I Was an Avalanche Test Dummy
In the name of science, a veteran skier braves darkness, claustrophobia, and deadly cold to find out what it's like to be trapped under the snow
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I’M BURIED ALIVE. It’s February, and I’m in Utah, in the mountains near Park City. Immobilized in a seated position in a five-foot-deep pit, arms outstretched in front of me, I might be comfortable if not for the intense cold, total darkness, and pressure of the snow against my body. I’m able to breathe, thanks to a Black Diamond Avalung II, a snorkel-like device that allows me to inhale oxygen from the snowpack and exhale carbon dioxide behind me. And while I’m wearing a face mask, mittens, goggles, long underwear, a Gore-Tex one-piece with a hood, and Scarpa climbing boots, it’s hardly enough, and things are going bad fast.
After two minutes, my butt is numb. After five minutes, my yogic breathing (in for six seconds, out for six seconds) has turned into rapid, shallow sips of oxygen. Ten minutes gone and my mind is fixing on friends who’ve died in avalanches in years past, including my brother-in-law’s best friend, Steve Butts, who was buried while heli-skiing outside of Revelstoke, B.C., just this past January.
By the 15-minute mark, I’m shaking continuously. Another ten minutes and I begin to experience vertigo, a swaying sensation that quickly gathers in intensity as if I’m sitting on a mechanical bull. This is a common side effect of inhaling too much CO2, and though the Avalung is working well, there’s a chance that carbon dioxide may be seeping into my oxygen supply. This is bad, the beginning of asphyxiation. My stomach begins to turn. I think—no, I’m certain—that I’m about to vomit. “Dig!” I yell. “Dig!”
Just a few hours ago, I was up above, preparing for my subnivean burial. As an avid skier, I hoped to contribute something to backcountry safety and survival by volunteering in a hypothermia study—part of ongoing research that’s helping skiers, climbers, snowmobilers, search-and-rescue personnel, and paramedics better treat avalanche victims.
The study is being led by Colin Grissom, 44, a critical-care physician at LDS Hospital, in Salt Lake City. Initially, Grissom became interested in pulmonary research while spending each summer from 1992 to 1998 in Alaska, where he worked on Mount McKinley helping injured and sick climbers. In 1998, he was asked by Black Diamond, a climbing- and ski-gear manufacturer in Salt Lake, to conduct a study on its new Avalung, and by 2004 Grissom and two Salt Lake–based partners, Martin Radwin, a gastroenterologist, and Chris Harmston, a materials engineer, had published their research in The Journal of the American Medical Association and the Journal of Applied Physiology.
Key among their discoveries is that core body temperature drops 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit per hour, a number significantly lower than the traditional assumption of 5.4 degrees per hour—a figure based largely on anecdotal evidence. Thanks to Grissom’s new information, rescue personnel have a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of hypothermia, and can make better decisions in the field depending on who is buried and for how long.
This morning, here at the Canyons ski resort, after a breakfast of oatmeal, yogurt, and toast, my adventure as a human ice sculpture got under way. I’m the only one being buried today (Grissom does eight to 12 each winter), and Grissom had me swallow a vitamin-size wireless capsule that transmits the temperature from my stomach. (I’ll simply pass the capsule later, I’m told.) Then came the rectal and esophageal monitors. Before I signed on to the test, Grissom had sent me an e-mail stating that he had “a lot of experience placing these probes with minimum discomfort.” As if. In the ski-patrol first-aid room, he worked the first monitor, attached to a wire, four inches up my keister while I was bent over, pants around my ankles, trying to concentrate on the skiers outside the window.
That wasn’t the worst part. Next, he had me snort a syringeful of lidocaine, a topical numbing gel, in preparation for the knitting-needle-size thermometer that went up my nose and down my throat. Five temperature sensors were taped to my skin, and three EKG leads were stuck to my chest with sticky pads. Then two blood-oxygen monitors were clamped to my fingers, and one was secured to my forehead. At last, the team deposited me in my white grave, installing an intercom device in the snow so I could communicate.
The goal was to keep me under for a full 60 minutes, but now, at the 25-minute mark, vertigo hits hard. I freak and call for extraction, but after an assistant uncovers a peephole, the vertigo abates, so they leave me here. I last another 25 minutes before “cold diuresis”—capillary constriction that creates an intense urge to urinate—sets in. With my core temp plunging at an anticipated 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit per hour and my bladder about to burst, I’ve had enough: I’ve been under for 52 minutes when they dig out my numb body, look away while I promptly squat to pee, and then lay me on a pad to begin the rewarming process. “You were a real popsicle,” Grissom will tell me later.
Within minutes of being exhumed, my core-temp cooling rate more than doubles to five degrees Fahrenheit per hour—a phenomenon called “afterdrop.” This occurs when the ambient air and wind cause convective heat loss, which the body combats by shunting blood from extremities toward the core. Without proper attention, subjects are at risk of cardiac arrest. Fortunately, I’m in good hands. I lie there in a sleeping bag on my full-length foam pad, wrapped in an industrial-strength garbage bag, a goose-down scarf around my head, shivering like a heroin addict in withdrawal. It takes a full 40 minutes before I’m warm again.
In the weeks that follow, I learn of three more avalanche deaths in Colorado and Utah, and one serious accident in Telluride involving a friend who barely survived a 2,000-foot slide and burial. Despite the horror stories, I know I’ll be out in the backcountry soon enough, as will my friends. There will still be accidents, of course, but if what I’ve been through as an underground guinea pig might help someone someday—a family member, perhaps, or even me—then it’s worth it. Of course, that thought wasn’t the best part of the study. What was? Getting those damn probes out.