Day of the big avalanche:
It was the second day that we were filming in southern Wallis next to the little town called Orcières. I was out with my mate, professional freeskier Henrik Windstedt, on a photo shoot with Christopher Sjorström and Miriam Lang Willar and a mountain guide, for two days in the area near Orcières, close to my home in the border region between France and Switzerland. We had a helicopter that was able to bring us quickly upwards and to take shots from the air.
After riding four smaller lines, I looked at a spectacular north face that was about 2,500 meters high. The snow conditions were quite stable and got us more and more confident, but we still knew that there was a sketchy layer underneath that last big snowfall and that we still had to be careful. We took off quite late, around 12 ’cause the heli was not available before and up there in these north faces we didn’t really feel the temperature rising. We were riding these mini golf lines that felt just great and the only small slab that went didn’t really warn us that much and we didn’t feel like we were taking that much of a risk going into this face…that was already tracked.
As we were getting filmed from the heli and as the lines were not extreme at all, we took it quite easy, doing some nice turns, probably way less focused than earlier in the day. At the top of my line, I didn’t really take the time to get to feel and deeply study my line. The heli was standing in the air waiting so I kind of had to hurry to strap in and drop into the shred. When that small slab broke I just pointed down towards my right, and kind of got away from the big cloud. I tumbled and kept going, but I still had some time to reach that spine where I thought it would be safe--but here is what I didn’t expect: the small avalanche put pressure on the bottom of the slope which released all around me. Suddenly all I could see was just a giant puzzle and of course no escape. It felt natural to just pull the handle of my abs (avalanche airbag pack) and hope for the best.
As the huge washing machine tumbled me like I’ve never felt before, I just fell unconscious until they found me around ten minutes later. I was a wreck. Henrik had luckily found me and taken out the snow from my mouth and cut the strap of my helmet that was strangling me. I didn’t respond for fifteen minutes. It must have been the worst time for these guys…I have very vague memories of this phase as well as some from my heli ride with the rescue team that arrived maybe half an hour later. I can still remember the noise of the heli with the wind in my face as well as the guys that were with me. When I got to the hospital, everything started to get better and better. I remember fighting in my head to really get everything back, which came along with the positive results of all the scans and tests they would have done on me. My wife was there on my side as well as a lot of friends that were filming in the area. It was just a miracle…I looked pretty bad with my red eyes that I kept for about a month, and the only injury I had was a torn internal ligament on my knee. After two kilometers and 1,200 meters getting smashed in the biggest avalanche…All I can say is that some miracle happened that 29th of March…It was not my time to leave that day…
So if it’s not too impertinent a question, how can such a thing happen to an experienced professional like yourself?
Mountains always involve danger. Even in the best conditions, you can make a wrong move on your descent and trigger an avalanche. It’s something you have to be aware of constantly. That’s why I look at the line very closely, and I check where I could escape to if the slope suddenly slides or if too much snow starts to move. Unfortunately, I didn’t check closely enough that day. You should never forget the rules, especially when you want to push yourself to your limits. The whole situation showed me that, no matter how careful and experienced you may be, you can never be 100 percent certain, so that’s why you must always take precautions. Avalanche beepers and airbag rucksacks are therefore also always part of my equipment.
Can you describe what happened in more detail?
At about 2 p.m., I got the signal from my crew to start my descent. Everything was being filmed and photographed from the helicopter. The timing and the light are extremely important for a shoot like that, so I didn’t have much time to double check. On the upper section, a small slab of snow came loose between the rocks, which didn’t really worry me too much. I often say in such situations that speed is your best friend. This time, even that didn’t help. I picked up my pace until I was going along at a fair speed, and at first everything indicated that I’d managed to get away from the white monster and I’d be able to laugh about it all afterwards. Then I noticed these huge cracks everywhere underneath me. The entire slope suddenly contracted in fractions of a second, and there was absolutely no way, even at full speed, I was going to escape. When I look back now, I simply didn’t take enough time to check my line and consider good escape routes. So I’m doubly thankful that everything turned out OK in the end.
What then? How did you survive?
When I realized that the mountain was pulling me downwards, and I had no chance of escape, I pulled the release handle on the airbag rucksack. I just reached for it intuitively--I didn’t even think about it. Then I felt myself tumbling over several times. It almost seemed as everything was in slow motion. Afterwards, I still have a few memories of how my friends found me about two kilometers further down. My first proper memory, though, is in the hospital.
...wow, two kilometers! How did the others find you?
I was very, very lucky. The airbags protected me from being overwhelmed by the mass of snow. I lay on top of about six metres of hard-packed avalanche snow. If I’d been under this pack of snow, I’d simply have been crushed. Although I lay on top of it, my mouth and nose were filled with snow. I was unconscious and my helmet was strangling me so that I couldn’t breathe. It took about ten minutes for Henrik to come down to where I was. He saw the red airbags in the snow, but actually they thought I was much further up the slope and were going to look there. Nobody really believed, though, that I could have survived.
It sounds so dramatic. What have you learned from this, and what advice would you give to other riders who go freeriding?
Take things one step at a time and always imagine the worst-case scenario when making decisions. Most of all, don’t rely on your equipment. We talk about people taking more and more risks when they go off freeriding. It’s definitely the wrong way to go, whatever the situation. We had the same discussion a few years ago about avalanche beacons. For me, the airbag and the Pieps have become essential parts of any rider’s equipment, and I always carry them. This doesn’t mean that I take more risks when it comes to decisions about mountains, but when something goes wrong, they help me out. It’s also why the ABS Airbag has now become hugely popular among professional freeriders. I actually feel rather uncomfortable now if I don’t have the airbag rucksack with me, or if I’ve forgotten my beeper. However, both things are very different. The avalanche airbag is very easy to use and can prevent you from being buried under the snow, which is the most important thing. You need practice and experience for the beeper, and you can be found more quickly if you get buried by an avalanche.
Do you still think about it a lot:
Pretty much, especially ’cause it’s being shown around in mags, films and stuff but I feel quite fine about it. I know the first few times on top of big lines after a big snowfall are going to feel strange but I’m quite confident and I still feel that there is stuff I have to do up there. Even a few days after, I already wanted to go back which to be honest surprised me quite a bit.
Will it affect your riding in future?
It will not affect my riding at all but it will definitely affect my routine, especially when filming. I’m usually really careful with the conditions and rarely take the bet on a run when I don’t feel it. But when it gets to filming you sometimes get into this acceleration that makes you do strange things. I will definitely be conscious with that..
How did you think about danger and avalanches before your accident? and has there ever been a time that you been really scared? How do you deal these kind of moments?
I’ve always been quite scared of avalanches, ever since I was a kid. In the last decade, I’ve been able to better understand that phenomenon and getting close or living it quite a few times.
Two years ago I got dragged into some cliff bands by a small, but badly placed snow pocket that broke. I really saw myself gone, and to be honest it’s been quite hard after that. Way harder than this time. Maybe because I then did an obvious mistake, maybe because I really had some time to see the cliffs coming… who knows, it took a long time before I could love snowboarding and feel comfortable with avalanche danger.
The strange thing is that I didn’t really feel anything like that this time, even though it’s been way more radical…Anyways, even when I ride for myself, I don’t really push the limit by trying to open this or that run. I’m quite mellow and I do gnarly stuff only if I really feel it. I try to get away from these groups that push it all the time, I mean everyday, that routine is something that I find dangerous. These film sessions are for me, these times of the season when I kind of go for it and I like the fact to not abuse the good star that could shine upon my head… On the other hand, I like to spend time up there to get a feel good for the winter environment, get used to the snow, to the conditions… this is how you get comfortable and I would say more in control of the terrain and all the risks… there is a limit to that that brings the danger back as soon as you feel too comfortable. It’s tricky all this. It’s a lot about feeling and discipline at the same time. Two opposite attitudes, but you can’t be up there without using both of them…
For me info on Xavier go to his website here
And check out his full part in the new Standard Films release Aesthetica. Standard Films website here
Buy the Standard Films Film Aesthetica direct here