It looks like a banner year for snowfall in the west and skiers and snowmobilers will flock to the slopes and trails. The major considerations for boomers who indulge in winter outdoor sports are aerobic and muscular conditioning, avoidance of hypothermia and frostbite, and fear of joint injuries. Not often on the radar screen is another danger….avalanche.
Unless warnings are announced, skiers rarely concern themselves with worries of avalanche and snowmobilers even less so. Avalanche is perceived as a rare occurrence with death from this natural disaster even more rare but there should be greater awareness. There were 752 avalanches involving 1504 people in Switzerland alone over a recent eleven year period. The International Commission for Mountain Emergency Medicine reports that the median annual mortality rate from avalanche in Europe and North America was 141 between 1994 and 2003.
The important first step to avoid becoming an avalanche statistic is to know the site and make prudent decisions about your activity. These are key points.
Rapid rescue is the key to survival if caught in an avalanche. The Swiss Avalanche Research Center data revealed a greater than 90% chance of survival if buried less than 15 minutes but less than 30% chance of survival with burial for 45 minutes. Research by the Austrian Mountain Rescue Service has shown that about 18% of people rescued after total burial survive to hospital discharge. Studies reinforce the need for rapid recue and have shown probability of survival was highest with visual localization and lowest for those located by avalanche transceiver. No survival difference is noted if found by avalanche probes compared to rescue dogs. However, use of an avalanche transceiver did reduce time of burial and mortality compared to those without the device. Death from avalanche occurs overwhelmingly by asphyxiation with less than 10% attributed to trauma and virtually none by hypothermia.
Portable avalanche airbags and avalanche transceivers are available for those in potential avalanche situations. The airbag pack weighs about 3 kg and deploys easily but is expensive, about the cost of good skis. When deployed, the airbag protects against trauma, acts as a flotation device to keep the victim on the surface, and provides sharp contrast with the snow to aid localization. Transceivers transmit on an emergency frequency, weigh roughly 3 oz, run on 1 AA battery, have a range of 125 feet, and cost a few hundred US dollars. People equipped with an avalanche airbag had lower mortality (3% vs 19%) than those without it. Avalanche transceivers lower the average duration of burial (25 min vs 125 mi) and mortality (55% vs 70.6%).
RESPONSE. If caught in an avalanche, one must think quickly but keeping a clear head is nearly impossible.
Michael J. Manyak, MD
VP National Eagle Scout Association
Author, Lizard Bites and Street Riots, Travel Emergencies and Your Health, Safety, and Security