Trauma plays a huge role in avalanche accidents
January 8, 2009
SUMMIT COUNTY ” An avalanche that injured a man last week on Ptarmigan Peak was a reminder that getting caught in a snow slide is not a “fluffy, Warren Miller experience,” experts said.
Avalanche victims don’t just die of asphyxiation, said local rescue-team member Dan Burnett. Often, they are battered against rocks or trees and rag-dolled by the powerful force of the mass of snow itself. Avalanches can accelerate quickly to 100 miles per hour.
“It’s violent. What I have seen in Summit County is, when people are hit, they’re killed,” Burnett said.
The victim in the Ptarmigan Pass slide suffered a broken pelvis and a broken leg.
“He would have died if it hadn’t been for his friends,” Burnett added, explaining that the party included several experienced ski patrollers who were able to treat the victim for trauma.
Utah avalanche expert Ian McCammon recently studied avalanche trauma along with two other researchers. The trio looked at 400 avalanche accidents going back to 1986. They found that about 30 percent of the accidents resulted in injuries that were at least partially incapacitating and required medical treatment.
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“The people they’re with, or the rescuers are going to have a serious problem. They generally won’t be walking out on their own,” McCammon said, describing the broken bones and massive internal injuries that can happen when skiers or snowboarders are swept down over rocks, cliffs or through trees.
The point of McCammon’s research is to help rescue workers and recreational backcountry travelers be prepared for what they might face in an avalanche-rescue situation.
“We wanted to find out how common trauma is in avalanche accidents,” McCammon said. “We know what happens when people are killed. A rescuer in Colorado said he’d never dug up an avalanche victim who hadn’t suffered trauma.”
That notion was emphatically seconded by Burnett, who’s been involved in his share of avalanche rescues over the years.
“Of the 37 people I’ve dug out, 35 have been hideously traumatized, like getting splattered by a semi, their guts squeezed out like toothpaste out of a tube,” Burnett said. “It’s not people under the snow, breathing under an ice mask, waiting for their friends to dig them out. These people have snow the volume of a bowling ball crammed in their mouths.”
McCammon said the nature of the terrain in western North America contributes to the high level of trauma.
By comparison, several European studies on the same topic suggested that only about five to 10 percent of avalanche victims suffer serious trauma.
McCammon attributed that difference to the fact that most backcountry skiing in Europe takes place above treeline.
“Rocks and trees take a pretty heavy toll,” he said. “We found that if people are swept over rocks or into trees, they are as likely to need trauma treatment as a beacon rescue.”