The Aftermath of Survival: Post-traumatic stress disorder is a very real factor in avalanche accidents
Words by Devon O’Neil
By the time Brett Gray stopped moving, the avalanche had carried him 1,200 vertical feet. He had been entombed in darkness and crushed by the massive pressure, choked by snow and—in a merciful twist of fate that likely saved his life—shot into the air like a cannonball as the avalanche rumbled over a knoll, moments before it compacted.
Gray looked around the deposition zone, almost unable to comprehend that he was only buried to his chest. The debris was the width of two football fields, hardened like bedrock and up to 25 feet deep. Amazingly, his sunglasses still clung to his face.
Photo by Mark Fisher_TGR. Skier: Daron Rahlves.
It was March 19, 2012. A minute earlier, Gray had dropped in on virgin powder that blanketed the north face of the Schoellenhorn, an 8,742-foot peak in the heart of the Swiss Alps. Three of his friends, including their guide, had already descended. On Gray’s fourth turn, the mountain started moving like a tidal wave.
Gray, a 53-year-old snowmaker and former ski patroller from Breckenridge, CO, is no stranger to avalanches. Many years ago, he dug a four-day-old corpse out of a massive debris field in his hometown. But he’d never come so close to dying in one himself. The emotional toll was substantial. He spent the rest of his week in Switzerland popping sleeping pills and skiing in the grip of terror. When he got home, he broke down and sobbed with his wife. He stopped popping pills to stave off dependency but couldn’t sleep through the night for a week.
“I would wake up and think about it, and the adrenaline would sweep over me and just take over,” he says. “I was reliving it over and over again: the snow, the choking, the darkness. I kept thinking I was going to die.” He pauses for a minute. “Yesterday was bonus day number 119.”
Gray’s experience highlights a rarely addressed but very real factor in avalanche accidents—post-traumatic stress disorder. Most of society associates PTSD with war, for good reason, but it’s just as persistent in other aspects of life, including activities we do for fun.
According to a study published in a German medical journal in 2002, after an avalanche accident, 28 percent of survivors suffer from PTSD. Completely buried victims are more prone to the disorder, with 41 percent experiencing symptoms including compulsive memories, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, nausea and feelings of guilt. The study primarily found the PTSD to be temporary, but for one in five completely buried survivors, the symptoms persist for years.
One victim who requested anonymity for this story said he still gets “super freaked out while skiing,” more than two years after he survived a full burial for seven minutes. That accident, in Colorado’s San Juan Range, claimed the life of his friend. For weeks afterward, he watched movies to distract his mind from the horror he experienced. It took him 18 months before he felt comfortable skiing in avalanche terrain. Now, he says, “I’ll look at a line that I want to ski—something I would’ve destroyed before my accident—and wonder, will I have the balls to do that again?”
After world champion big-mountain skier Andrea Binning narrowly escaped a large avalanche in 2006, she spent four months working with a sports psychologist hired by her sponsor, Red Bull, in Austria. “I was trying to trick my mind not to carry the accident with me,” she says. But all summer, the image of the slide remained as fresh as the day it happened. The following February, she got back on skis to film in Alaska. “I felt the most fear standing on top of a peak on my own,” she says. “I just didn’t feel like the snow would be stable after my accident. I thought it would all crack up.”
These are typical signs of PTSD, says Michael Ferrara, a veteran ski patroller and first responder in Aspen, CO, who suffered from PTSD for nine years before breaking down emotionally in 2009. Now he helps others seek the help he never sought himself. “The first thing you need to do is understand that you’re not going to be OK. That’s normal,” he says. “You’re going to have these images going through your head. You’re going to have insomnia, sadness, the classic 1,000-yard stare. This stuff, watching your friend die, is supposed to mess you up.”
Ferrara recommends victims reach out to their local mental health center (most counties offer help via phone or in person) and resist the urge to abuse alcohol and drugs, which often compound the problem. The Colorado Depression Center employs counselors who specialize in PTSD, he says. Ferrara even found a local therapist who dealt with victims of violence but was able to apply the same treatment strategies to him.
Other advice? “Get exercise. It gives the adrenaline pumping inside you a place to go,” he says. “Get outside. Roll around in some flowers. Get some sun. Don’t dwell on the darkness and sadness. Go see that life has beauty to it.”