Buried by an Avalanche

If you are completely buried in an avalanche the odds of survival are slim, unless you wear a transceiver (beacon), your partners escape and they have the right gear and experience. Statistics show that the chances of them rescuing you alive are about one in ten.

Avalanche Teaser 3

If they do not die as a result of trauma by hitting trees and rocks on the way down-around a quarter of avalanche victims die from trauma impact injuries. Completely buried victims begin a desperate race against time, and the statistics show that only 28 percent survive.

You may have heard that you should spit and see which way the saliva runs across your face to try and figure out which way is up, then dig in that direction, but typically it doesn’t matter which way is up because if you are entombed, as if frozen in concrete and unable even to move your fingers, so it is highly unlikely that you can dig yourself out. In the vast majority of cases there are only two ways for completely buried victims to get out of the snow – to be dug out (are you wearing a transceiver?) or to melt out.

It was once believed that you had just a 50 percent chance of being dug out alive if found and rescued within 30 minutes, but as rescue times have become shorter and shorter it seems you need to be dug out much faster than that to have a good chance of survival. Statistics now show that 92 percent of completely buried victims can be revived if recovered, within the first 15 minutes, but only 27 percent are alive after 35 minutes.

Most contemporary research shows that around half of the victims are dead within the first 25 minutes. Bear in mind also that brain damage starts well before death – perhaps at 10 minutes for the average victim – and there are plenty who emerge unconscious and blue-faced when dug out after only five minutes.

The fact is that if you are completely buried the odds of survival are slim, unless your partners escape or survive the slide, and you are wearing a transceiver, your partners have been regularly practicing with theirs (and their shovels and probes), you are not far beneath the surface, and last but not least, you have luck on your side.

Statistics show that only around one in ten victims is rescued alive by their partners from a complete burial.

Bruce Tremper

Bruce Tremper and Mountaineers Books

Extracts and quotes reproduced from ‘Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain‘ by Bruce Tremper and reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher, The Mountaineers Books.  The author Bruce Tremper Is the Director of the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center and one of North America’s foremost experts on avalanches. He has appeared in news reports and documentaries produced by National Geographic, PBS, and Discovery Channel, among others.

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