Dispatches, April 1999
By Nancy Watzman
"The immobility is outrageous. You feel snow on your face and lips. Everything goes from white to amber to black. You hear muffled noises, then nothing at all." Neal Beidleman isn't describing the ordeal he went through as a guide on Scott Fischer's ill-fated team during Mount Everest's all-consuming storm of May 1996. Instead, he's talking about being buried alive — voluntarily — to test a new device from Black Diamond that may enable those who are swallowed up in avalanches to survive.
Last year, 26 people died in U.S. avalanches, an 18 percent increase from the previous winter. Two-thirds of them probably suffocated either by rebreathing their own exhaled carbon dioxide or by choking after the surrounding snow froze into a lethal "ice mask." Enter the AvaLung, invented by Thomas Crowley, 61, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Thanks to a vest into which a special mesh filter has been sewn, victims who have not been battered to death can breathe for more than an hour through a tube connected to the filter, which has a surface area large enough to extract oxygen from the surrounding snow.
Though the device won't be in stores until next fall — at a price of $198 — it's already causing controversy. Some experts worry that it may give backcountry gonzos a false sense of security. Crowley, however, argues that it offers a much-needed improvement on the odds. "By no means is this a cure-all," he says. "But we think it gives a person a snowball's chance."