Furberg Snowboards Ambassador, Lars Andreas Nilssen, shares a dramatic event which serves as a great reminder to anyone who travels in the backcountry.
So far my season up north has been both good and bad, though we are still waiting for the spring conditions that sets the mood for steep lines and good companionship in the mountains (the best part in my opinion). My first ski tour of the season was in November, but it took almost a month for the snow and weather to allow decent riding. So, I visited some friends in Chamonix, France and stayed there for about three weeks. We had a lot of fun riding the classic steep runs in good conditions and we actually got to do some great freeriding right from the Brevent lift, on the sunny side of the valley. The Chamonix valley is notorious for the outstanding accessibility because of their sci-fi-like lift system on the
Mt. Blanc Massif. It is perfect if you want to get quality riding without the hassle of climbing over 2000 meters first. We also got to ride powdery pillow lines, eat pizza and drink large glasses of Perroni beer in Gressoney, Italy. After my stay in the Alps I went back to my hometown Tromsø (far above the polar circle) hoping to get some mid season powder, but the bad conditions haunted us once more. We waited and waited for the snow to get better and more stable. This is, by the way, the reality of winters by the coast in northern Norway; you can’t predict how the season will turn out. There are often periods of bad weather and rain but you can say for certain that April and May are going to be better. Sometimes it even snows heavily in June.
However, the bad part of my season is not the waiting game, it is in fact the happening and aftermath of an avalanche incident that occurred in the Lyngen alps a while ago. A friend of mine and talented skier, Ove Sørheim, and myself decided to head out to the Lyngen Alps one day despite the cloudy weather and heavy snowfall. I guess we were tired of waiting for a weather windows to go ride, so we went for it on a cloudy day in early march.
Lyngen is close to Tromsø, but you still have to drive a few miles around fjords before you take the ferry over to the peninsula. When we arrived we decided not to do our main objective, which was a nice couloir that goes straight into the fjord (it is called “The Godmother Of All Couloirs”). We didn’t have that much time because of a late start, so we decided not to do the 5 km approach and go for a smaller, yet steeper couloir instead, closer to the road.
We skinned for 20-30 minutes before we started bootpacking up the gully. The higher we got, the harder it was to move in the deep, fresh powder snow.
On our way up we discussed the risks of something happening while climbing. We planned “safe spots” in case of sluff/ surface slides coming towards us. I remember being surprised about how much snow had fallen since that morning. Still we didn’t feel like it was a hazardous couloir to ride on that day. I had snow up to my belly when we started to realize the danger we were in. We agreed that it wasn’t safe to be where we were and therefore decided go back down as fast as possible. The wind had really picked up high on the mountain and we witnessed a lot of spin drift which made the bad visibility even harder to deal with.
We were just above half way up when we decided to go back down. I had my splitboard fastened on my backpack in front of me and I was just about to put it together when it happened. A surface slide punched all of my gear out of my hands and took it down the face of the mountain. It all went so incredibly fast that I didn’t have the time to think. I saw it slide down the couloir before it disappeared far below us.
Then I looked up at Ove and I remember seeing in his snow covered face that he was, like me, stressed about getting off the mountain quickly.
That was when I realised that I would have to run or try to slide down the couloir on my back since my snowboard was gone. Ove was in the process of removing his skins from his skis when a second, way bigger slide hit us.
I remember feeling like as if somebody had put me in a slingshot, pulled hard and shot me down the mountain. I had no control at all. Fighting against it was pointless, but I still tried as hard as I could to get to the surface. My throat got filled with snow while I hyperventilated for air. I panicked and thought about how we would die on the mountain that day; either beaten to death by rock walls or to suffocation of clogging snow in our throats, or maybe both?
The couloir was narrow and it ended up in a rocky section with a small cliff band, about 300 meters from where we got caught. We both feared the worst, but we couldn’t do anything about it. I remember screaming and trying to spot where I was. I could only see glimpses of rocks appearing as black spots flying by me really fast, as if I were a passenger on a fast train with blurry windows.
I opened my eyes and realized that the avalanche had slowed down and I found myself on top of the debris. I managed to roll out to the side and hold on to a rock about 30 meters above where the cliff band starts. I couldn’t believe it when I heard Ove calling for me. We were both alive, barely scratched.
He had ended up further down and I could see that he had managed to pull the handle of his ABS backpack. He was bleeding from his face and his jacket and pants were torn. There were no obvious signs of a concussion or other, more serious damage to either of us, so we didn’t call for the helicopter. We drove straight to the emergency room in Tromsø to get him looked at. A few stitches later and 300 kr poorer, we were free to leave. I didn’t do any snowboarding for a long time after that day.
Before the snow came to Tromsø, the global ski- and snowboard society got struck by the terrible news from South America, where two skiers and a snowboarder had died in two separate avalanches. These were all athletes of immense mountain experience, the best in the world and sadly the bad news continued when an avalanche killed another famously experienced skier/mountaineer in Chamonix.
When people you’ve looked up to for a long time die of doing what you love to do (and what you hope to be doing for the rest of your life), you get stuck in all of these thoughts. You want to get a rush, you want to push yourself but you don’t want to get hurt doing it. Maybe that is too much to ask for? As the cliché goes: it’s a fine line between pushing yourself and getting hurt. We know that the risks are there and we have to respect them, but at the same time: it wouldn’t feel like an adventure if the possibility of failing wasn’t there (cliché nr. 2).
It is easy to recall the signs of danger that were there, the things that you should’ve noticed before the incident and not after. You feel quite stupid when you’ve ignored them. This season has so far taught me a lot about the “fine line” and it has given me a chance to be a bit more careful in the future. I realize, much more now, the importance of thorough planning and spotting the different factors that can tell you how safe the conditions really are. I love snowboarding and it is a huge part of my life, but you can’t shred if you’re dead.