Sunday 22 April 2018

Saving your bacon off-piste

Gemma O'DOherty

As adrenaline kicks go, few things compare to the thrill of off-piste skiing. But heavy snow across some of Europe's best-known Alpine resorts followed by a sudden rise in temperatures has brought a spate of avalanches to the mountains.

Sadly, winter 2010 is predicted to set a grim new record for the number of people who have been swept to their deaths on the slopes.

So far this season Switzerland has seen 13 fatalities, including a rescue doctor who was killed while attending an incident when a secondary avalanche struck. In Austria eight people have died in the past fortnight, while Italy, France and Spain have all seen harrowing tragedies in recent weeks.

It's a similar story on the other side of the Atlantic. More than 30 skiers have lost their lives since mid-December in the US and Canada.

In the Alps, the shocking death toll has led to calls for an outright ban on off-piste skiing, which has been damned in one paper as "an act of recklessness".

In Italy, where eight skiers were killed in the mountains last weekend, ministers are planning to rush through legislation introducing huge fines and possible jail terms for those who venture away from official slopes. Some of those killed had ignored official advice and entered areas marked dangerous.

But the miracle rescue last week of a French skier who was buried in snow near Grenoble for 45 minutes has been hailed as a casebook study on avalanche survival.

The chances of coming out of an avalanche alive reduce dramatically after 15 minutes and are rare after 30 minutes. Most people die of suffocation or hypothermia, but 32-year-old sports instructor Gilles Durand lifted up his arm as the snow collapsed on him and managed to create a passage of air to breath through.

By a twist of luck, a passing helicopter spotted his right hand above the surface. When he was pulled from the snow his body temperature was 28°C, nine degrees below normal.

During his ordeal, he managed to spit the snow from his mouth and saved oxygen by staying calm.

In another incident in Bad Hofgastein in Austria, two off-piste skiers succeeded in digging themselves out of a snowslide -- despite being totally buried.

Scientists are striving to discover new ways of protecting skiers who fall foul of avalanches, but a recent experiment planned in the picturesque valley of Tyrol caused outcry among animal rights groups.

Researchers from Innsbruck University decided to bury 29 live pigs under masses of snow in order to study the effect of air pockets that form during avalanches on victims' survival chances.

One in five skiers hit by an avalanche gains access to an air pocket - the pig study was aimed at allowing the development of new life-saving techniques when a small pocket of oxygen is available.

Condemning it as bizarre and macabre, angry protesters overcame the scientists' plans and the experiment has been put on ice until they can find a way of performing it indoors away from prying eyes.

Irish Independent

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