I don’t know if he remembered to breathe. Or to take a breath. Sometimes things happen so fast that your body just reacts. You don’t think to close your mouth when a gust of wind blows at you. You react instinctively.
He remembered to swim, or to try to: “A swimming motion will keep you closer to the surface and you will have a greater chance of survival.” Things felt tight, there was panic. He remembered to keep his arms moving. This was survival.
It had been a clear and calm day. The sun was warm, the snow was softening. There was a glade of trees below where they were standing. It was suggested they try to aim for a route just below the trees and make their way out of the basin along the treeline. There they would have the most protection should the snow above them start to slide.
They smiled at each other and laughed. What a great day.
Then: he was swimming. Where were the others? Which way was up? His legs felt heavy — skis and poles already lost in the washing machine action — his arms were tiring. The adrenaline was rising as the seconds slid by. The pressure around him was increasing. Where was the end? How did it stop?
Then: the slide stopped. One arm lay against his body, the other caught somewhere up above his head. There was a tightness. Things felt heavy. He could not tell where it was coming from. The weight of the snow, like concrete, slid to a stop and packed against his body. There was no more swimming. He was stuck.
He craned his neck around and tried to pull his arms free. He needed an air pocket around his face. The snow was so close. He needed to breathe.
He stuck his tongue out to try create some room. He wanted to spit — trying to find gravity to tell him which way was up. A weak rush of bile was all he could produce, which dribbled down his chin. He was upright. A tear slid down his cheek.
Where were the others? He couldn’t breathe. He needed to calm down. Someone would find him. Someone was looking right now. He needed to stay present and calm. He needed to conserve himself. He wanted to go home. Suddenly, he needed his mom. She would miss him if he stopped breathing, here, under the snow.
He probably had another few minutes, at most. He tried to jump up and create space to free his body more. His body felt like it was in a cast, but he wiggled two fingers in his gloved hand. The movement made him exhausted, stars blurred his vision. It was getting dark. He was cold. Just hold on, he told himself. A swimming motion will keep you closer to the surface and you will have a greater chance of survival. Remember that you swam, he told himself. His chest felt heavy and closed. He opened his mouth but there was no more air.
It was dark.
He saw only colours. There was a blur of blues, reds, whites. There was more pressure on his chest, something was flitting around his face.
There were sounds.
“James? James! Hang in there buddy. Come on. Stay with us. We’ve got this! Start breathing!”
He gasped. Sometimes things happen so fast that your body just reacts. He was breathing.
His rescuers spotted two fingers protruding above the snow surface. He had two broken legs, severe lacerations on his liver and spleen, a dislocated shoulder, and minor whiplash.
He knew he had been lucky. He had been so close to death. He was starting over.