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What it's like to survive an avalanche

Radio New Zealand Radio New Zealand 11/10/2016
Jamie Hareb © Facebook/Jamie Hareb Jamie Hareb

Franz Josef glacier guide Jamie Hareb was trekking solo when he found himself experiencing every mountaineer's worst nightmare. He shares his harrowing story of surviving an avalanche just two weeks ago in the Southern Alps, on a solo mission from Franz Josef to Mt Cook Village.

I enjoy walking by myself. I find it very meditative, calming, just putting one foot after the other. It was just the most amazing area I’ve ever been to in the world, in all of my life. It was really incredible. I didn’t see human footprints for four or five days, only deer paths.

Up in that terrain there were other smaller avalanches occurring. The snow was soft, so it made it hard to walk on and I was aware that avalanches were occurring. Wherever I walked, I tried to walk in the shade where it wasn’t close to the sun line because the snow and ice is more solid to walk on.

I was walking up this shaded ice gully and up above was Mt Montgomery, which was fully exposed to the sunlight. That obviously melted the ice and made a big crack. It was about 12pm.

It was so loud. It was like a crack of lightning and then thunder as it rolled down the hill. I looked up and saw this huge wave of snow and ice coming for me. It was probably 500m above me, so I had about four or five seconds to move.

You don’t think, you just get as high as possible. I was hoping to avoid it, but it filled up the valley I was in.

It swept me off my feet. It was quite steep, so it was moving really fast. I went down in it and the gully actually turned on an angle; the avalanche was funnelling in on itself. As I was on the side, in the funnelling area, I hit this rock and my legs succumbed underneath me.

They got crushed and my body was twisting around and at the moment I’m thinking, “s***, this is it”… and you’re just hoping for the best. There was nothing I could do. And then I popped out and cut my face and hit my head.

I was looking up the mountain, spinning around like I was in a river.

I think it was instinct to stay on top of it. I was on top of it and I knew I had to get off it, so I got to my feet and stood up and got a hold of a rock on the side of a gully. I held on to the rock for about one second and then the rock dislodged and I fell straight back onto the avalanche.

I went back along for another 20 or so metres before I could get to my feet again. The avalanche was so high on the gully that I could jump off the side, onto a ridge line where I just sat dripping in my blood. It’s such vivid imagery in my head, it’s just nuts.

It was still moving for another 10 or 15 seconds when I was on the ridge and I’m just staring at it, thinking “What happened?”

It just roars as it goes down. It’s quite a ferocious sound.

I was sitting there, and pretty much did a damage check. I was covered in blood. I felt my legs and I was feeling my bones. I knew I was in some pretty serious pain. I was checking to see if there were any bones sticking out or if my teeth and jaw were still in. I knew my legs couldn’t really work, so I just sat on my camp mat.

First thing I thought was, “OK this is probably a good time to press the SOS button on my locator beacon”. I’ve never talked to anybody who has had to use it before so I was hoping it would work.

I pressed it and I put my clothes on, got warm and sat in the sun and ate some chocolate and dipped carrots in peanut butter.

Mount Montgomery © Getty Images Mount Montgomery

My thoughts were racing, in my mind I was writing a survival novel - first of all I’ve got to get off this avalanche prone slope and down to a safe area, try and make camp for the night, and then figure a way to walk out of here, which was not going to be that easy.

It took me about two hours of sitting there to think, “Alright, I’ve actually got to make a move” and for about half-an-hour I was very, very gingerly crawling or sliding my way down the slope because I was so injured.

I didn’t get far at all. In the avalanche, I probably descended 150m. But in half-an-hour of crawling, I descended 50m.

I had an ice axe I could lean on. One leg was sort of OK, but the slopes were really unstable, so I would fall and then there would be a lot of pain. Sometimes I was in too much pain to stand back up, so I just sat there for most of it.

It was nearly 4pm and I probably would have been 500m or 1km from the bottom of the slope before a helicopter came round the corner and then I thought, “Oh, that’s right I called a helicopter”.

The experience definitely reiterated the main points of what you hear and read about when you go off in the hills - 80 percent of success happens before you even go out there, it happens with a good plan. Without a locater beacon, I would have been stuck. So that’s important, having a backup plan and being observant of trigger signs and receptive to the way nature changes.

I’m so lucky. I only got a fractured ankle and potentially a ruptured ACL, but other than that it’s just cuts and bruises from head to toe. It could have been so much worse.

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