Avalanches: The Deadly Risk

Avalanches: The Deadly Risk

By Dr. George

Eavesdropping on a conversation Jacob Söderqvist had with Dr. George:

Jacob: Hi, Dr. George.

Dr. George: Hi Jacob, what happened to your leg?

I got caught in an avalanche at the Crystal Awards at Ärlberg in 1999.

You were caught in an avalanche once before, weren't you?

Yes, one and a half years ago. Nevertheless, it happened again last spring. It happened on a north-facing slope about 40-degrees vert. We'd been extremely aware alert throughout the whole day, but on the last hike up to the last jump, I took off the avalanche airbag. In the middle of the field, there was a sketchy-looking windlip. I wanted to cut it off with my board and climb over it, but suddenly everything around me began to move. I was pushed in all directions by the avalanche–just like laundry in the washer. All I could think was, “Jacob, now your life's at stake.”

The board wasn't strapped to your feet?

Thank god it wasn't, otherwise it would have pulled me under the snow. I struggled and tried to stay on top with the help of swimming moves. When the avalanche finally stopped, I was left sitting on top of it–like on the toilet. When I looked down at my legs, my left foot didn't point forward, but backward.

What did you do then?

I didn't feel any pain yet, so I pulled the foot 180 degrees back to its normal position. Then a man came along and we sent him to call for help. Around 40 minutes later, a guy from mountain rescue showed up. I had to be carried first on a stretcher, and then on a snowcat to the heli pad. Every bump hurt like hell; I was screaming nonstop the whole way. Then the doctors gave me morphine, and I must have fallen asleep.

How big was the avalanche?

Not that big, actually. A bathtub full of snow is enough to slide, and suddenly you're unable to get out.

You were really lucky–not many people can get out of an avalanche with a broken leg. Avalanche accidents are the number-one cause of death among snowboarders!

* * *

Here are some basic avalanche rules to always keep in mind:

First Rule: Get information from an actual avalanche report before you go out.

Second Rule: Stay away from slopes you can't estimate.

Third Rule: Never go freeriding alone.

How long can you survive in an avalanche?

The faster the victim is rescued, the better the chances of survival. According to statistics, 92 percent of all avalanche victims survive the first fifteen minutes they are buried in an avalanche. After 90 minutes just 30 percent live, and after 130 minutes only three percent survive. Those who have an air pocket for respiration with access to air can survive up to 24 hours in an avalanche.

Whether you live or not depends on equipment, the snow quality, how deep the victim is buried, the clothing they're wearing, the nature of the avalanche, and the actions of the victim and the rescuers.

What kind of equipment do I need for freeriding?

The following checklist of minimum-security equipment for freeriders is indispensable:

_Avalanche shovel–multifunctional tool; should be durable, lightweight, and adjustable.

_Avalanche probe–used to locate buried people and also tests the snow depth.

_Transceivers are only useful if:

* Everyone carries a compatible transceiver close to the body.

* Everyone checks the function before dropping in.

* Everyone switches the transceiver to “send” when riding and then to “receive” when searching for a victim.

* Everyone trains in their use.

_Dry clothes–protect you against hypothermia.

_First-aid kit–different companies offer complete sets.

_Bivouac sack–can be used as anmergency tent as well as protection against low temperatures, and as an emergency means of transport.

What about avalanche airbags?

Avalanche airbags can be very useful and help you to stay on the surface of an avalanche. Nevertheless, your life is still at risk if you get caught in an avalanche and suffer from these three mortal dangers at the same time:

1. Asphyxiation

2. Injuries

3. Hypothermia

What can I do when my friends and I are actually caught in an avalanche together?

The most important thing to do is keep calm and think before you act. This applies to both the avalanche victim and those who are searching for them. Panic and stress waste valuable time and energy.

Buried people can increase their chance of living through the avalanche by doing three things:

1. Swim. Staying on the surface with the help of swimming movements can reduce two of the three mortal risks: asphyxiation and hypothermia. In addition, people who are only partially buried can be saved much faster.

2. Squat. A victim who is still under the surface when the avalanche stops should cross their arms in front of their face and maintain a squatting position. In doing this you create an air pocket, and by maintaining this position you will slow your body temperature's drop to the critical level of 32 degrees Celsius.

3. Hope. Those who stay calm and believe they will be saved can survive longer with less air. Hope can save your life.

For rescuers, finding is not saving. Here is the most important information:

1. Dig the victim out quickly, uncover the head, and clear the respiratory path–carefully!

2. Check vital signs. Speak to the person, then check respiration and heartbeat (pulse).

3. Place unconscious victims on their side to reduce the danger

of asphyxiation. In case of insufficient respiration and/or cardiac arrest, use mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or cardiopulmonary reanimation. If respiration is sufficient, move victim to a lying-down position.

4. Check for injuries. Stop bleeding and immobilize fractures. In case of injuries to the back, the injured person must not, by any means, be moved.
5. Guard against hypothermia. Insulate against cold ground, protect against the wind, and warm with the help of clothing or body heat.

6. Alert emergency helicopter or mountain rescue: tell them all vitals, like who, where, when, and how?

7. Provide transport to an adequate hospital. If the victim is conscious, use hot packs to keep them warm, give them drinks (hot and sweet), and allow them minimum movement. If the victim is conscious but disoriented, hot packs are okay, but do not give them any liquids or move them. If the victim is unconscious with sufficient respiration and cardiac function, do not use hot packs before helicopter transport. If helicopter transport is impossible, warm up as well as can be managed, but give no drinks and allow no movement.

Beware!

When a person is buried under an avalanche, body temperature sinks from the outside to the inside. In many cases, blood circulation is restricted to the main organs within the middle of the body. In the blood vessels of the outer (big) circulation, the blood can be extremely cold, while in the inner (small) circulation, temperature is sufficiently warm to keep the person alive. If the body of the saved avalanche victim is moving too much, this can lead to a blending of differently tempered blood, and the victim can die after his “salvation” from hypothermia. This effect is the so-called “after drop.” This is why entirely buried avalanche victims must be transported with minimal movement to an adequate hospital.

Jacob: Since the Crystal Awards, I know how fast you can get caught in an avalanche. This can happen to any freerider. I've been through an avalanche course, and I'll never go freeriding again with people who do not carry a transceiver or don't know how to use their equipment. I think I probably underestimated the danger.

TW SNOW Disclaimer: This column is not meant to replace any sort of avalanche safety or training course. It is imperative to properly learn about dangerous avalanche conditions, equipment use (specifically transceivers), and rescue techniques prior to heading into the backcountry or anywhere else with avalanche potential. We strongly recommend taking avalanche courses.

Dr. G. Ahlbäumer, better known as Dr. George, is an orthopedic surgeon at the well-known Klinik Gut in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Apart from surgery, he specializes in injury prevention. You can e-mail Dr. George directly at biomex@compunet.ch. urse, and I'll never go freeriding again with people who do not carry a transceiver or don't know how to use their equipment. I think I probably underestimated the danger.

TW SNOW Disclaimer: This column is not meant to replace any sort of avalanche safety or training course. It is imperative to properly learn about dangerous avalanche conditions, equipment use (specifically transceivers), and rescue techniques prior to heading into the backcountry or anywhere else with avalanche potential. We strongly recommend taking avalanche courses.

Dr. G. Ahlbäumer, better known as Dr. George, is an orthopedic surgeon at the well-known Klinik Gut in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Apart from surgery, he specializes in injury prevention. You can e-mail Dr. George directly at biomex@compunet.ch.