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Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Rescue Missions for Avalanche Victims

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I'm working now with a group of Stanford students on the design of a unique avalanche rescue device that will hopefully bring a new approach to solving the problem of how to find and save persons buried under the surface after a snow avalanche. In order for us to do our work properly, it's important to be aware of some facts that describe the situation of victims buried beneath the snow.

In an article in the journal High Altitude Medicine & Biology (Volume 9, Number 3, 2008, pages 229-233) published by the International Society for Mountain Medicine, Matthias Hohlrieder and colleagues described "Rescue Missions for Totally Buried Avalanche Victims: Conclusions from 12 Years of Experience." The purpose of their data collection on the circumstances of avalanches was to bring evidence-based information to the rescuers who are tasked with finding and rescuing victims in such extreme and highly emotional circumstances.

Utilizing information complied by the Austrian Mountain Rescue Service, Tyrol, they were able to identify 109 totally buried persons over a 12-year period, 56 of the persons skiing off-piste and 53 in the backcountry. These persons were rescued or recovered; 18.3% of them survived to hospital discharge. Notable is the fact that the median depth of burial was 1.25 meters (4.1 feet), which may not seem very deep, but is obviously a depth from which a person cannot self-extricate. The median duration of burial time prior to recovery was 85 minutes, so clearly, it is still necessary to postulate ways to find and extricate the victims more rapidly, or provide them an alternative method of breathing.

The majority of rescue missions were performed under dangerous avalanche conditions, which speaks to the reason for the primary event and also to the need to find these persons quickly and to extricate them rapidly, to minimize the risks to both victims and rescuers. The probability of surivial was highest when the victims were located visually and lowest when they were located by transceiver - probably a function of how quickly they can be reached. Survival did not differ between those found by rescue dogs and those located with avalanche probes.

We will be taking this information into account as we continue to work on finding a new approach(es) to facilitating avalanche rescue via device design.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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