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The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.

- Alexander von Humboldt

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Features

Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.

WRITTEN BY

Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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Travel

Mar 19, 2019

Is ‘Sidecountry’ a Four-Letter Word?

A team of Avalanche experts define the word, and discuss how to deal with the phenomena. Do we attempt to stop the sidecountry locomotive, or shape the definition and attempt to harness its power?

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This article originally appeared in The Avalanche Review, a trade and scientific journal serving the American Avalanche Association Membership. It was written by Scott Savage, Simon Trautman, Ethan Greene, and Doug Chabot.

Riding in the sidecountry is fun, and it is marketable. Google ‘sidecountry’ and you get 438,000 search results. As more people recreate in the sidecountry, ski areas promote it, equipment manufacturers capitalize on it, riders benefit through new technology and increased availability, the media eats it up, more people want the experience and WHAM! – we are lost somewhere in a very successful feedback loop. Ski area avalanche professionals and backcountry avalanche forecasters, however, are scratching their heads about how to deal with the phenomena; do we attempt to stop the sidecountry locomotive in its tracks or do we embrace the term, shape the definition to benefit our mission, and attempt to harness its branding power to educate the various user groups that recreate in terrain adjacent to ski areas?

One of the great slopes on Gornergrat with plenty of sidecountry opportunities, near the top, with the ever-distracting Matterhorn in the distance. Location: Zermatt. By Doc Searls Santa Barbara, USA

Currently, defining sidecountry is similar to defining pornography; people disagree on a formal definition but you know it when you see it. In our opinion, sidecountry is very useful term for describing a certain combination of human behavior and geography. It is intuitive because most people understand that sidecountry refers to the terrain adjacent to ski area boundaries. This terrain is easily accessed, easily “lapped”, and in many cases highly visible. Observing this reality and thinking about the term in a geographical and behavioral sense is important because it showcases the idea that sidecountry terrain is used differently than backcountry terrain, and as such, suggests that sidecountry users may have different needs than those traditionally addressed in avalanche education. We believe that using the term benefits avalanche professionals by allowing them to relate to audiences and be succinct when speaking, writing, or educating on sidecountry topics.

“Sidecountry is backcountry”

“Sidecountry is backcountry” is a recently coined phrase that is also highly descriptive and accurate regarding particular aspects of sidecountry. Sidecountry avalanche rescue is effectively a backcountry rescue – regardless of the proximity to a ski area, organized rescue may not arrive in time. Since ski areas do not perform avalanche hazard mitigation work in sidecountry terrain, the phrase is probably an effective tool to communicate avalanche danger, especially to novice and casual sidecountry users. “Sidecountry is backcountry” is a simple message that is easy to understand. There is power in this: power to educate, power to simplify, power to feel that one is addressing the problem. Unfortunately, we are not dealing with a simple problem or a singular, simple user group.

Ski areas do not perform avalanche hazard mitigation work in sidecountry terrain.

Novice, casual, and experienced sidecountry users have different levels of expertise, attitudes, decision-making techniques, and educational needs. In addition, novice and casual users are highly influenced by experienced users. A cursory look at recent sidecountry accident and near-miss reports reveals that experienced sidecountry users appear to be involved more frequently than the less experienced individuals. The experienced group generally visits the same sidecountry terrain frequently enough to become familiar with terrain features, may actively manage or mitigate avalanche hazard (slope cuts, cornice drops, etc.), and at times may have more intimate knowledge of the slope-scale snowpack structure and stability than local avalanche professionals. Most importantly, an “I’m going there because it’s there and I want to ski” attitude seems to be common; experienced users access the terrain and then decide whether to mitigate or avoid hazard or just forge ahead. Will telling these more risk tolerant individuals that “sidecountry is backcountry” reduce their risk? Will it help us communicate with them? Sidecountry may be the same as backcountry in some ways, but routine sidecountry users and backcountry users are disparate user groups.

Skilled, experienced professional avalanche educators can create effective sidecountry-specific educational programs and presentations. As we have learned while reaching out to snowmobilers, relevancy is everything. Just as force-feeding traditional avalanche education to someone who never gets off their sled is ineffective, so too is drawing a “backcountry box” around someone who skis out-of-bounds 50 days a year, but rarely or never uses skins or established backcountry stability evaluation and decision-making techniques. Sidecountry is a growth market for snow sports equipment and clothing manufacturers, and these companies may be interested in supporting educational and outreach efforts to sidecountry users (their customers). Instead of abandoning or over-simplifying the term, maybe the ski and avalanche community would be well served to take advantage of the strong, established sidecountry brand by partnering with the media and outdoor gear retail industry to accomplish the following:

  1. Define sidecountry as the unique geographical and behavioral issue that it is, focusing on the specific dangers associated with sidecountry recreation
  2. Identify and define specific user groups
  3. Tailor, market, and promote user group specific educational programs

The term ‘sidecountry’ is descriptive, intuitive, and useful. We agree with the recent NSAA Journal Editorial “There’s No Such Thing as ‘Sidecountry’ ” that the avalanche and snowsports communities must better communicate that riders are on their own when they leave ski area boundaries. Our common goals are to educate the public on the inherent risk of avalanches outside that boundary and to help users reduce their risk in this terrain. In our opinion, we can enhance communication by acknowledging the difference in behavior and risk tolerance between user groups, by identifying and targeting the needs of those groups, and by partnering with those that have the marketing and promotional power to deliver the message.

Read Next: Charge Hard, Stay Smart: Guidebook Guru, Fritz Sperry, on Safety in Avy-Prone Backcountry.

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