Avalanche

Ben Mullin shares his experience

 

By Ben Mullin, as told to Leslie Anthony

On March 4, 2001, Ben Mullin, Leslie Anthony and Flip McCririck were visiting the Naeba ski area in the Japanese Alps. It was snowing hard, and they spent the morning skiing the bottom of a steep, forested off-piste slope. The snow was quite stable, so in the afternoon they decided to ski the steeper, untracked, upper face. They unwisely left their packs—with shovels and probes—in the lodge.

I recall little of that afternoon. Just weird details: being in the room where we had lunch, with the circular booths; the entrance to the gondola; riding up to the top; the scarecrow mannequins stuck in the snow holding stop signs to keep people from skiing out of bounds.

I don't remember the terrain or what led into the avalanche, but I remember suddenly becoming aware that the snow was moving. The sensation was of my feet slipping away forward, and then I was in it, upright, but kind of sitting, bracing with my hands and flowing down the hill and thinking "Wow, something is happening," but not worrying too much about it. It was mellow. Then I was slammed from behind by something big—it felt like being in water up to your knees and waving at friends on the beach then suddenly being hit from behind by an overhead wave. That's when I panicked.

I catapulted forward and somersaulted over and over; my skis didn't seem to impede the tumbling. The speed and force of the snow felt strong but not violent. I guess I was hitting trees and skis with my head and face but don't remember—I was really just trying to go with the flow and float on top. I guess I was knocked unconscious at one point.

I must have woken up after a few seconds because I have a distinct memory of being fully submerged but upright with my arms out to the side, and realizing that the snow was slowing down but I wasn't popping up. I could feel the force of the snow pushing slowly between my shoulder blades. I remember thinking: it's stopping and I'm fucked. So I pushed up a bit with my neck and head.

I don't remember anything else until I was fully out of the snow, sitting up and seeing a little bit of blood but not being overwhelmed by it. I don't remember tasting blood or clearing it from my mouth or nose. My head hurt a lot. I remember Leslie going to get help and Flip asking me questions to keep me awake. I was proud that I could remember my parents' phone number.

 

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