“Three advanced skiers died Sunday when an avalanche pushed them down the back side of a mountain pass and ski area in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, while a fourth survived the slide by using an inflatable safety device. The skiers thought they were in a safe zone, but ended up being swept in the avalanche.  One pro skier, Elyse Saugstad, told the media that she credited her airbag device for saving her. 

The deadly avalanche surprised a group of 15 skiers who were exploring outside the resort boundaries in search of fresh powder at Stevens Pass, about 80 miles northeast of Seattle. Stevens Pass is one of the most popular outdoor recreation areas in the Nodrthwest, ideal for skiing, backpackers, and snowboarders.  Skiing outside the boundaries as a practice is not illegal, but it is considered dangerous.  “It’s public land so the Forest Service basically requires to have open boundaries so people can ski out in the open ski area if they want, if they are on their own,” John Gifford, general manager of Stevens Pass told ABC News. 

The Northwest Avalanche Center had put out a warning telling the public of a high-avalanche-danger alert for areas above 5,000 feet, indicating that warm weather could loosen snow. Police officials confirmed the group knew about the warning.  “Everyone that is skiing was an experienced skier, and they were all wearing their avalanche beacons,” Deputy Chris Bedker of the King County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue said, referring to a device worn to help find people who have been buried in snow.  Around noon Sunday the avalanche took three men and one woman downhill almost 3,000 feet. The three men who died were swept about 1,500 feet down a chute in the Tunnel Creek Canyon area, King County Sheriff’s Sgt. Katie Larson told the Associated Press.

Among the three men who died were free-skiing world tour judge Jim Jack, Stevens Pass Marketing Director Chris Rudolph and skier John Brenan. ESPN’s free-skiing editor Megan Michelson was also skiing with the group but was not caught in the slide that killed the three men. The other skiers in the group were able to free themselves from the snow, and quickly made their way to dig out those still buried. They performed CPR on the victims but were unable to revive them, Sgt. Larson told the AP. 

About two hours south at Snoqualomi Pass, a snowboarder was killed after another avalanche struck Sunday and he went over a cliff. Rescue video taken earlier this month shows a man being rescued when an avalanche buried him next to his snowmobile. There have now been 13 avalanche deaths this winter season, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Experts have said that a weak base layer of snow caused by a dry winter has lead to the dangerous conditions.” 

After reading this story, we decided to search for some of the safety devices that have been developed to save lives of skiers, including  the airbag system that saved Saugstad.

Avalanche airbags – Avalanche airbags help a person avoid burial by making the user an even larger object relative to the moving snow, which forces the person toward the surface. Avalanche airbags work on the principle of inverse segregation. Avalanches, like mixed nuts and breakfast cereal are considered granular materials and behave fluid-like (but are not liquids) where smaller particles settle to the bottom of the flow and larger particles rise to the top. Provided the airbag is properly deployed, the chances of a complete burial are significantly reduced. 

Beacons –  Beacons or “beepers”,  should be worn by every member of the group.  They emit a beep via 457 kHz radio signal in normal use, but may be switched to receive mode to locate a buried victim up to 80 meters away.  Using the receiver effectively requires regular practice.  Since about 2000, nearly all avalanche rescue transceivers use digital displays to give visual indications of direction and distance to victims. Most users find these beacons easier to use, but to be effective still requires considerable practice by the user. Beacons are the primary rescue tool for companion rescue and are considered active devices because the user must learn to use and care for their device. 

Probes – Portable (collapsible) probes can be extended to probe into the snow to locate the exact location of a victim at several yards / metres in depth. When multiple victims are buried, probes should be used to decide the order of rescue, with the shallowest being dug out first since they have the greatest chance of survival.  Probing can be a very time-consuming process if a thorough search is undertaken for a victim without a beacon. In the U.S., 86% of the 140 victims found (since 1950) by probing were already dead.   Survival/rescue more than 2 m deep is rare (about 4%). Probes should be used immediately after a visual search for surface clues, in coordination with the beacon search. 

Shovels – Shovels are essential for digging through the snow to the victim, as the snow is often too dense to dig with hands or skis. A large strong scoop and sturdy handle are important. Plastic shovels often break, whereas metal ones are less prone to failure.  As excavation of the avalanche victim is extremely time-consuming and many buried victims suffocate before they can be reached, shovelling technique is an essential element of rescue.  Shovels are also useful for digging snow pits as part of evaluating the snowpack for hidden hazards, such as weak layers supporting large loads.

Recco rescue system – The Recco system is used by organized rescue services around the world. The Recco system is a two-part system where the rescue team uses a small hand-held detector. The detector receives a directional signal that is reflected back from a small, passive, transponder called a reflector that is included into outerwear, boots, helmets, and body protection. Recco reflectors are not a substitute for avalanche beacons. The Recco signal does not interfere with beacons. In fact, the current Recco detector also has an avalanche beacon receiver (457 kHz) so one rescuer can search for a Recco signal and a beacon signal at the same time.

Avalung – Recently, a device called an Avalung has been introduced for use in avalanche terrain. The device consists of a mouth piece, a flap valve, an exhaust pipe, and an air collector. Several models of Avalung either mount on one’s chest or integrate in a proprietary backpack.  During an avalanche burial, victims not killed by trauma usually suffer from asphyxiation as the snow around them melts from the heat of the victim’s breath and then refreezes, disallowing oxygen flow to the victim and allowing toxic levels of CO2 to accumulate. The Avalung ameliorates this situation by drawing breath over a large surface area in front and pushing the warm exhaled carbon dioxide behind. This buys additional time for rescuers to dig the victim out.

Other devices – More backcountry adventurers are also carrying Satellite Electronic Notification Devices (SEND) to quickly alert rescuers to a problem. These devices include the This device can quickly notify search and rescue of an emergency and the general location (within 100 yards), but only if the person with the EPIRB has survived the avalanche and can activate the device. Survivors should also try to use a mobile phone to notify emergency personnel. Unlike the other devices mentioned above, the mobile phone (or satellite phone) provides two-way communications with rescuers.

On-site rescuers (usually companions) are in the best position to save a buried victim. However, organized rescue teams can sometimes respond very quickly to assist in the search for a buried victim. The sooner organized rescue can be notified the sooner they can respond, and this difference can mean the difference in living or dying for a critically injured patient. The International Commission for Alpine Rescue recommends, “early notification is essential, e.g., by mobile phone, satellite phone, or radio, wherever possible”  Other rescue devices are proposed, developed and used, such as avalanche balls, vests and airbags, based on statistics indicating that decreasing the depth of burial increases the chances of survival.  

Although inefficient, some rescue equipment can be improvised by unprepared parties: ski poles can become short probes, skis or snowboards can be used as shovels. A first aid kit and equipment is useful for assisting survivors who may have cuts, broken bones, or other injuries, in addition to hypothermia. 

If skiing is your choice of sport, be prepared ahead of time, be sure someone checks to see if there is a possibility of an avalanche.  There is equipment to determine this.  Most of all, if it is thought to be a dangerous area, stay out.  It not only risks the lives of skiers, but of the rescue personnel whose job it is to search and rescue.


Source: ABC News