What do skiers, powder telemarkers, snowmobilers and backcountry snowboarders all have in common? Simple: they’re dying in snow avalanches at record rates.
While statistics show that many of such deaths are caused by the violence of snow slides (it’s like being caught in a giant washing machine filled with sand and boulders), a large number of avalanche deaths result from horrifying suffocation. When the avalanche comes to a stop, the flowing snow forms a glove-like cast around your body. While you can still breath in small panting gasps, the snow packed around your face quickly saturates with poisonous carbon dioxide, and soon after melts and re-freezes into an ice mask that cuts of your air as effectively as a plastic bag. Respiratory arrest quickly ensues, with cardiac arrest and death soon after.
With such grim facts in mind, Salt Lake City backcountry gear maker Black Diamond Equipment set out in the late 1990s to develop a device that allows avalanche victims to breath while buried. Their brilliant result is the Avalung, a tube-like affair that helps you breath fresh oxygen from the air filled snow packed around your body, and at the same time dissipates the poisonous carbon dioxide that normally lingers around your face.
The latest incarnation of the product is a black 21 inch long device you strap to your body with a webbing harness (backpacks with the Avalung built-in are also available). In event of an avalanche (or while exposed to avalanche danger) you breath in and out of a mouthpiece held in your teeth. When you exhale, your warm, carbon dioxide saturated breath exits through the bottom end of the rig, to your side and behind your back, with your body acting as a barrier separating the “good” unused air from the “bad” exhalation. A valve redirects your inhalation through a porous area designed to extract fresh air from the snow packed around you.
Does it work? Yes — with caveats. First, most snow avalanches, other than extremely small ones, are violent affairs that snap bones and slam people into trees and rocks like a nightmare whitewater ride. Moreover, even smaller avalanches have a nasty record of carrying victims into injurious obstacles, over cliffs, and into water where they drown. Thus, equipment such as your helmet and a trauma oriented first-aid kit are perhaps as essential as an Avalung, not to mention an avalanche rescue locator beacon — and common sense.
Another concern with the Avalung is how and when you insert the mouthpiece –the following experience led me to believe that you should have it in your mouth well before you’re actually fighting for your life: I’ve been caught in several avalanches. In one I was taken totally by surprise while climbing in a whiteout, and was tumbling down the mountain before I could have inserted an Avalung mouthpiece. In another, my hands were occupied in a futile attempt to self arrest when a large fracture opened near me and I immediately accelerated down a steep slope — to have grabbed the mouthpiece with my teeth in this situation would have been impossible. Yet another time, the slope I was on fractured with no warning and I was involved in a tumbling fall with no time whatsoever to do anything.
What if you don’t happen to be skiing with the Avalung tube in your mouth? Some avalanches provide ample advance warning. For example, the well documented avalanche survival of Avalung user Mike Morrisey in 2002 occurred when he was threatened by snow slide from above, realized he was about to be caught, and had time to insert his mouthpiece. According to Black Diamond, there have been other incidents when the victim had time to insert the mouthpiece. What’s more, if you practice inserting the mouthpiece so it becomes second nature, with and without the help of your hands, it’s plausible that insertion could be accomplished when you first realize you’re caught in a slide. (To help with this, try adjusting the mouthpiece so it bumps your cheek or chin while you’re skiing, and is thus easy to bite with a quick turn and nod of your head.)
That said, I’m opting for certainty — when possible I ski with the mouthpiece in my maw. While this looks somewhat goofy and can feel awkward, it’s actually quite easy to do, though it can eventually clog the device with frozen condensation, and may be uncomfortable. Compensating for that, an advantage of skiing with the mouthpiece inserted is that it won’t get clogged with snow if you fall, and it acts as a snorkel if you’re skiing powder that’s washing against your face.
Another issue with the Avalung is purely practical. For full performance, you must wear it on the outside of your clothing. Thus, every time you change layering you have to take your Avalung off then put it back on. Not a big deal itself, but combine that with pack straps, perhaps a camera, and perhaps some climbing gear, and this may become an annoyance. But take my word for it, just as you get used to a helmet, fiddling with an Avalung eventually becomes second nature if you’re motivated to use it — and fear is a powerful incentive. (Wearing the Avalung on the outside of your clothing is done to insure that the carbon dioxide exhalations coming out the end of the device don’t mix with the intake, and that the ‘lung can easily extract fresh air from the snowpack.)
When you expose yourself to recreational risk such as avalanche hazard, a cost/benefit ratio applies to the safety precautions you take. On the equipment side, dedicated safety gear such as helmets, avalanche beacons and Avalungs may come at an enormous price in money, weight, and complexity. Nonetheless, rational analysis makes it obvious that a an avalanche rescue beacon is worth carrying, a helmet probably is worth wearing, and, if you aggressively pursue backcountry powder, strapping on an Avalung can significantly alter the odds in your favor should you experience the white tomb.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.