Back in 2011, during an avalanche awareness course, I watched an avalanche filmed from a skier’s helmet GoPro. I remember it vividly: The skier whoops with joy as he swoops down a field of fresh snow before crying out in terror as that snow starts to crumble before him. He falls, white whirling round and round until it’s replaced with black, as he lies entombed under the snow. His cries become a whimper as he struggles to breathe, then, after an agonizing couple of minutes, a light appears, and his friend starts to dig him out.
In this article for GQ, Joshua Hammer explains that the increased popularity of backcountry skiing — combined with climate change causing more variable winters — has made avalanche rescue teams more valuable than ever. Hammer encapsulates the fear of an avalanche as he describes skier Joel Jaccar’s experience: the “immense weight of the wave as it plowed into his back, tearing off his skis, fracturing one of his vertebrae, and pummeling him down in the direction of the ground.” His rescue is one of several Hammer describes after witnessing the Air-Glaciers avalanche rescue team hone the skills that help them save lives with minutes to spare.
While the Air-Glaciers squads might train to face all manner of alpine calamity, it’s the threat of avalanche that haunts the high slopes of Valais with special significance. Every recreational skier and rescuer who has ever swooshed through Swiss backcountry lives in dread of them. “You hear that crack and the silence while nature holds its breath, waiting for the mountain to go,” one expert alpinist, who has lost several friends in avalanches and narrowly avoided being killed herself, told me. “Even the birds go quiet. You can feel your breath thundering in your ears.”
Fluctuations in weather and wind influence how the fresh powder interacts with old snowpack. In 2019, the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research reported that approximately two to three times more snow than normal had fallen in the Swiss Alps that January. As the weather grows more erratic, and as the popularity of winter sports nudges skiers and snowboarders further from the crammed routes and into the backcountry, the risks are mounting. Over a four-day period in January 2021, off-piste skiers and snowboarders set off eight avalanches that left eight free-riders dead. “Valais is the center of it all,” Pierre Féraud told me.