, pasta and a shit ton of Parmesan.
When we came out to the car the day after, it had snowed an additional 10 cm. Pretty good for Sweden, and the snow was colder than the day before. It looked like it was going to be a good day. We easily found the treed small and low inclination ridge that would safely take us to our run. On the flat land, we hear several “whumps”, some of them big. I remember saying, “This is starting to sound like Centennial Ridge :)”. To get a sense for the instability, jumped on a test slope on the side of the ridge. The inclination was about 35 degrees. This produced a settlement but no movement in the snow.
When the slope got a bit steeper, the whumps stopped. Since we knew that the snow pack was a bit unstable, and since visibility was poor, we had no intention of skiing alpine terrain. However, we also wanted a run of decent length, so we aimed for the tree line. As we approached it, we all agreed that this was not a day when we wanted to have big snow fields above us, as the current snow conditions implied that there was a heightened risk to remotely trigger an avalanche. Since we needed to traverse to get to our run, we stopped to discuss the way forward. We had a small open snowfield above and below that we needed to cross, then a place where we would pass underneath cliffs without much snow, then what seemed to be a very safe spot. After a lengthy discussion, where everyone had the right to say “no”, and I was the most reluctant one in the group (and therefore can say with comfort that I could have said no), we decided to skin one at a time over to the other side. Martin went first. While we waited, I and Maria isolated two snow columns with our poles and did hand shears. It was very, very hard to get the snow to go anywhere. It seemed as if the new snow had sintered really well with the old one. When Maria put her full weight on the snow and pulled, however, the snow came out with a very clean cut.
Martin’s traverse went well, and the rest of us followed one at a time. Once we were over on the other side however, we decided that the run that we had planned was too convex and steep, and too uncertain concerning exactly where we would end up. So we decided to turn back. One at a time again, to the place where we had started. All good. We decided that we would try to get to our usual run. It would be a bit of a slog, but we would at least get one good run. We then discussed how to get there, if we should try to stay high or go down through the trees and skin back. Since we didn’t want to have that big snow field above us, we chose the latter. Better safe than sorry.
And then we got greedy. Going down the way we got up would basically mean that we would skin down, that seemed just a bit too boring. Instead we chose to traverse just a little bit to the west, where a sweet little snow field with what looked like a mellow inclination opened up. If we would just climb up say 20 meters, we would get a good run. Visibility was relatively poor, so we couldn’t really see what we had above us. I saw something that looked like a cornice that worried me, but since we were heading back, I didn’t really think more of it.
Martin had only gone a few meters out on the snow field, with me and Maria just a few meters behind, when we heard the whump. I remember Martin saying, “This is us turning back, this is not the place to be”, and starting to back towards me. I did the same. Then I saw him running backwards towards me. “WTF?”. Then, from the back of my eye, I saw a huge wave of snow charging down the mountain. When I realized what was happening, I tried to grab the trigger to my ABS, but before I could, I was knocked over by the avalanche. I reached for the trigger again, and this time I managed to pull it. However, at this point, the balloons were of little use. The snow threw me right into the trees. I felt them slamming against my head and ripping the skis of my feet. All I could think was, “protect your head” as the snow pushed be forward. Then, as soon as it had started, everything went still. My back against a mountain birch, my head above the snow facing uphill.
Silence. Breath in , breath out, in, out. Stillness. Breath. Heartbeat. I was alive.
I heard Martin shouting my name, “I’m ok!”, then Maria? Maria!! MARIA!!!! Until then, it had not even crossed my mind that something really bad could have happened. I could see her helmet on the top of her backpack but not her head. Finally, I heard a faint, “I’m ok”. I tried to get up, but I was buried to my chest, stuck with my butt and back on one side of a mountain birch and my legs folded on the other side. I tried to dig with my hand, but was shaking to hard. Martin was surrealistically fast at digging himself up. He came running, asking if I was ok, then ran forward to dig up to Maria. I could hear her scream. Blood freezing in my vains. “Is she ok?!!”, “She has a broken bone”. Damn. Then the fear of a new avalanche. My backpack was pulling me down towards the snow, but I couldn’t make myself take it off, even though one balloon was completely empty and the other only partially filled, and even though it wouldn’t have done any good with two filled balloons in an avalanche coming down from a mile above in the trees. So I just dug frantically with the one hand I had been able to free. As soon as Martin had checked that Maria could breath, he dialed 112 and the police and tried to give directions to our position and warn for the risk of additional avalanches in the area. We knew that a big group from Stockholm was planning an off-pist day, and were terrified that they would come over “flygarskalet” (a crest above us), to ski “Norgesvängen”, since they would be likely to set off a new avalanche.
Having done that, Martin continued digging up Maria. I could hear her scream. My blood froze. Maria is one of the toughest people I know, and she usually do not whimper, now her screams were ghastly. Martin came running, “Maria has a femure fracture. Her leg is dislocated. I don’t know if I should reposition it or not?” By then, I had managed to dig a hole deep enough to get my own phone. Luckily it was still working. So while Martin stayed with Maria, I called 112 again to ask for instructions and to try and give more directions on our position. We got the instruction to leave the leg as it was, implying that Maria had to lie as she landed; flat on her stomach on the very cold snow. Martin tried the best he could to push things under her for protection, but it was hard since every movement also moved her dislocated leg. And all we had in terms of pain relief was one pill of Ibuprofen…
Giving directions to our location was difficult. We were only a few kilometers from Kittelfjäll and from the main road, and we were close to a, by skiers, well known run. But the the people on the other side of the line did not know the run and therefore did not understand where we were. We should have had a GPS… Luckily, we had some friends skiing another line a few km west, and even more lucky, they had exactly the expertise we needed. One is an ER nurse, one works for the ski patrol in Abisko and one has a lot of experience of the backcountry. While we waited for our friends, I dug myself out. It never occurred to me that I might be injured. I had trouble kicking off the snow from my legs, but I thought that it was just due to the heavy snow and maybe that my foot was stuck in a shrubbery or something. However, when I had freed my legs completely, I could still just move one of them. Fuck. Since I was resting against a small birch, I could use it as a lever to move myself. I finally got my backpack off and pushed it into a position so that I could sit on it and lift my right leg in a high position. Then I just sat there, trying to keep warm.
Our friends were with us within half an hour (I think). Three helped us with warm clothes and hot tea, and three headed down to guide the rescue patrol. Without them, I’m not sure how this story would have ended.
After what seemed like an eon of time, we heard snow mobiles. It was such a relief! However, the large amount of snow that had been falling made it difficult for the machines to get in and without skis on their feet, it was difficult for the rescue patrol to reach us by foot. Luckily, the rescuers managed to contact a local snow mobiler, who’s skills made it possible for him to charge up the mountain in a way that I will never forget. What a hero! This enabled the other snow mobiles to come as close as possible on the relative flat land, and made it possible for the patrol to reach us on snow shoes with sledges and blankets.
Until that moment, I had been totally calm, just focusing on keeping as warm as I could. But when I saw the trees getting filled by people, something burst inside of me. I started shaking all over, crying and laughing at the same time. Then my mother called. She had heard about the avalanche on the news and immediately knew that I was one of the injured women. Hearing her voice really got me crying. I was so ashamed of our mistakes, I felt so guilty that we had exposed ourselves and others to danger, and I was so relieved that we were alive.
With the arrival of the rescue crew, Maria got some morphine. I’m sure it helped some, but her screams when they repositioned her leg will haunt me for a long time. Hearing her pain, and knowing that there was nothing I could do to help her is something that I hope I will never have to experience again.
About 4 hours after the avalanche released, I and Maria were tucked into sledges and on our way down the mountain. Safe, warm and carried by the most amazing people in the world.
We were all taken to the emergency at Lycksele hospital (about 230 km from Kittelfjäll). As expected, the ex ray showed that Maria had a femure fracture, but in spite of the dislocation, it looked relatively good under the circumstances. My ex ray showed that I had managed to break both of my legs and that I had a crack in my chin. But that was all. No back injuries, no severe head injuries, nothing that wouldn’t heal.
We were extremely lucky. This was an avalanche that could easily have killed a person: we were only carried about 75 meters in a relatively slow pace (probably due to the trees we were standing above), but in the middle of the avi path, the force was strong enough to break big trees. We were immensely fortunate to survive and get the chance to learn from our mistakes. Because mistakes we did, otherwise I would not be sitting here with two broken legs. So, where did we go wrong?
On that day, we never dug any proper pits, but I don’t think that was our main mistake. We knew about the funky layer and high density snow on top of it, and we had therefore decided to not ski anything steep and alpine. We were determined to ski mellow trees. However, in contrast to when I skied in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, where I kept a continuous eye on how the snowpack and avi conditions evolved, I had just checked the snow forecast for the Västerbotten mountains concerning precipitation, wind and temperature for the QUALITY of the snow, rather than the stability. I remember thinking that there was a risk of me getting a “home safeness” illusion. I definitely got that. Even though I know that snow can slide practically everywhere where there is snow, the thought of a big avalanche in Västerbotten was never in my attention span. When I said that conditions started to resemble Centennial ridge, I should have immediately drawn the conclusion that I should be just as cautious as I was in Wyoming. I got home blind. The temperature had not changed over night, and the relatively warmer weather that had resided over Västerbotten had made the snow sinter, but we failed to consider that the relatively large amount of heavy snow that had been falling in combination with the relatively strong wind had put a strong pressure on the existing weak layers. The destabilizing factors were stronger than the stabilizing ones.
As we got close to the alpine terrain, we made the decision to stay away from exposure from above, and when we saw that the run we had planned to ski was too steep and could be a terrain trap, we chose to turn back. All our decisions until then were made together and with the attitude “What are the reasons why we should not do this?” and “Does anyone feel that we should not do this?”. However, when we had made our decision to turn back, we dropped our guard, and we got a bit of a summit fever. In spite of just having said that we didn’t want a big snow field above us, we chose to enter in the middle of exactly that kind of place; a snow field with enough inclination to slide above (slightly above 30 degrees), and we actually intended to climb it a bit to get a better run. I still think that THAT was our biggest mistake. Our greed.
To sum up; we noticed several lemons, but we failed to take them seriously enough due to home blindness and greed.
I have also thought about a number of things that made the rescue situation worse that it could have been. 1) None of us had any education in “first response”, so we did not know how to handle Maria’s dislocation. We did have first aid kits, but no pain killers and no proper knowledge. We were extremely lucky that the fracture did not produce an open wound. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened in that case. 2) Due to my shingles, and since we where only doing a “small day”, I had left my blizzard blanket in the car. There are no “small days” in the backcountry. As soon as you are out there, you are exposed. If I had brought it, Maria’s wait for rescue would have been much easier. 3) We were extremely lucky to have functioning phones. I had mine in my pocket (airplain mode not to disturb my beacon). It could easily have been broken. From now on, I will always keep it in my backpack, fully charged and off so I know I have batteries. 3) I don’t really know how, but from now on I will also try to carry something that can be used as splints to make it possible to get down the mountain with a fracture. If Martin had been injured as well, it would have been vital that I could have made it down to get help. The shovel handles may be an option, but I have to make sure to have some proper straps that can be used to tie things together.
I realize that we could have died that day. But we didn’t. We are alive and we will all heal. It will take time, both physically and mentally, but we will get there. I know that a lot of people questions the risks we take. How we can expose ourselves and our loved ones to the risk of losing us. I understand that from an outside perspective, our choices may seem risk loving and irresponsible.
When I started going off pist (side country), I was actually irresponsible. I wasn’t risk loving, but I was an ignorant fool. I didn’t want to look like a coward, and I wanted to be cool, so I followed others who I presumed had adequate knowledge. But I was always terrified of avalanches. Back then I wanted guaranties that there was no risk what so ever going down a slope, but I never took any responsibility in checking that the risks I took was in line with the risks I wanted to take.
Over the past few years, I have lifted the responsibility for my safety from my comrades and put it on myself. I have tried to learn as much as I can about snow. I am still nothing like an expert, but I am learning more and more each day. I know that regardless how much I learn, there will always be a risk that I will get injured or killed. But the more I learn, the more I can minimize the risk of that occurring, and the more I learn, the more I know what the risks I take are.
So should I take these risks at all? The way I see it, we take risks everyday; falling in love involves the risk of getting your heart broken, going outside means that you can get run over by a car, and sitting on your butt increases the risk of a heart attack. I love being outside, in the mountains. It makes me the happiest person on earth. Without it, I would not be me, and I would not be happy. In addition, it makes my body and mind strong, and it has given me the best friends I will ever know. I of course hope to live a long and healthy life, but if I eventually get killed in those beautiful mountains, it would still have been worth it because my life would have been a happy one.
I feel a lot of shame of the mistakes we made last Sunday. With our experience, we should have known better. But we cannot change what have already happened. What I can do is to learn as much from our mistakes as I possibly can, and make sure I don’t do them again.
Some last words that needs to be said:
Martin and Maria, I love you both and I cannot express how happy I am that you are both still around. Mattias, Oskar, Martin, Linda, Desiré and Johannes. I owe you my life. There is no thank you enough for that. Fjällräddningen, SOS alarm, the police, the local snow mobile hero and the other volunteers, the same applies to you. There are no words. How do you give thanks to someone who saved your life?
And now, I will rehab.
Martin has also written about the incident. You can read about his experience here.
Maria’s take on it
Some follow ups:
Kittelfjäll revisited in summer
Kittelfjäll revisited in winter
Edit 2017: I am currently the project leader of a research project called “White Heat”. The focus of the project is on risk-taking behavior in avalanche terrain. Read more about the project here: whiteheatsite.wordpress.com