Backcountry series: AvaLung can help buy time for buried avalanche victims
Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum
The following is part of a series of articles compiled by the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame that will take a closer look at the sport of alpine ski touring. The museum is located atop the Vail Village Parking Structure and features a treasure trove of ski history and heritage.
The onset of spring skiing, along with the warm sunshine that accompanies it, signals groomed trails and corn snow at many resorts throughout the state. But for the increasing number of skiers and snowboarders who venture into the backcountry, spring can also mean avalanche danger.
There are various tools both recreational and professional backcountry users have at their disposal to deal with avalanche danger, the best tools obviously being knowledge and experience. These are preventative measures, designed to help avoid being caught in an avalanche in the first place.
But there are other tools that have been developed during the past 25 years that have proven to increase the chances of survival in the event of a slide. One of them, the AvaLung, is a simple device, designed to allow a buried victim to breathe in through a tube and exhale out, away from the victim’s face, through the same tube.
Statistics show that asphyxiation is one of the leading cause of avalanche deaths. Although an avalanche snowpack is 40-60 percent air, a mask of ice forms around a buried victim’s head. Healthy breathing grows restricted and then becomes impossible.
An AvaLung transforms the exterior of a person’s chest into a new and larger breathing zone. Inhale through the mouthpiece, and a panel in the vest front extracts fresh air from the snow. Exhale and a valve forces the carbon dioxide to a panel in the back.
In the early 1990s, Tom Crowley, a psychiatry professor at the University of Colorado and backcountry skier, devised the first AvaLung-like prototype. Seminars on backcountry safety and avalanche hazard set him to thinking about ways the odds for survival could be improved. He hit on an idea one August night while lying in bed.
He took a plastic tube, punctured it with holes, covered it with the best membrane he could think of, his wife’s pantyhose, and buried it under the snow in his backyard. He found that he could breathe through it easily.
Realizing that the pantyhose made for a good filter, Crowley headed to the store to purchase more. When the saleswoman asked if the 13 pair of queen-sized stockings were a gift, he replied that they were avalanche safety devices.
Following his initial backyard test, Crowley buried his son with the invention in a snow pit on Loveland Pass. Once convinced that he was now onto something, he tested it on himself by being buried in snow for 40 minutes. His invention worked so well that Crowley literally ran to the patent office. Enter Black Diamond Equipment, the Utah-based climbing and outdoor gear manufacturer that purchased the patent from Crowley.
Among Black Diamond’s employees was the late Alex Lowe, dubbed the world’s best climber by Outside Magazine, who died in an avalanche in 1999. Several other Black Diamond employees had also been lost to avalanches throughout time, so it was natural that the company’s next big product would be an avalanche safety device.
The vest that Crowley invented was refined for Black Diamond by Neal Beidleman, another internationally renowned mountain climber. The company would invest $1 million making the design practical and two and a half years later, they would bring the product to market. In 1998, Black Diamond introduced the AvaLung vest, while rolling out the lighter and less expensive AvaLung II in 2001. It would later be incorporated into backpacks.
Black Diamond’s version of the vest was worn over a skier’s outerwear. A front portion of the vest was covered with a porous membrane that was in contact with the snow. The webbed patch allowed air from the snow, but not the snow itself, to be drawn into a pocket-like chamber. An avalanche victim sucks air into the chamber through a mouthpiece attached to the vest’s collar.
The mouthpiece was connected to two sections of corrugated plastic tubing sewn into the vest. Each is made with a one-way valve that allows fresh air to be inhaled from the chamber, and the other, to transport exhaled air out through a channel in the back of the vest.
While an AvaLung won’t keep you on the surface of the snow, if that worst case scenario does plays out and you are buried, a properly utilized AvaLung can help keep you alive under the snow for up to 58 minutes. The device is most certainly another tool in the arsenal for staying safe in the backcountry, but a tool is only as good as the operator.
Once again, the single best tool to deal with the hazards of avalanches is the knowledge and experience to avoid them all together. The main thing about the AvaLung is that it buys you time and that time may be what saves your life.