On January 16th, three men ventured out on the Gore Mountain Range overlooking Vail on a backcountry trip. When they triggered an avalanche, the men were carried 20 feet down the slope, buried close enough to one another that eventually they could communicate through the snow.
All three were buried under as much as 7 feet of snow for more than two hours without help. Their survival is credited to an increasingly popular device known as the AvaLung. They were also each equipped with the standard backcountry snow tools of avalanche beacons, shovels and probe poles.
But AvaLung is credited with the survival of the buried men. The device was invented in 2000 by Denver psychiatry professor and backcountry skiing enthusiast Tom Crowley. The AvaLung acts as a snow snorkel that allows the user to breathe fresh air directly from the snowpack and divert the exhaled CO2 to vent behind the victim. Black Diamond spent a half-million dollars making the design practical, and the version on the market now — AvaLung II — came out in 2001.
Suffocation under deep snow accounts for about 75 percent of avalanche deaths (trauma and hypothermia account for the rest), typically because of carbon dioxide poisoning, or hypoxemia. Burial victims exhale in a confined space replacing the oxygen with the CO2.
Statistically, 92 percent of avalanche victims survive if they are dug out within the first 15 minutes. After an hour, only about 25 percent remain alive, and after two hours, almost no one survives. Roughly 2 percent of avalanche victims survive a burial of 7 feet. According to Black Diamond’s research, keeping the exhaled air away from the fresh-air intake area can extend a victim’s breathing time from 15 minutes to more than an hour.
All three men carried and used the AvaLung — anywhere from five breaths to 15 minutes — and the deepest burial victim clamped down on his mouthpiece so hard that he left tooth marks on it. Eventually, all three men were able to clear an air passage in the unusually loose avalanche debris.
The incident report that the group, which wishes to remain anonymous, filed two days later with the CAIC indicates that two of the men had passed Level I and II avalanche courses and were familiar with the area. Yet, the three decided to ascend the ridge — one on skis with climbing skins, another on a split snowboard and the third on snowshoes with a snowboard on his back — even as they saw evidence of naturally triggered avalanches on surrounding slopes. Despite their training and CAIC warnings, they neglected to evaluate snow conditions by digging into the pack.
The pole straps around their wrists handcuffed all three beneath the debris. The split-boarder — buried the shallowest — could move only his left hand since the strap on that arm slid up to his elbow. After an hour, he managed to dig himself out, freeing the skier from his 4-foot tomb 20 minutes later. Together they rescued the third man and returned to the hut to spend the night.