‘Avalung’ helped trio survive Vail-area avalanche
The Denver Post
Eagle County, CO Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Had it turned out differently, everyone would know the names of the three victims who triggered an avalanche Jan. 16 after spending the night at the isolated Eiseman Hut on the Gore Mountain Range overlooking Vail, Colorado.
Instead, we know only their initials ” M.F., J.R., J.M. ” from a cryptic entry in the hut’s log book stating little more than “Class 3 Avalanche, All 3 buried – 1.5 hours, 2-9 (feet) overhead . . . Lucky to be alive.”
This is a survival story. A story of good fortune, dubious decisions, determination, education and lifesaving technology.
When three men on a backcountry trip were buried under as much as 7 feet of snow for more than two hours without help, it was an increasingly popular device known as the AvaLung that at least one of them reported is a reason he is still alive.
“Someone was on their side, whether it was karma, Murphy or I don’t know. They were lucky,” said Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster Brad Sawtell, who interviewed all three. “But I’m really happy for our (backcountry skiing) culture that these guys made it through. That’s a beautiful thing.”
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The incident report that the group, which wishes to remain anonymous, filed two days later with the CAIC led to one of the most informative and detailed burial accounts in the center’s 35-year history.
All three men were buried for at least an hour before one managed to dig out. According to the report, the longest and deepest burial lasted 2 hours, 15 minutes (determined with the aid of digital photo time stamps) under about 7 feet of snow (rather than the 9 feet logged).
Other than a guardian angel, Sawtell believes one thing the men had going for them was preparation. All were equipped with the standard backcountry snow tools of avalanche beacons, shovels and probe poles.
But perhaps equally significant was they all had an AvaLung, invented in 2000 by Denver psychiatry professor and backcountry skiing enthusiast Tom Crowley. Black Diamond spent a half-million dollars making the design practical, and the version on the market now ” AvaLung II ” came out in 2001.
According to the CAIC report, the deepest and longest-buried victim stated, “The AvaLung is one of the reasons why I am alive today.”
Carbon dioxide poisoning
While suffocation under deep snow accounts for about 75 percent of avalanche deaths (trauma and hypothermia account for the rest), research shows that they are typically due to carbon dioxide poisoning, or hypoxemia. Burial victims exhale in a confined space and ultimately rebreathe the oxygen-depleted air.
The AvaLung acts as a sort of snow snorkel that allows the user to breathe fresh air directly from the snowpack and divert the exhaled COb to a vented exit behind the person.
Statistically, 92 percent of avalanche victims survive if they are dug out within the first 15 minutes. After an hour, only about 25 percent remain alive, and after two hours, almost no one survives. Roughly 2 percent of avalanche victims survive a burial of 7 feet. CAIC forecaster Scott Toepfer can’t recall anyone surviving a burial any deeper.
Information that avalanche victims provide is voluntary, especially in a self-rescue, and their anonymity is protected. “A lot of avalanches go unreported because people think they are going to get in trouble,” Sawtell said. “But it’s not illegal to trigger an avalanche. It’s OK to tell us. The
goal is to get the word out.”
Extension of breathing
According to Black Diamond’s research, keeping the exhaled air away from the fresh-air intake area can extend a victim’s breathing time from 15 minutes to more than an hour.
All three men carried and used the AvaLung ” anywhere from five breaths to 15 minutes ” and the deepest burial victim clamped down on his mouthpiece so hard that he left tooth marks on it. Eventually, all three men were able to clear an air passage in the unusually loose avalanche debris.
“It’s so lightweight and so easy to use, I think it’s become part of the standard kit for a lot of people,” Penn New hard of Black Diamond said. “There are about 12 or 13 documented cases of burial survivals using the AvaLung, so it’s gone pretty well.
“But I’m always hesitant to push them too hard. Even beacons have just under a 50 percent survivor recovery rate. This isn’t like Superman’s cape. Sooner or later, someone is going to get dug up with a ‘Lung in their mouth having not survived.”
Although Sawtell is among the growing crowd carrying the device, he too worries that backcountry users will come to rely on an AvaLung for the wrong reasons. “The danger doesn’t change just because you’re wearing an AvaLung,” Sawtell said.
Two of the men had passed Level I and II avalanche courses and were familiar with the area, the CAIC report says, potentially creating a false sense of security. The three decided to ascend the ridge ” one on skis with climbing skins, another on a split snowboard and the third on snowshoes with a snowboard on his back ” even as they saw evidence of naturally triggered avalanches on surrounding slopes. Despite their training and CAIC warnings, they neglected to dig a pit to evaluate snow conditions.
“We talked about the natural avalanche activity but ignored it,” the skier among them said.
“I had a bad feeling”
“I had a bad feeling right when I put my snowshoes back on,” the snowboarder said.
It was shortly thereafter, as the slope angle they ascended increased to a menacing 40 degrees, when the snowshoer heard the telltale “whumph” of collapsing snow ” and the mountain began to move toward them.
The men were carried 20 feet down the slope, buried close enough to one another that eventually they could communicate through the snow.
The pole straps around their wrists handcuffed all three beneath the debris. The split-boarder ” buried the shallowest ” could move only his left hand since the strap on that arm slid up to his elbow. After an hour, he managed to dig himself out, freeing the skier from his 4-foot tomb 20 minutes later. Together they rescued the third man and returned to the hut.
“What makes this case so awesome is that three people were buried and they’re all still here. But I hope people don’t just think, ‘Oh, an AvaLung saved their lives.’ . . . There’s a lot more to it than that,” Sawtell said. “I think ‘remorse,’ ‘relief’ and ‘humbling’ are all adjectives I’d use to describe this incident.”