The probability of dying in an avalanche is about 99.9 percent. Benjamin Büche survived. And he did so although, going at over 80 kilometres per hour (50 mph), he was repeatedly thrown five to ten metres down rocky crags, was torn along by huge masses of snow and was partly buried. The thirty seconds which the avalanche lasted appeared to Benjamin Büche to be a lifetime. All he went through cannot easily be put into words because what he experienced is so different from our normal experience.
It is not the first time that Benjamin Büche has stood at the threshold of death. His parents have almost become used to receiving telephone calls from the intensive care ward. A particularly serious near-death experience occurred about two years ago during a ski jump when Benjamin wanted to perform a double somersault in front of a large crowd but everything happened too fast and he landed on his head. Shortly before impact – when he realised things were going wrong – he left his body. He hit the ground without resisting. Benjamin saw everything from above – or rather, from outside.
He describes how he saw his falling and recumbent body below him and experienced himself in the surroundings – as if the inner surface of a sphere, at whose centre was the unconscious body, was studded with eyes. Shortly after the fall, his body stood up and walked away to the side of the landing strip. But Benjamin was more of an observer when this happened rather than doing it himself. It was as if someone else had slipped into his body, took hold of it and led it away. His experience during the avalanche on the Mittagskogel was different to the extent that he did not become unconscious but hyperconscious and was able to guide his body to help him survive. He did not leave his body but had other forces and abilities of his consciousness at his disposal in his body.
Benjamin had turned 21 a few days before the fall on the Mittagskogel. He spent his early years in the Engadine – in Avrona and Scuol. The intensity of nature and many sporting opportunities determined the life of the child.
Then the family moved to Salzburg. There too he tried as much as possible to engage in physical activity. Circus tricks increasingly became his passion. He can easily juggle with five or seven balls. He has earned himself an income as a ski teacher and ski tour guide for years. At age 21 he founded his own circus and is thus a “freelance bohemian” – a circus director.
Bubbles of consciousness at the margins of death
On the day of the avalanche the weather was relatively good. The avalanche warning centre also reported: everything fine. Benjamin himself had no negative premonitions. This was out of the ordinary because in all his previous experiences on the threshold of death he was aware, at least afterwards, of how there had been indications beforehand that something was not right. On this day there was nothing like that. Everything seemed to be fine.
The route which he chose with two friends is infrequently used. Benjamin estimates that about ten people use this descent in a year. He himself has often taken it – always without a problem. The three young men were well equipped and were looking forward to the descent. They had to climb about another one-and-a-half hours from the mountain station to the other side of the peak in order then to venture on to the descent on the other side of the Mittagskogel. Benjamin wanted to go first. He felt responsible for the others and wished to test the route. The slope is so steep at the beginning that any fall would mean death. Each traverse has to be properly judged otherwise you tumble into the depths. There is nothing to break your fall.
After only a few metres the snow broke away and an avalanche developed which carried Benjamin with it. As he was being hurled through the air and saw the next rocky outcrop coming towards him, his consciousness began to separate at various levels. He describes them as consciousness bubbles which he experienced in parallel but influencing one another.
To begin with, there was the certainty of death. Like a ticking clock the thought pulsed through him at regular intervals that death was coming. This consciousness bubble triggered a different consciousness which ran in parallel. He saw before him why he did not want to die. He saw all the people with whom he was connected. He saw his family, his friends, close and distant acquaintances. He even saw people whom he had never met but who had heard of him. And he saw the life of each of these people connected with himself. He saw their past and their future – yet all at once – so that he could no longer clearly remember it afterwards. He felt bonds which connected him with all these people and kept him alive.
He also saw his past – the 21 years so far – and his future. Yet not in a way in which he could remember it precisely afterwards.
At another level of consciousness he had a sense of everything he had learnt and practised and which all his many sporting, artistic and other activities had provided him with. His skills in coordinating and controlling his body lay before him at that moment like the different colours in a paint box before a painter. As he was being dragged downwards by the steamrolling avalanche and at risk of being crushed by the masses of snow, he did a roll which took him back up to the surface of the avalanche as it raced down the mountain. He was able to make full use of his skills. He said afterwards that at times it had even been fun, like riding a wave.
But he perceived even more. Intuitively he became aware during the thirty seconds that he fell that everything had its own consciousness. He had a sense of every rock and felt its consciousness. He perceived every particle of snow. And the avalanche as a whole itself also had a consciousness.
Afterwards he thought that the avalanche could also be compared with what in the Middle Ages was described as the dragon which needed the supernatural strength of a hero or divine help if it was to be overcome. The avalanche was the dragon with which he danced at the brink of death. And he felt the consciousness of this avalanche also in his consciousness. He was mysteriously one with the whole mountainside.
Snowflakes, too, have consciousness
In the following days, people repeatedly told Benjamin that he had a good guardian angel. Until then he had not thought a great deal about angels and other supersensory beings. Now he asked himself whether he might not have perceived his angel? In this context he remembered the following: during the fall he existed in various levels of consciousness. There was the certainty of death, the experience of being connected with many people which kept him alive, the consciousness of his own abilities, and the experience of the consciousness of the rocks, the individual snow particles and the avalanche as a whole – the dragon.
He experienced relationships between himself with his social connections and his skills and the rocks and falling snow and their consciousness. He described these relationships as multi-coloured and beautiful curves, illuminated like fluid rainbows. These relationships harmonised his movements with the conditions surrounding him. It was due to these multi-coloured relationships that with his skills and social connections, which bound him to life, he was able to do the right thing at every moment in relation to the forces of the avalanche and the rocks.
Whatever was at work in the space – the interval – between him and nature, it enabled the perfectly timed interaction between his movements and the movement of the avalanche, something to which he owed his life. Benjamin thought that his angel could be experienced in this connection.
Shortly before the last impact, which threatened to bury him under the avalanche, he succeeded in moving one hand up to his chest which enabled him to open the airbag he had in his rucksack. It inflated and protected him. Then came the dust following the avalanche and he lay with opened airbag under the snow and dust. He managed to straighten up and free himself. What gave him the strength to do so was a riddle to him. He emitted a loud, shrill sound to let his friends know that he was alive. He spoke to them, still standing stunned at the top believing they had just lost their friend, on his mobile phone.
They followed down to try and help him. Mountain rescue, who had been called, were unable to use a helicopter because it was already too foggy. Evening was approaching and the cold was increasing. If they remained on the mountain, they would not have survived the night. The injured Benjamin was given a ski and a ski stick was pushed through the sleeve of his jacket to give him an improvised support. When Benjamin screamed in pain his friends gave him a piece of plastic from one of the rucksacks to bite on. Thus equipped, he slid and stumbled for six hours down towards the valley. At last, for the final half hour he was finally able to lie on the sledge which the approaching mountain rescue team had with them.
In the intensive care ward it was then discovered with some astonishment that Benjamin had no broken bones. But his legs were severely bruised. When Benjamin visited me two weeks later, he could still only ascend and descend the stairs moving backwards. His body had healed to a large extent but his spirit was still constantly occupied with the images. Death was still so close that he, the extreme athlete, was afraid even of going into the street for fear of being run over and killed by a car.
It required the most intensive reflection on what had happened for Benjamin to come to terms with it. He remained perturbed for many weeks following his fall. Was he alive or was he dead? What was real? Was daily life real or an illusion? The experience of another reality calls everyday reality into question. He sought out many of the people with whom he experienced the connection which had kept him hanging onto life as he fell. He now intends to cultivate these connections consciously. His life will never be the same again. These thirty seconds, which felt as long as the whole of his life until then, have changed everything.
Benjamin thinks that he is not particularly unique in what he experienced. Everyone could have been lucky enough to survive such a fall. He was nothing special in that respect.
About the author: Johannes Greiner is a musician, eurythmist and teacher of singing and orchestra at the Münchenstein und FOS Muttenz Steiner schools and a lecturer at the Academy for Anthroposophical Education in Dornach. He has been a member of the executive council of the Anthroposophical Society in Switzerland since 2005. He is Benjamin Büche’s uncle.