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Avalung saves lives, according to Denver Post

post #1 of 10
Thread Starter 

Interesting article in the Denver Post today.  Sounds like the event was quite dangerous, and all three are very lucky to be alive.





post #2 of 10

Lucky to be alive is right.  Sounds like a heavy sluff since the snow didn't consolidate and not seeing the CAIC report, we dont know the depth and extent of the slide.  Clearly traveling too close together, and I have come to appreciate quick release pole straps as well as the avalung.

post #3 of 10

Mike, go to


and read about it from another perspective.

They were very lucky and the overlooked part is they should not have been so close together in that terrain.


One very important detail is that they were "handcuffed" by their pole straps/poles.  Bruce Tremper talks about how he cuts his straps off.  Actually, it's mandatory on the patrol he goes with in Utah.  He also only uses releaseable bindings.

post #4 of 10
post #5 of 10

One of the nice parts of this new EpicSki Platform is that you can do this now:


Near Eiseman Hut, Gore Range
January 16, 2009

3 caught, fully buried, self rescued


Name Gender Equipment
Skier-1 Male Alpine touring skis with skins
Beacon, probe, shovel
Boarder-2 Male Splitboard with skins
Beacon, shovel, probe
Boarder-3 Male Snowboard with snowshoes
Beacon, shovel, probe


Historic weather was taken from the Vail Mountain SNOTEL site, located at 10300 feet asl and approximately 6.75 miles south of the accident site. The red dotted line marks the day of the accident in the plot below. Early snowfall in October was followed by warmer weather. In many areas of the Vail Summit forecast zone, observers noted icy crusts from a combination of warm temperatures and a high rain/snow line. The ice lenses remained in the snowpack. Small amounts of snow fell through mid-November, and the shallow snowpack faceted. Storms the last week of November doubled the snowpack depth, and buried and preserved the facets and ice lenses in the lowest layers. The November snow consolidated into fairly firm (4F to 1F) layers. Two surface hoar layers formed and were buried in December, one buried on 12/9 and the other buried on 12/30. There was moderate snowfall and periods of high winds during the first two weeks of January. Weather began to clear on 1/16 as high pressure developed over the western US. Temperatures were forecast to rise to near freezing the day of the accident.

Up to 2 feet of snow fell in the Eiseman area in the days prior to the accident. Moderate west and northwest winds drifted and cross-loaded slopes. A group skied out of the Eiseman Hut on 1/15 and reported an observation to the CAIC.

Parties at the Hut during the accident estimate that the snow pack was around 8 feet (2 meters) deep on the accident slope. The day of the accident, the temperatures started out in the single digits and by noon it was close to 25 F.

Weather plot


There is no detailed snowpack information available; no snow pits were dug on the day of or after the accident. The CAIC did not receive word of the accident until the morning of Sunday, January 18th, two days after the accident. CAIC staff did not visit the remote accident site. However, using field observations from adjacent areas and the weather history we can speculate on the snow structure near the Eiseman hut. Snowpack was likely comprised of a layer of basal facets (F+ to 4F) (HS 0 to 30 cm), topped by stiff mid-pack slab of mixed forms (4F+ - 1F) (HS 30 to 100 cm), and new snow layer at the surface (F to 4F) (HS 100 to 280 cm). Prior to the accident, avalanches were releasing on three weak layers within the snowpack. The first was an ice crust approximately 1 cm thick near the top of the basal facets that formed in early October. The second and third were layers of surface hoar that formed on December 9th and December 30th. Deep slab instability had been discussed in the daily avalanche advisories for nearly two weeks leading up the accident.


A party of three planed on spending a few nights at the Eiseman Hut, which is part of the 10th Mountain Division Hut system. They hiked to the hut on Thursday, January 15th. On their way into the hut, the group encountered a group returning after three nights at the Eiseman hut. When asked if they had left any untracked snow for the group of three, the group exiting the area said they “only left skin tracks”. The group of three arrived at the hut in time to check out the area and take a few runs on west and north facing slopes. They did not dig any snowpits. That night they shared the hut with another group of 6 or 8 people.

Over breakfast on the morning of the 16th, they discussed a plan to ski a face on an unnamed peak (11,754'). The plan was to head up to the top of another unnamed peak to the north of the hut (11,770'). From there they would descend into the valley bottom, head to the west, and ascend the west ridge of the unnamed peak (11,754'). They carried ropes and climbing harnesses so that they could belay each other into the start zone in order to safely dig a snowpit and assess stability. They discussed their plan with the other hut visitors, who said they were not going to that area due to the recent and visible avalanche activity on the slope in question.

The group of three left the hut at 0900 with an established plan in place. At the summit of Peak 11,770', they looked to the ENE at an untracked slope and decided to change their plan. They also noticed two natural slab avalanches on the portion of peak 11,754' that was their main goal for the day. The two natural avalanches appeared to be a few days old. A portion of the face between the two natural avalanches remained intact. The group established a new plan, to continue up the ridge to the summit of a third unnamed peak at the head of the South Fork of Sandstone Creek drainage (approximately 12,320'). They chose to ride a west facing line near the north end of the broad summit and then continue down the valley and intersect the route from their original plan.

Map of avalanche

Map showing the approximate outline of the avalanche. The party was on the little knoll indicated by the yellow diamond. Eiseman Hut is off the map to the south.

After descending the slope, they regrouped in a safe zone. Boarder-2 remembers looking at his watch, the time was 12:10. While preparing for their next climb, the group changed their plan a second time. Instead of heading further down valley to ascend the main ridge, they decided to climb a slight subridge that runs up the center of the face. There are trees growing along this subridge, and the group hoped the trees would provide some margin of safety.

They began to climb up the treed subridge and quickly realized that the slope angle went from about 20 degrees near the base to over 40 degrees near the top. There is an abrupt transition near the bottom of the slope where the slope angle changes. They discussed the steepness of the upper part of the slope and if they should dig a snowpit to assess the snow stability. They decided to continue without additional snowpack observations. Boarder-3 took one step forward and heard a large WHUMPF. Then the slope started to move. All three were climbing with the mouth pieces of their AvaLungs and bit down on them as all three quickly started to move downhill. They all came to rest fairly quickly, only being caught in the debris flow for about 20 vertical feet. All three were completely buried.

From distance
The party was near the red X when they triggered the avalanche. The avalanche carried Skier-1 and Boarder-2 downslope, and they were buried near the blue circle. Boarder 3 was swept into the trees near the yellow circle. buried in the cluster of trees at the center of the photo.

Looking up
Looking up to the crown from near the point of burial. Boarder-3 was buried in the trees on the left of the image. The other two were buried just beyond the backpacks.

The avalanche
The avalanche from across the valley. Previous avalanches ran under the cliffs on the left of the photograph.

The bed surface
Looking across to the climbers right flank. The bed surface was deep in the snowpack, near the ground.

Skier-1 was pushed into the trees and was buried head up, facing uphill into the trees. His hands and feet were in front of his body, with poles and skis still attached. His face was about a foot under the surface. He bit down on the mouth piece and relied on the AvaLung for just a minute or two, until he could clear the snow away from his face. He was able to move a little and talk to Boarder-2 as they were only about 5 feet apart. Because he was facing uphill, he had trouble moving the snow and was unable to dig himself out. "While I was buried I remember thinking to myself that if I was facing downhill I would be able to dig a lot easier." He was buried for 1 hour and 20 minutes and recovered by Boarder-2. He lost his sunglasses in the avalanche.

Boarder-2 ran downhill and for the most part, avoided the trees. He too was buried in a sitting position, facing downhill. His head was 2 to 3 feet deep. He could not really move his right arm because the ski pole was still attached. His left pole strap had slid up to his elbow and was able to dig, initially with that hand. Although he was buried for about 1 hour, he only used his AvaLung for "about 5 breaths" because he was able to move enough snow that he could see light. He eventually completely dug himself out, and went on to recover Skier-1 and Boarder-3. He claimed that he would have been able to get out sooner if he would have been able to release his feet from his board (split at this time) with the home made quick release system that is installed on his other snowboard. He had no injuries and lost no equipment.

Once out of the hole, Boarder-2 quickly pulled out his shovel and dug out Skier-1's head and chest and then turned his attention to Boarder-3. He found Boarder-3 by talking to him through the snow and quickly realized that he needed help digging him out.  Boarder-2 yelled to Boarder-3 through the snow saying that he needed to finish digging out Skier-1. Boarder-2 returned to Skier-1 and finished digging him out of the snow. Boarder-2 and Skier-1 then dug Boarder-3 out of the debris.

Boarder-3 was pushed down into the trees like Skier-1. He was buried sideways, facing downhill, on the uphill side of a tree. He was buried 6 to 7 feet deep. He bit down on his AvaLung so hard; he left permanent marks in the mouth piece. He used the AvaLung for approximately 15 minutes. He used one hand to cover his face and the other to increase the size of his air pocket. He said "the AvaLung is one of the reasons why I am alive today." He also said that if it were not for Boarder-2, "I'd be dead." From shuffling around an air hole appeared and he could see light. He could not really move because his ski pole straps were still attached, but was able to move one hand some because the pole broke just below the handle. His worst injury was from being hit in the head by a shovel. "Thank god it was a soft slab." He was buried approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes (the length of Boarder-3's burial was determined with the aid of digital photo timestamps). He broke one ski pole.

The time was 1430 and they dug out Skier 1's skis and Boarder 2's splitboard. They took some photos, and descended down into the valley floor out from under the avalanche path. They ate, drank, added layers and then headed back to the hut. They arrived back at the hut just before 1700. They discussed the accident with the other hut party and went to bed. They decided to hike out the next morning instead of staying one more night.

They did not need to use their probe poles or beacons for the rescue. Each member of the party was recovered through voice communication.

Who Burial time (h:mm) AvaLung assisted breathing time* Burial depth*
Skier-1 1:20 Less than 2 minutes 1 foot
Boarder-2 1:00 About 5 breaths 2-3 feet
Boarder-3 2:15 15 minutes 6-7 feet

* Clarified on 1/21 via email and phone.


The morning forecast for 1/16 noted that "bluebird skies and mild daytime temperatures are expected" with forecast temperatures "27 to 32" degrees F. The Snowpack Discussion mentioned that

the only report of avalanche activity came in from the East Vail area. A skier triggered slide that ran close to 1000' on a west, northwest aspect at treeline. The fracture line was just over three feet deep. This is a good example of defining moderate danger. Human triggered avalanche are possible. When they are triggered, they can be large.

Travel suggestions included

try to avoid climbing one aspect to ride a different one. Keep the climb/ride within 90 degrees on a compass. This way the snowpack observations that you gather on the way up are relevant to what you plan on descending... Pay close attention to natural billboards like collapsing, cracking and avalanche activity. The most likely location you will trigger an avalanche will be on cross loaded slopes at treeline. These locations encompass a lot of different aspects so pay close attention to the snow surface.

The Avalanche Danger was

CONSIDERABLE on NE-E-SE-S-SW aspects near/at treeline. LOW above treeline on W-NW-N aspects where the wind has stripped the snow cover and MODERATE elsewhere. Human triggered avalanches are probable where heavy, wind drifted snow has formed on steep lee slopes.


From the group members:

Skier-1 said that the most significant thing that he learned was to pay closer attention to natural billboards. "We talked about the natural avalanche activity but ignored it."

Boarder-2 said that he will never use his ski pole straps again.

Boarder-3 said that that he would follow his gut better and to pay closer attention to recent avalanche activity. He said "I had a bad feeling right when I put my snowshoes back on." He also said that he thought of the rapid warming but did not really listen to it.

From the investigators:

"FACETS" or Familiarity, Acceptance, Commitment, Expert halo, (Scarcity or) Tracks and Social Proof are heuristic or decision making "rules of thumb". Research has indicated that if we use heuristics to base our decisions on, then we may fall into a trap. "FACETS" represent the most frequently occurring "traps" for backcountry users. The average number of "traps" present in avalanche accidents occurring in the United States is 3.5 (out of 6) per accident.

Interviewers asked each person to answer "yes" or "no" if their decision making was influenced by…

Who F A C E T S Total
Skier-1 Y Y Y N N N 3
Boarder-2 Y N Y N N N 2
Boarder-3 N N Y Y N N 2

More information on FACETS.

"ALP TRUTh" or Avalanche activity, wind Loading, avalanche Path, terrain Trap, Unstable snow (collapsing/cracking) and Thaw instability are visual clues and or indicators of avalanche hazard. In many circles this is an accepted method for identifying avalanche hazard. Recently, discussion has come up about the preventative values stated in the original research. Regardless, the Obvious Clues method can be used as a tool to aid the backcountry user in identifying various indicators of avalanche hazard. In this accident, there was little emphasis was given to the recent avalanche activity.

Interviewer asked each person to answer "yes" or "no" if they observed…

Who A L P T R U Th Total
Skier-1 Y Y Y Y Y N/Y* Y 6
Boarder-2 Y Y Y Y Y N/Y* Y 6
Boarder-3 Y Y N Y Y N/Y* Y 5

*The first collapse noticed all day was when the avalanche occurred.

More information on ALPTRUTh.

Current information: Cellular phone coverage is available at several of the backcountry huts and yurts in Colorado. This hut in particular tends to have pretty good coverage and the group could have called the local avalanche hotline in the morning before their tour.

Education: Two of the members of this party had successfully completed backcountry avalanche safety courses. Both took a Level I and Level II course from the same instructor during the same winter. Although we encourage everyone to seek as much education as possible, it is important to remember that both education and experience help you evaluate avalanche conditions and make good decisions. In many ways our education begins when we exit our first avalanche class. Avalanche classes give us a structured way to make observations and start gaining experience, but they are no substitute for days on the snow. Please take a class, spend time in the snow, and then take another class. Repeat as needed. As André Roch (Swiss mountaineer and snow scientist) once said, "the avalanche does not care that you are an expert".

Rescue: Finding a person in avalanche debris through voice communication is possible, but unusual. Digging yourself out of 3' of avalanche debris and surviving a burial of 1 to 2 hours are both very, very unusual. There are several factors that probably contributed to the both unusual and positive outcome of this accident. First, the group's location at the time of the avalanche. They were near the bottom the slope and were not carried very far in the debris flow. This may have reduced the amount of compaction in the debris and made it easier to dig through the snow. Second, the nature of the avalanche debris. The group described the snow that they dug through as sugary and loose. This probably allowed Boarder-2 to extricate himself from the debris and help the other group members. This probably also helped them speak to each other and breath under the snow once they had stopped using their AvaLungs. In general avalanche debris becomes very dense and it is difficult to move any portion of your body. Boarder-3 described the snow directly around his body as firm and wet, but the snow in general as sugary and loose. Third, the group was well equipped. Although the group's decisions on their route and the avalanche danger in the area certainly contributed to this accident, they were well equipped and this likely saved their lives. The AvaLungs probably assisted or allowed for their self rescue, and they all carried beacons, probe poles, and shovels as well.

Outcome: The bottom line is that three backcountry users were completely buried, they self rescued, all three victims wore AvaLungs (used them) and are here to tell their story!

Sawtell, Snook, Logan, Greene 20090130

post #6 of 10

Avalungs are a cool piece of gear.  Nothing that I say subsequently should detract from people wearing one if they still use there head.


But:  voluntarily climbing a slope where you feel it necessary to climb with the mouthpiece in = no bueno.  The group in this case did enough things less than perfectly that I don't think you can fairly accuse the avalung of contributing to gear-based risk compensation in their case.  But, particularly as a "cool" piece of gear it's a good thing to keep in mind in terms of how to use it (and how to NOT rely on it).


The report up above was charitable and succint in noting several "unusual"aspects of the rescue scenario as well.  I sure don't estimate or remember things well myself when I'm under a lot of stress or adrenalated.  Basically though you had people just not sorting things well in this case, and beyond that there's no real information value for use of gear or otherwise. 





post #7 of 10

I can't think of any reasons,  not to wear one.  I even wear mine on big days,  inbounds.

post #8 of 10
Who Burial time (h:mm) AvaLung assisted breathing time* Burial depth*
Skier-1 1:20 Less than 2 minutes 1 foot
Boarder-2 1:00 About 5 breaths 2-3 feet
Boarder-3 2:15 15 minutes 6-7 feet
So I'm not sure that I totally get how # 3 could be "buried" two hours and fifteen minutes but only used the device for 15 minutes.  I guess maybe he and the others could have dug out a pocket for air and it took two hours to free him completely?  Is that what they mean?  Good thing they had them.  It seems to provide enough time for them to gather their wits and clear out some space to breathe.  Last year I asked the question in an avi thread has anyone here ever actually used an AvaLung while buried or know somene that actually has.  This is the first instance where I've seen documentation of it.  I've never used an air bag either, but feel much better having them in my vehicles
post #9 of 10

tellin ya - goin to get one of these babies - good idea out there

post #10 of 10

 The BD Avalung packs are pretty darn nice. 


Although I really wish they'd license an attachment system for other pack manufacturers. I bet they'd come out miles ahead.


Totally agree about big inbounds days too...

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