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On January 14, the newspaper “Il Giornale” published the report of an avalanche in Alpe Devero (Ossola) which overwhelmed a ski-mountaineering party on its way to Alpe Sangiatto. One of the skiers involved in the accident, Lorenzo Scandroglio, experienced ten seconds of blinding white terror, but survived along with his companions. This is Lorenzo’s first hand account of his frightening experience.

29 December 2002, 10,30 a.m. in the high Ossola Valley. The wind cuts our barely exposed faces like a knife. We inch up the mountainside in single file, one step, one breath, sometimes stopping to take a decision about the next step. We are twenty metres from the top, on the steepest part of the slope. Above us the cobalt blue sky is pierced by the dazzling snow-covered peaks of the Lepontine Alps.

We have left our skis a short way below us: on this slope, not even ski crampons, which look a bit like sharks’ teeth, can get a grip. Our goal is Alpe Sangiatto, which we are reaching with skins on our skis after a three and a half hour hike from Devero, an alpeggio of stone chalets, inns, the scent of wood smoke and no cars. The guidebooks describe a “walk”, an easy excursion, practically risk-free. Our leader is Luciano, fifty years old and 300 climbs under his belt. Matteo, the second man, two metres behind. Then me. My golden retriever Puck scrambles up in our tracks. At this point we come to a place where the snow has drifted, it’s suddenly deeper and softer, something we weren’t expecting. We go on in silence. I turn round for a moment to watch other black specks climbing Pizzo Cobernas, on the other side of the valley. Then I turn back and start another step.

Luciano is up above. He has stopped. Suddenly, mixed up in the whistling of the wind, a high, anguished cry: “It’s coming down! It’s coming down!” I have barely enough time to see the crack opening. I don’t know how far above Luciano’s hands. We’ve spoken so often about avalanches, how to avoid them, what to do if you’re in one. About the Arva, the avalanche transceiver that can help to locate people. I can’t think of anything. I’m under it in a fraction of a second, a whirling mass of snow, of white, of light. “You have to swim and let go of anything that can hamper your movement”, is what they teach you on the Alpine Club course. I’m sure they’re right…I used to know it. I was to remember the advice later. Ten seconds of hell, never-ending, being rolled down the mountainside, not seeing the sky. Thinking: “This is the end”. And behind it, the fear of being dragged down into the gully of the Agaro Valley – a thousand metre drop. When the inferno comes to an end and there’s silence again, I am completely buried. I don’t know where is up, where is down. But I can see white, I can move. If I had seen black, not just figuratively speaking, it would have meant I was right under, maybe too far under. There’s snow in my mouth, my nose, my ears. My poles are still attached to my wrists. There’s only about a foot of snow above me. I’m lying on my side. I shift the snow away easily with my arm and see the sky. Puck is out there, he jumps on me as if it’s a game, wagging his tail, licking my beard. I look around. The climbers on the Cobernas are all motionless. When the whirling snow settles they start waving frantically. They heard the boom, something like blasting in a stone quarry, but lasting longer, they would tell us later. The crack was three hundred metres long. Luciano reaches me, his voice unsteady. Not more than ten metres to my left I can see an arm sticking up. It looks like an impossibly twisted body, as if it’s broken up. We fling ourselves on to him and dig. We’ve got a shovel but in our mute anxiety to get him out we dig with our bare hands. We free his head so that he can breathe. Matteo is practically in a standing position in the snow, like the man condemned to death in “Jermeiah Johnson”.

There is no sign of our skis. We go down in our boots, sinking in the snow up to our waists, our shins hurting. We meet the mountain rescue team, who encourage us. We hug one other. In the end we’re even happy: all we lost was our skis…

A first hand account of an experience which – as recent events have shown – very often leaves no survivors. Lorenzo is one of many (or few?) who made it. We believe his story may be of some use to our readers, in the same way as it’s useful to listen to those who still know how to “read” the mountains, interpret their moods, and understand when it’s not the right time to challenge them.

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