Experienced skier James Ryan died while skiing in the Italian alps
A British skier has spoken about the moment he surfed ahead of a huge avalanche that killed his friend in the Alps.
James Ryan, 36, suffocated under two metres of snow but Stephen Wilkinson, 36 survived the accident as they skied off-piste in Val di Rhemes in Italy.
Mr Wilkinson said he had known James from Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, since they were teenagers and on the day of the avalanche they were at the back of the group.
The inquest into his death has heard that in a tragic twist of fate, the horrific accident happened when the friends’ guide decided
that their original route from Chamonix in France to Zermatt in
Switzerland was too dangerous because of the weather.
After a training day, the experienced
group transferred to Aosta in Italy and on March 28 last year they
started their ski tour and it was on their alternative route that the
fatal accident happened.
The experienced group had been
climbing up the mountain in a zigzag in the hope of reaching the summit
of Punta Palleta in Val di Rhemes.
He said: ‘I stopped to take a picture which meant that James and I were separated. The next thing I knew, I heard the loudest bang I had ever heard.
‘I wasn’t sure if the guys above me were in an avalanche or if I was.’
Mr Wilkinson ‘surfed’ down the mountain on a slab of ice and when he reached the bottom he was buried up to his waist in snow.
He said: ‘I knew James was behind me
and it was as though we were surfing. Given the size of the slab I
presumed that I would die. It moved very slowly at first and then
‘When I reached the bottom of the hill I was buried up to
my waist and I remember thinking I’d got away with it, but then more
came and it completely buried me.
‘I could only move my left hand, I
couldn’t move anything else.’
The avalanche took place at about 5pm, when the group was skiing near the Punta Paletta run on Mount Rosso. It was thought to be about 437 yards wide.
Mr Wilkinson told the hearing in Huddersfield that he had
discussed with the guide whether they should have been on the slope.
said: ‘We reached the face of a steep slope and as we started to climb
it, I asked the guide what the angle of the slope was.
‘It seemed steeper
than anything I have been up. He said 30 degrees and his body language suggested it was fine. That conversation is one that still haunts me.’
James Ryan with his wife, Helen, and their two children Elizabeth, who is now seven, and William, who is four
Another member of the group, Richard Longfield, was also hit but was found by their guide moments after the avalanche stopped.
When Mr Wilkinson and James were found they were 22 metres apart.
Coroner Professor Paul Marks described the work of rescuers as a ‘valiant effort’ but it took 20 minutes before he was pulled from the snow.
Guy Blundell said: ‘I remember someone shouting “just dig” so we dug. I
tried to get a pulse then we tried to dig around his heart to get him in
a better position to do CPR.’
James on his wedding day nine years ago at Shepley Parish Church near Huddersfield where the couple lived
He was pronounced dead at approximately
4.15pm local time and the cause of death was mechanical asphyxiation due
to burial by avalanche.
James left behind his wife of nine
years, Helen, and two young children Elizabeth, seven, and William,
A spokesman for the family said they were ‘distraught at losing James so suddenly whilst he was on a skiing
holiday which had tragic consequences.’
James’ dad Mel Ryan, 76, spoke
previously with glowing pride of his and 72-year-old wife June’s ‘action
Mr Ryan said just after his son’s death: ‘You get a lot of good skiers but there aren’t many as good as James was. He was an action man – he loved
skiing, went parachuting, did sailing – you name it, James had done it.’
Remarkably, James had rushed to the rescue 15 years earlier after
arriving at the scene of an avalanche in Nepal in 1995 following a freak
James and a friend were stranded for two days in a remote hut after 8ft of snow fell.
After running out of food, they
decided to battle through huge snowdrifts to a nearby village to get
help. When they finally arrived at the hamlet of Gokyo 18,000ft up, they
found it had been devastated by an avalanche.
The fearless heroes, both just 22 at
the time, found a radio and called in help before they
managed to locate a number of survivors in the freezing snow.
Mr Ryan said: ‘I suppose it was three
strikes and you’re out for James because as well as the avalanches in
Italy and Nepal, one hit a cabin just two away from ours while we were
on holiday when he was about eight or nine.
‘He was just so unlucky. There were six of them and he was the only one of that group to be killed by the snow.’