Luck but also tools saved avalanche victim

The reasons this backcountry skier from Durango lived to see another day 

DURANGO, Colo. – An unnamed man lives today in Durango partly because he and his companion took all the right tools on a backcountry skiing trip. But he also got lucky. Very lucky.

The man, who the Durango Telegraph says declined identification for fear of scaring the bejesus out of his loved ones, had skinned up the Deer Creek drainage between Durango and Silverton. It’s considered to be a “safe” place when avalanche danger is high.

But he and his buddy, 49-year-old Mark Helmich, a split-boarder, lost their way during the stormy day. Beginning their descent, they were triggering slides. Mistakes had been made. They chose not to return uphill and risk triggering even larger avalanches. Instead, they elected to ride down the final pitch to Highway 550, where their car was parked.

That’s when the snow slid, taking him over a 25-foot cliff and burying him in the pile of snow along the highway.

Helmich immediately charged over the cliff, too. Time was critical. They both had avalanche transceivers. He located the signal from his companion then used a probe pole to locate the body. This took five minutes. Then he dug furiously with his shovel.

“I did a whole lot of praying,” he told the Telegraph. “It’s definitely pretty lonely, being by yourself and digging. It was feeling surreal. Until you’re in that situation, you can’t understand what it’s like.”

After 15 to 20 minutes, the victim’s head was finally uncovered. Photo/ Sallie Barney

More luck came along in the form of Mike Barney, who is an instructor at the Silverton Avalanche School. He took over the digging from the exhausted Helmich. Finally, 20 minutes after the slide had occurred, they had cleared the snow to the head of the victim.

He was still breathing, still conscious. He had been unable to deploy the airbag, but did mange to get the straw from an AvaLung into his mouth. It was just enough to save his life.

The moral of this story probably should be that you need every tool available in avalanche terrain along with competence in use of those tools. But add it all up and you may still need some luck to survive even a small avalanche.

Mike Cooperstein, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, points out that 25 percent of all avalanche victims die from being hit by trees or rocks or falling off cliffs even before being buried by snow. About 72 percent of avalanche victims die from asphyxia, or breathing their own carbon dioxide underneath the snow.

He says the statistics supporting the usefulness of saving lives is more clear-cut for air bags, but statistics supporting the use of AvaLungs are promising as well.

The website for Black Diamond Equipment, manufacturer of AvaLungs, had this testimonial from an individual identified as “Jeremy” from Durango.

“I have worn my AvaLung for at least six years without ever having to use it,” he wrote. “I don’t ski every run with it in my mouth but it’s great to have it available for those scarier than normal runs. Last Monday I triggered an avalanche and ended up immobile buried under four feet of debris. Fortunately I was able to keep the AvaLung mouthpiece in my mouth during and after the slide. I was able to breathe normally for 15 to 20 minutes while my partner initiated a beacon and probe search and dug me out.”

He added this: “CAIC reminded me the next day that over 15 minutes was often fatal due to asphyxiation. I escaped without injury at least partially due to my AvaLung.”

The CAIC says that if everyone wore an avalanche transceiver and an airbags, two of three people who die from asphyxia would live.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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