Zahan Billimoria Will Fight for His Survival
When the mountain guide was caught in an avalanche, he was sure it was the end. But deep inside himself he discovered the will to live.
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Zahan Billimoria shared his story with producer Cat Jaffee for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It was edited for length and clarity.
I had this feeling of, Oh, that’s unfortunate, but no problem I can escape from this. This is not an overwhelming amount of force. But moments later, as I was clawing and just trying to arrest myself, I started realizing that I really didn’t have quite the force to meet this moving river of snow that I thought I did.
As much as I clawed and fought my way back towards the mountain, the more the mountain just kept dragging me down.And that’s when I realized it’s over. I can’t win this battle anymore.
My name is Zahan Billimoria. I usually go by Z. I’m a dad, I’m a business owner, a coach, a mountain guide, and I live in the Tetons, in Jackson, Wyoming.
When I think about moments where I was really struggling and having trouble getting out of the situation, I automatically default back to the terror of being avalanched, which is one of the most helpless feelings that I think a human could ever experience. Where at one moment you’re feeling very much one with nature, you’re gliding through nature—and then in the next moment you’re engulfed in it. And instead of having this really joyous experience of traveling through it, you are being suffocated and choked by it.
My small team, we were three of us, had had a very challenging day up high in the mountains where a storm essentially forced us to retreat. Things were very, very dicey. The winds were so ferocious, so we couldn’t descend the way that we had wanted to. And we had to overcome all of these hazards that the mountains had presented. And I felt relieved, and the only thing left to do was to just negotiate this one last exit couloir, that was maybe 1,000 feet.
I remember this feeling of calm that descended over me as I sensed that the greatest hazards were behind us and I could visually see a clear path, a clear line of snow just leading out of the way of all the hazards and down into much more friendly terrain. And at about the same time as I felt that rush of relief and that sort of warm feeling that you get when you have come through a really dicey situation, I saw this fracture that initiated just right at my left arm. It was just barely within reach and the snow fractured right up above me, above my skis.
So I just felt this sensation of accelerating as I was just in the grasp of it. And the force of the snow was overwhelming. And I plowed right into this big thumb of rock. And I smacked into it and it clipped my elbow. And I remember thinking, like, Okay, that’s it. Like that’s it. Like now we’re just along for the ride and any minute now the world’s going to go black.
So in those moments, I made peace with letting go. And I said my goodbyes to my children, to my wife. And I thought, all right, this is how the story ends. I had tried, I had fought, I had clawed, and it hadn’t been enough. And, you know, I knew so many friends who had passed in avalanches. It didn’t feel all that surprising that after a life lived around steep snow that I would eventually get caught. So I think in my head, I started saying, you know, kind of preparing to let it go, to let life go.
When, all of a sudden, I just felt this surge of energy and this sense of like maybe I will die now, but I’m going to die fighting. And I thought, If I’m going to fight, I’ve got to try something different, because doing more of the thing that I’m doing now is not going to result in a different outcome. I decided to leap and to just push off the snow on my left foot, and to try to essentially do a 180 and flip myself from my left side over onto my right side. And see if that gave me a different feeling as so and maybe a window for escape.
I threw myself up in the air and flipped and twitched. The force of landing allowed my skis, for just this brief millisecond, to connect with the surface below the river. And as soon as I felt those edges just touch down on the bed surface, I was like, This is my moment. And I just stood up, centered myself on my skis, and it just shot me like a rocket right through all the debris.
And I remember twisting my head down the hill, looking over my left shoulder, and I just saw the stream, the river of snow just go catapulting down towards this huge buttress that I’d been looking at the whole time that I thought would be my demise. And it just exploded and created this, like, very beautiful, huge 30-foot tsunami wave that just curled back into the debris. And I was safe.
I made a lot of my life living a really high-risk existence that I really enjoyed and gave my life a lot of meaning. It made much of my adulthood just really satisfying. And I think one of the lessons that I was told by my mentor early on was that you should never be afraid to reinvent yourself. You should never be afraid to do things differently. And just because what you have done has gotten you some great life experiences and has been positive, it doesn’t mean that that’s the same script that you need to write for your future. And having the courage to reinvent yourself and not feel like you’re trapped is key.
You can’t curl up in a ball and you cannot accept the situation’s outcome because it hasn’t happened yet. Even when it feels so inevitable that this is insurmountable, whatever you’re most afraid of, it has not happened yet. So you have got to fight. You’ve just got to use all of your faculties and put them to the task, and you might just survive.
Zahan Billimoria, also known as Z, is the founder of the Samsara Experience, where he is a mountain guide and coach. He lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and has achieved multiple first descents throughout the Teton range. You can learn more about Z at samsaraexperience.com and in the documentary Solving for Z: A Calculus of Risk. This story was produced by me, Cat Jaffee.
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