Slide Rules

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

There have been exceptions. The record time for burial in snow, set by a Canadian highway worker, is just over 25 hours. In the mid-'80s, a Colorado miner at the Bessie G. mine in the LaPlata Mountains outside of Durango was trapped in snow for seventeen and a half hours and lived to tell about it. He was saved by his waterproof suit, mining helmet and a cover of loose snow.

The Swiss study was not very encouraging overall. Of the 422 victims included in the report, the researchers found that 241, or 57 percent, were dead upon extraction. They also found that there had been no decline in the mortality rate from 1981 to 1991, despite significant advances in search-and-rescue techniques, as well as better emergency medical care. Once again, the reason was simply a matter of minutes: By the time a search party could be mobilized, in most instances it was already far too late.

The majority of backcountry athletes who are honest with themselves will admit that the study confirmed what they already knew -- that despite all the advances in rescue appliances and survival gear, one factor more than any other influences whether a person lives or dies in an avalanche: luck.

Craig LaRotonda
Craig LaRotonda

By way of example, Atkins notes a rash of recent Colorado incidents. On February 22, a young man was covered by an avalanche while ski touring on Mt. Belford, near Buena Vista. The following day, another young man was swept up in snow while skiing out of bounds near Beaver Creek; that same day, a man was trapped by an avalanche while navigating a backcountry hut trip near Vail Pass. One day later, on February 24, a 24-year-old man was covered while skiing out of bounds at Arapahoe Basin.

The cases were remarkably similar. After being trapped by snow, in each instance the victim was freed by the quick work of his companions. Depth of burial didn't seem to make a difference, either. The Mt. Belford man was barely covered at all. In fact, his backpack, which he was still wearing, was visible on top of the snow. And he was the only one of the four who perished.

Perhaps in recognition of the lead role of luck in avalanches, there has been a subtle shift in the type of equipment being marketed to, and purchased by, backcountry users. Whereas gear once focused primarily on rescue-oriented equipment -- beacons and RECCO, a system that uses a series of pulses and reflectors to locate a buried victim -- the latest avalanche-related stuff is more survival-oriented.

In addition to the AvaLung, which becomes useful once you are buried, outdoor retailers have also started offering several air-bag type devices that strap to a person's back. When activated by a gas canister or spring, a giant balloon inflates. The idea is that the big bubble will keep a person caught in an avalanche floating on top of the snow instead of being dragged underneath it.

Still, neither invention has been proven to be significantly helpful, although they eventually may be. There has been only one documented instance of an AvaLung working in an actual avalanche burial. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the air bags may help -- if a person has the presence of mind to tug on the rip cord that inflates the balloon. Atkins also worries that backcountry athletes, confident that the new equipment will save them in an avalanche, will start to feel invincible.

And so, he concludes, he will, for the moment, stick to what he knows. "Survival of an avalanche," Atkins says firmly, "is more a matter of luck than skill or equipment."

The rescue on Old Man in British Columbia went about as smoothly as it could. A helicopter pilot flying overhead saw the slide and immediately radioed in for help. On the ground, the head guide, Heinz Mueller, heard the radio transmission and managed to escape the avalanche unscathed by skiing to the side of the slide. He waited it out behind a small ridge.

By the time the avalanche had stopped moving -- estimated at half a minute from start to finish -- three people were partially buried; Barry, Richard and John Gould, a Seattle skier. Three others -- Mike, Stefan and Kenny -- were nowhere in sight.

Still, the rescue effort was proceeding rapidly. Only two minutes after the snow slab broke loose, a helicopter had already dropped off two guides on top of the run, and they'd begun to ski downhill to assist in the digging. Richard soon freed himself. With the help of Shovelman, Barry, too, was able to extricate himself from the packed snow.

At first, Richard saw no one. A moment later he spotted Heinz hurrying toward the slide. Another look up the slope revealed a forehead. Richard ran over and scraped snow away from John's face and dug a pit down to his neck. John was breathing and could speak. Richard asked if he was okay. John said he thought he was hurt. "I'm sorry," Richard told him. "But I gotta leave you. I'll be back."

He helped Heinz assemble the long probe from the guide's pack. The two then switched their beacons from "transmit" to "receive" and began listening. After a moment, their two signals converged about sixty feet upslope from John. Heinz instructed Richard to begin digging there; the guide then left to follow other signals.

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