Friday, January 18, 2008


Norway, 23rd June 1991 Ian, Richard and myself were climbing near Turtagro (Sognefjell) region of Norway. The mountains were still deep in snow although it was beginning to melt. Conditions were not bad enough to prevent us from exploring some of the fine peaks and ridges in this remote range. We also had the advantage of 24 hours of sunlight.

This particular morning we set off to climb the ridge above the glacier after taking a short break at the superb mountain hut at Hytla. We should have heeded the deep wet melting snow, but we were fit, the weather was clear and it was sunny. Anyway, as we climbed higher the temperature would be below freezing and conditions better and safer. An hour or two later we were at the foot of a huge slope deeply covered in snow our only barrier before gaining the crest of the ridge. We plodded upwards, close together, slowly traversing across and upwards. Below us the ground fell away and the slope disappeared over a massive drop. There was little risk of slipping in the soft snow so we remained un-roped.

A short distance from the security of the rocky ridge it happened. All of a sudden I saw cracks appear in the snow. In a flash they grew wider and it felt that my two companions on either side were being propelled upwards by some unseen hand. But I was mistaken. To my horror it was me who was moving, downwards on a growing slab of snow. I was caught in an avalanche and being swept away. Instinctively I turned around to face downhill, desperate to stay upright and in balance. I knew this might be the only thing I could do to increase my survival. I wondered if this was going to be a painful end to my life as I headed towards the drop below. It was difficult to stay upright and I was soon knocked to the ground. I managed to get upright and threw my rucksack off desperately hoping I'd not be buried. Then as suddenly as it started the flow stopped. In an instant I pulled myself - mostly my legs - from the snow and ran out of the debris onto firm snow. Relief!. Some two hundred yards up the slope my two companions appeared frozen, as they told me later, they expected me to vanish out of sight over the vast cliff edge.

A quick look round and I realised the reason for the avalanche's premature stop and my salvation was a large bulge in the snow slope - the only one I could see. It was this bulge that prevented me and the avalanche from disappearing over the drop below. I quickly jumped back into the avalanche debris to retrieve my rucksack (we needed the equipment!) and rejoined my companions who told me how they, who were on either side of me when the slope started to avalanche, jumped and rolled to the side when they saw and heard the cracks appearing. A large slab of snow had sheered off an older layer below to a depth of about a foot.

We had made the classic mistake of climbing a snow slope in perfect avalanche inducing weather. The slope had spent several hours earlier in the day exposed to the rays of the sun. The melting snow, now turned to water and sank through the snow to find its path downwards blocked by the harder older layer below. This lubricated the top slab. All that was needed was something to trigger it and make go. That was us!!

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