It was 3pm and two clients and myself were skinning up the last 100m of the west face of the Castor (4230m) in the Monte Rosa massif. Being a guide based out of Alagna,Italy, a quaint mountain village nestled on the southern flank of Europe's second highest peak, I had done this tour countless times. A long traverse from the Kleinmatterhorn (Top of Zermatt), past the Breithorn, climb the 1000ft westface of the Castor(30-45�), traverse its spectacular knife edge ridge and finally ski down the fairly steep but straightforward south face to the Quintino Sella hut and some of Italy's best pasta and polenta. Just another one of the 250 days a year I spend in the mountains.
Normally the west face of the Castor is icy and only negotiable with crampons and an ice axe. Today, conditions were exceptional and we were able to skin up to the final bergschrund separating the 150ft steep headwall from the summit ridge. It had stopped snowing and visibility had improved to about 100ft, just as the Swiss weather forecast had predicted. The three of us were fanned 20 ft apart (a standard safety precaution when negotiating potential avalanche prone terrain) and quickly and easily moving up the mountain.
All of a sudden without warning I was thrust into the air by a wall of snow so powerful that it made me feel like a rag doll in a washing machine. What probably lasted no more than a minute seemed like an eternity. Cartwheeling down the face at breakneck speed, I heard a snap and felt a sharp pain in my left knee just before my ski released while flying over a short ice cliff and crevasse.
After falling almost 400ft, the avalanche slowed and I fortunately was able to ski out of the main flow on my right ski. Total silence, bad visibility, only one ski, a torn ACL and no sign of my two clients. A guide's worst nightmare!!
Turning on my beacon, I realized that a signal was coming from about 50ft below me. Slithering down on one ski to the edge of a 20ft serac, I looked down and saw a glove sticking out of the snow moving frantically. Going around the serac was not an option. Instead, I pointed the tip of the ski down and did a controlled fall, landing only a few feet to the right of the glove.
Within seconds I had her head clear and was digging to find and turn off the avalanche beacon so that I could locate my second client. Because going back up the mountain was no longer an option with my incapacitated leg, I was relieved when I heard a shout from above assuring me everything was OK and my second client would come down on his own.
While I finished digging out the buried client and called the mountain rescue via radio, the weather deteriorated again. Normally within 10 minutes a helicopter from Zermatt or Aosta can winch you to safety and fly you to the nearest hospital. Today, even though I reassured my clients they would pick us up, I was sure that we would have to spend the night at 4150m and wait for a rescue the following day.
The only way to survive with no bivy gear in the winter at this altitude is to dig a snow cave. Within an hour we had a comfortable snow cave constructed where all three of us could lie down using our packs, rope and extra clothes for insulation. While the outside temperature was -20�, it was well above freezing in the snowcave and my clients who were not injured jokingly called it "hotel castor." Still, it was a sleepless night, my knee stiffening in extreme pain. If the weather cleared, the mountain rescue operator reassured me that a helicopter would be there at 6:30am to pick us up.
After a long night we brushed away the snow to the entrance of our shelter and found blue skies and no wind, the perfect conditions for a helicopter rescue. Since the terrain was too steep for a landing, each of us were separately winched into the helicopter and flown to the Aosta hospital. That ended our ski trip and my guiding season!
We later found out that a small cornice had broken off the ridge, triggering the avalanche that hit us from above. Being a professional mountain guide is one of the most rewarding yet dangerous jobs I can imagine. It takes a lot of experience, knowledge, humility and yes...luck to become an old mountain guide! I have turned backcountless times due to bad weather, high avalanche, rockfall, seracfall risk, icy slopes, verglass, crevasse danger, tired clients or simply a bad feeling.
That bad feeling is what we call a guides survival instinct. The day of the accident I had a strange feeling at the bottom of the castor and tried to call the Sella hut to obtain more information regarding conditions and weather forecast. No cellphone coverage was available, so we continued up the face despite that strange feeling...a decision I regret today.