Friday 6 July 2018

Avalanche Safety

Police Search and Rescue, Mt Bogong, July 2014
With winter well settled in and the next snow-storm around the corner I thought I might highlight something which most of us try to keep out of our mind: The White Death aka Avalanches. They rarely cause a fatality down-under but it happens. Now let's get right into it and see why you need to be on top of this.

If I can give you one piece of advice: Avoid getting caught in an avalanche at all costs. Basically the rescue-chain takes so long that any SAR personnel will only recover your body with barely a chance of saving you. It's a good idea to carry probe, shovel & beacon, know how to use them and check the avalanche bulletin because your mates are your best chance of survival. Time is of the essence:

  • "Survival phase": 15 minutes after the avalanche more than 90% of the completely buried victims are still alive (about 10% die immediately from fatal injuries, another 15% a little later from injuries)
  • "Suffocation phase": after 15-35 minutes the statistics shows a steep decline due to suffocation with a decreased probability of survival to 30%. All buried victims die from rapid suffocation (airway obstruction due to avalanche snow or vomit and chest compression)
  • "Latency phase": between 35 and 90 minutes there is initially a relatively low mortality. About a quarter of the burials survive when they have a closed air pocket
  • "Late phase": After 90 minutes, the probability of survival due to hypoxia and hypothermia decreases again (= the remaining 5% of the causes of death).
More than two hours after the avalanche only about 7% survive, but only if there is an open airway with connection to the outside. In general your chance of survival is 75% if you're partly and 50% if you're completely buried[1]. While the Police SAR Squad has great avalanche rescue skills, the knowledge among SES and BSAR guys is not consistent. Even if they make it in time to the avalanche site by some miracle, it's probably not enough to save you. 
Police SAR snow vehicles

“The building blocks of an avalanche
 are made of snow, but wind is the builder.”

If you've skied outside of Australia, you probably have seen the Recco system. That's pretty fancy and allows to find a buried victim from a helicopter ... but it doesn't exist here.

Bottom-line: You and your mates are on your own. Avalanche Safety is a skill you can't learn or maintain from reading websites and watching YouTube videos. Do a course and practice with your buddies as often as possible! In doubt go to the pub 🍻

Stay safe & cheers 🍻
[1] Dr. Walter Treibel, Erste Hilfe und Gesundheit am Berg und auf Reisen, Bergverlag Rother

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