Slide Rules

An avalanche buried their friend -- and a Denver trio is still digging out.

Crowley's reasons for wanting another tool to help him survive an avalanche weren't complicated. "I kept thinking, 'I would really hate to suffocate under two tons of snow,'" he recalls. His prototype -- a snorkel covered by a filter made out of his wife's pantyhose -- worked so well that he refined the under-snow breathing apparatus. A year later, he convinced Black Diamond, a Utah-based outdoor-gear manufacturer, to make the Ava- Lung. The device is worn like a vest, with a snorkel-like tube in the front that is designed to draw air out of snow. The system then directs the person's exhalations behind him, delaying asphyxiation.

The company arranged tests in which subjects agreed to be buried under the snow both with and without the device. Those buried without the system were provided a small pocket of air in front of their faces -- the same thing that experts recommend victims try to create before the snow settles around them. The results of the tests made it into the Journal of the American Medical Association. With the AvaLung, "victims" could almost always stay buried for up to an hour. Without one, their carbon dioxide levels began reaching dangerous levels at around eight minutes.

Mike had wanted an AvaLung because he always needed the latest gadget. But all the time he'd spent in the backcountry had given him a funny feeling of inevitability, too. "I'd been taking avalanche and snow science for fifteen years," he says. "I'd never been caught in one, but I knew the law of averages was going to catch up with me sooner or later."

Craig LaRotonda
Craig LaRotonda

Still, "I didn't know what it was going to feel like getting hit," Mike says. "I'd heard that it was like being slammed by a bus. But this was more like being nudged by a bus. It was like being in a big tumble dryer full of towels -- very soft, very quiet, like a wave in the ocean. All around you are these soft 'whumping' noises."

Mike agrees that "there was no chance of swimming at all." Still, he was grateful to learn that what he'd heard about orientation inside an avalanche -- that when you are caught in snow you can't tell which way is up and which way is down -- was also wrong. "When I was tumbling, I could always tell whether I was upside down or right side up," he says. "At one point my head popped up and I saw the sky, but then I was dragged under again. Most of the time when I was down, I could feel the hard ground underneath me. Then I went over this rock 'band,' and I lost the ground."

Scientists who have studied avalanches know that a snowslide very closely mimics the movement of water as it flows and moves downhill and around objects. As it pours over an obstacle, for instance, snow -- like water -- creates an eddy, or a spot of calm where it moves back toward the direction of the main flow. Mike had landed in one.

As the snow began to fill in around him, he remembers reaching up with his left hand to try to clear the snow that was still racing by away from his head. Then, with a giant "whump," the main flow of the avalanche charged over him, and he was covered.

Although snow has been studied in one form or another for thousands of years, there still remains some debate over why avalanches set up so hard immediately after they stop. Most people who have been caught in one, or who have spent time digging people out of avalanches, describe the snow as "concrete." Some researchers maintain that it is a simple matter of compaction -- that the sheer weight, combined with the velocity of the slide, crushes the snow into what is, in effect, a giant snowball.

More recent research, however, has hinted that the enormous amount of kinetic energy created by snow racing down a mountain actually creates heat, which in turn melts some portion of the snow. When an avalanche stops, it then re-freezes nearly instantly, molding into a form around whatever happens to be inside. Rescuers often say that if you could cut around a buried person with a saw, you would see a perfect indentation of the person's body -- like that of an injection mold.

The actual number of people who perish each year in Colorado as the result of an avalanche is relatively small. In any given season, about seven people will be buried to death. Statistically, that means you are more than three times as likely to get struck by lightning as you are to die by avalanche in this state. Yet Colorado remains the avalanche mishap capital of the country; in a typical year, about one in every three avalanche accidents will happen here.

Many believe this is the result of the state's phenomenal population spurt during the last decade. "A million more people in Colorado, a million more people recreating," Atkins says. Yet other states have seen similar growth without a comparable increase in fatalities. The real cause of Colorado's high mortality rate is the snow. The state's fluffy white stuff, which draws hundreds of thousands of powder-hungry resort skiers, is also a liability.

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