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The worst freeskiing day of my life – huge avalanche in Andermatt

The near avalanche disaster - the worst freeskiing day of my life

by Aaron Vogel 10/19/2008
Everything pointed to a perfect day. I had been following the daily avalanche reports from the SLF and the weather reports for the Gotthard region since the end of January. After the heavy snowfall and strong winds, it was clear to me: wait for relief!
A dream day in Andermatt

Everything pointed to a perfect day. I had been following the daily avalanche reports from the SLF and the weather reports for the Gotthard region since the end of January. After the heavy snowfall and the massive winds, it was clear to me: wait for relief! On 03.02.05, at 17°°, the LLB appeared: avalanche danger level 3, warning of massive snow drifts and that the accumulations of drift snow were difficult to recognize. The weather forecast showed that winds had been blowing from the east in the Urseren Valley. I didn't argue a bit. I know the area around the Gemsstock well, so despite the reported avalanche danger level, there were plenty of freeride options; as long as you stick to the rules:

  • Rocky slopes are taboo;

  • Extremely steep slopes are taboo;

  • Pay attention to the slope exposure due to the drift snow - in this case, avoid WSW.

Oli, my companion, was to experience a great first day of freeriding. I wanted to show him what fascinates me about playing with the white dress of the mountains - and what makes me addicted. In other words, I was in charge. The whole day went very well. We kept clearances and arranged meeting points at safe locations. The only small drawback was the many tracks on the valley floor, but we were able to get over that.
It happened shortly after 2 pm. We decided to drive through the rocky valley again. We wanted to make the most of the beautiful, playful terrain on the valley floor. We planned to enter the Felsental from the Sonnenpiste. First mistake, which was repeated for the second time that day. It is a WSW exposed slope, which was full of drift snow in the above mentioned conditions, i.e. already NO GO! Second mistake!, close to the foot of the slope there is a rocky, over 40° steep area: alsoNO GO! However, I saw no signs of wind activity to worry me, no dunes or similar. I had already forgotten about the slope gradient and exposure. There were also plenty of tracks and when we first drove down here, the snow didn't look windswept.
As I said, it was just after 2pm and the sun had already been shining on the snow cover for two hours. For the third time: NO GO!

These were the facts ...

I was dazzled by the beauty of the surroundings. I was already dreaming: this was where Oli was going to do his spray turn and I was going to take a picture; that was the plan! There was also powder. Fat! We turned off the sunny slope and discussed how everything should be done. Oli went briefly for little guys before the action, so in the meantime I looked for a good spot to take pictures from. Everything seemed clear. Camera ready, framing selected, Oli ready in 10 seconds. In the blink of an eye, two skiers shoot down the slope. The first one, wearing a blue jacket, is making great turns (I'm enjoying the view!) and is just before the terrain step with the small cliffs, when the second one, wearing a red jacket, also hits the slope in great style. On his second turn, there is a short rattling sound, like dry branches, and the whole slope starts to move. From here on, the events come thick and fast, everything happens in fast motion. I get a deafening "AVALANCHE!!!" out of my throat. The red one turns around, sees what's happening, also shouts something to his buddy (it sounded Scandinavian) and tries to reach the edge of the avalanche between the accelerating floes. The blue one, on the other hand, straightens his skis and disappears from my field of vision, shooting over the edge of the terrain. I am transfixed, but follow the red one as he struggles out of the avalanche. If he doesn't make it, I can at least memorize the disappearance point. I don't know how, but he manages to hold on between the rocks. While the slab of snow, a good 150 m wide, races towards the valley floor, I'm careful not to move. I don't know how it happened, but as I'm holding the camera in my fingers, I simply pull the trigger. I immediately turn around and shout to Oli: "We have to go and find the blue one!" I hadn't seen him since he disappeared over the step. Driving around the mountain, we find a spot from which we can safely overlook the enormous avalanche cone. At that moment, we spot a group of three people staring up the slope and a single skier standing next to them. You can't make out the color of their jackets! We shout down and ask where they are. Sure, I saw the red one in safety, but who knows, another crack could have caught him. After several back and forths, the skier shouts back: "There is nobody in the avalanche!" On the way to the group, I realize that it's the blue one and am relieved, too relieved. The snow slab was so big that the masses of snow on the valley floor had flowed over another terrain level. Neither from the starting point nor from the second observation point could this area be seen.

How Oli experienced the situation

[Text by Oliver Burde]

Recognizing illusion and reality is a task that we have to face with reason. In view of the beauty of untouched powder slopes, this rationality is vital for survival. Otherwise it is all too easy to fall into the trap of equating beauty with harmlessness. That's why every emotional glide into the dreamlike world of powder must be preceded by an objective risk analysis. It is irrelevant how many tracks are already present on the slope in question - judging them as a safety aspect can be a devastating mistake ... It was our third descent through the rocky valley that day. Once again, we turned off the Sonnenpiste pull trail and looked for our PowPow fields. This time we wanted to take a few photos in the upper area. Aron skied a bit ahead and positioned himself to get the best shot of my planned spray turn. On his signal, I wanted to set off, pick up speed, cross into the slope and spray below a small cornice. I got the signal. One last check and ... Shit, I had to piss again! So I took my gloves off again and off I went. Meanwhile, two skiers skied past me. I looked after them. They shot past Aron at the same time, into the area I was aiming for. Suddenly the whole slope moved and a gigantic slab of snow, which immediately broke into a thousand slabs, slid down into the valley. I was amazed and my aesthetic eye was impressed, my mind immediately screamed: ALARM! Before I had even zipped up my pants, the entire powder slope had disappeared over the next rock step and the skiers were no longer to be seen. I skied down to Aron, who was standing less than ten meters from the action. He had seen that the top of the two skiers had managed to work his way out of the accelerating masses of snow to the side, but the second skier was nowhere to be seen. We feared the worst and immediately set off downhill. But the skier below was also able to save himself and was not buried.

We were all lucky!

Of course, I'm glad that the two skiers got out safely and I realize that my experience was harmless compared to their hellish trip. Nevertheless, the question of my fate haunts my brain and every fiber of my body. The fact that I had to pee saved me from who knows what fate and raises questions to which my mind capitulates. Is it fate or coincidence what happens to us or do we have an inner warning system that subconsciously forces us to take action to protect ourselves from potential danger? Was I damn lucky or did I have a guardian angel - I don't know. What I do know is that once again I bow with humility before life and with respect for nature. And I know that I will, indeed must, learn from our mistakes. It is my duty to never again carelessly put myself and others in such a situation, if humility and respect are not just fine words.

This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

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