Feb 24 2012

Rerun: Buried Alive!

AvaLung Burial continued…

That was the crux. In this case I knew that, unless He tapped me on the shoulder this very hour for some twisted reason that I couldn’t fathom, I would emerge unscathed. But if it were real, I wouldn’t be able to say that. If it were a real avy, I’d be just as immobile, but more completely so. Not only would I be pinned to the mat physically, but I’d be wedged in a vice of fate. Even if I had an AvaLung and were breathing, would that merely be a way to slow down the final steps to the door of eternity? Or would it be the belay device that allowed my stay on Earth to continue? Would my friends get to me in time, or were they caught too? Would I see my wife and kids again? Was my belief in eternity right, or wrong?

So far there are only four incidents on record where AvaLung users have been buried in an avalanche and survived (Ed. note: As of 2012 there at least a dozen). In all cases, the AvaLung allowed the users to remain calm and, at least initially, have a positive attitude. However, the reality of the questions I posed above seems uncomfortably poignant in light of a recent account.

In a 2002 accident, while heli-skiing in British Columbia, three people were caught and buried in a slide. The only survivor, a telemark skier from Colorado, and the only one having an AvaLung, saw the slide begin above him. He consciously put the mouthpiece in his mouth and managed to keep it in his mouth despite being swept down the slope 200 meters and over a rock band. He came to rest along with the other victims 1-1.5m (6-10 feet) deep, unable to move his hands. Though his ears and nose were packed with snow, he found he could breath easily, allowing him to remain calm with a positive attitude.

Avalanche Skier POV Helmet Cam Burial & Rescue in Haines, Alaska from Chappy on Vimeo.

Without any way to tell time and wearing few layers he soon became cold and worried. Contemplating his apparent demise he deduced he would prefer death by asphyxiation to hypothermia and resolved to spit out the mouthpiece if he became too cold. Rescuers found him after 42 minutes, unconscious but breathing lightly without the mouthpiece. He did not recall a final rejection, only testing the idea. Though unsubstantiated in this case, the simple act of fainting due to severe anxiety is not unimaginable.

In fact, having been through the experience, I’d say that even though the physical evidence may say cause of death as asphyxiation, half the people actually die from the sheer fear of staring death in the face. Thus, it is ironic to consider that in a real avy, the option of an extra hour thanks to an AvaLung may be more than the human heart can bear.

Every five minutes my thoughts were interrupted as Dr. Grissom told me how many minutes had passed, that my vital signs looked good, and asked if I was okay?

“Okay,” I replied.

After the first five minutes my mind alternated between contemplating how different this might be in a real situation, and regulating the rate and depth of my breathing to play the oboe valve of the AvaLung. It was a welcome distraction from the weightier thoughts that rattled in my brain.

At 35 minutes I mentally celebrated being over the hump. Would I have been able to remain calm for 35 minutes without reassurances every five minutes? Without knowing the burial was half done?

At 45 minutes I tried to move, but to no avail. Thoughts of quitting surfaced, dashed by male determination to finish the job. What mental games would I have to play to hang on without knowing when the rescue might come? Could I do that with the pain of a broken leg or ruptured disk?

And finally, at 55 minutes they announced they’d begin digging me out. The sound of shovels scraping the surface couldn’t have sounded sweeter than a chorus of angels singing “Hallelujah.” I remember hearing about one victim who had a tooth knocked out when his rescuers probed onto his mouth. He said it felt great.

Once they unearthed my head I could relax and breath normally, although I was still a bit anxious. The control part of the experiment loomed like a death sentence. That was where I would be reburied…only superficially this time, but have to breath without the aid of the AvaLung.

Avalanche Burial with Black Diamond AvaLung from Black Diamond Equipment on Vimeo.

I knew beforehand that I wouldn’t last long. With a small air pocket and CO2 growing five percent with every exhale, it wouldn’t be long before I’d be starving for oxygen. But I was still surprised at how quickly my body began gasping and groping for more air. Even though my final rescue was moments away, panic engulfed me. I began to fight with the snowpack, squirming uncontrollably.

Dr. Grissom barked, “Get him out, get him out, now, he’s fighting.” At that point a stream of 100% oxygen was dumped into the breathing tube and a few moments after that, a hand swept the snow from my head and an I breathed a full sigh of relief.

With an AvaLung I had lasted an hour before my oxygenation had dropped to 85%—without one, only 60 seconds. A volunteer the day before had lasted over two hours with an AvaLung — without, two and a half minutes. He might have lasted a full 20 minutes before passing out in a real avy. Me? I’d be lucky to last five minutes.

All this only underscores the importance of avalanche avoidance. An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure. Thus, while wearing and knowing how to use an avalanche beacon is important, and adding an AvaLung to the pound of cure is an awesome thing, not getting caught is even better. To that end, I think a better use of an AvaLung might be to use it in controlled burials where backcountry skiers can experience firsthand the grip of death an avalanche creates (Ed. Note: Such a burial should only be done under controlled situations with a pulse oximeter to monitor oxygen saturation, an emergency oxygen back-up system attached to the AvaLung, medical supervision, and a team of shovelers). There is no need to set records, five minutes will do the trick. If every backcountry skier did that, I guarantee the death toll would stop rising.

Final note: There is a type of controlled situation that people can do on their own without supervision. Bury an AvaLung in the snow but have the mouthpiece sticking out of the surface, and then bury an AvaLung mouthpiece only leading to a 500 cc air pocket in the snow. The subject then wears nose clips and lays on the snow surface and tries to breathe as long as possible through the AvaLung versus the AvaLung mouthpiece leading to an air pocket. The difference is impressive, and this is safe because subjects are above the snow surface and when they feel starved for oxygen in the control burial they simply take their mouth off the mouthpiece and breathe ambient air. This version does, however, completely side step the associated weight and claustrophobia induced fear associated with a “real” burial.

How-to Video: Using a Black Diamond AvaLung Pack
from Black Diamond Equipment on Vimeo.

1 – Falk M, Brugger H, Adler-Kastner L; “Avalanche Survival Chances,” Nature, 1994 March 3;368(6466):21
2 – Colin K. Grissom, MD; Martin I. Radwin, MD; Chris H. Harmstrom, ME, MSE; Ellie L. Hirschberg, MD; Thomas J. Crowley, MD. “Respiration during Snow Burial using and Artificial Air Pocket”, Journal of the American Medical Association”, May 3, 2000—Vol. 283, No. 17
3 – Falk M, Brugger H, Adler-Kastner L; “Avalanche Survival Chances,” Nature, 1994 March 3;368(6466):21

Telemark Tips Burial Story & Video

2 Caught in CO Avalanche – Avalung Saves One!
© 2006

  • Brent Heffner

    Great article! That brings back memories of my burial. Back in ’93/’94, I was working at Solitude for the season. One day, one of the lifties asked if I wanted a paid break from work in exchange for helping him out. He said he needed a volunteer ‘victim’ to help train his avy dog. I’m very claustrophobic. I freak out in my tent sometimes…
    This thought came to mind immediately, but was just as soon brushed aside as I wasn’t a big fan of my job at the time.

    So off we went. To get buried alive.

    We arrived at the scene along with a few members of the ski patrol. They had a big hole dug in the snow. The only hope for surviving this ordeal was an air pocket they had dug at the bottom, off to the side.

    No walkie-talkie, no beacon, no avalung, no ‘Uncle’ to cry to – just blind faith that they would retrieve me. So I crawled to the bottom of the hole and covered my head with my hands and tried to shove my head as far into the air pocket as I could. I was told the air pocket would provide me with 15 -20 minutes of air.

    Oh, crap…

    Then they started to cover my 8 foot deep hole with snow.

    I couldn’t move. Don’t freak out, don’t freak out, don’t freak out!

    My original thought was that this was going to be a cool experiment in mind control. “I can do this.”

    Then the paranoia started. What the Hull was I thinking?!

    So very dark. Complete silence. Don’t freak out man. Hours passed. So this is how they get rid of employees. What if they can’t find me? Where is that damn dog?!

    Several more hours passed. I was finding it extremely difficult to maintain my sanity. There was nothing I could do. At least when I freak out in my tent, I can talk myself down by attempting to follow protocol – stop trying to frantically find the zipper for the door and look for your headlamp. Calm down. Breath.

    This time, I was trapped. For real. Well, I thought to myself, you got what you asked for. A very real mind experiment.

    I was failing.

    By now, my mind was about to explode. The darkness was not only all around me, but it was in my mind. Then I heard something.

    The sound startled me and brought me back from the depths of my mind warp. Now some light and the most beautiful sound – the dog’s heavy breathing. All of a sudden the light came streaming in and I could see the dogs nose! I was soon on top of the snow and out of the hole. I was ecstatic! But it was nothing compared to the dog. She was flipping out.

    Running around in circles and coming back to me and licking my hands, only to run around again, then jump on me, knocking me down and slobbering all over my face.

    It was awesome to see how excited and happy the dog was!

    The dog was brought in by snowmachine from a mile away. I was told I was buried for seven minutes.

    What?! Only seven minutes?! I swear it felt like an eternity.

    Then they asked if I wanted to do it again.

    Um…uh,… OK!

    Another lift ride to a different ‘scene’ and we did the charade all over again. I thought that this time it would be easier.

    It wasn’t.

    Same experience, only 100 times worse. Seriously.

    By the time the dog found me I was almost in tears.

    They told me the dog was having trouble finding me. I was buried for 15 minutes. I’ll never do that again!

    But it was a trip to see the dog so damn happy when she found me!
    Almost made it worth it.
    Very interesting info on the stats of your burial Dostie. Thanx for that.

  • https://www.earnyourturns.com Dostie

    Your experience sounds a lot scarier than mine.

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