Elm Creek Basin, British Columbia
February 10, 2002
The following information is from an interview
with avalanche survivor and AvaLung user Mike Morrisey of Colorado.
The interview was conducted by telephone on Thursday, February
28, 2002, at the request of Black Diamond Equipment. I have not
and am not planning to receive compensation for this interview.
I did not solicit information or details about heli-ski company
or their judgments and decisions. The focus of this interview
was entirely about the AvaLung and the users experience.
Morrisey was heli skiing when he and five
others in his party were caught in a sizable avalanche. Morrisey
survived a significant burial. Two buried men died. Morrisey
credits his AvaLung with his survival. It is my opinion the AvaLung
made a critical contribution to his survival.
Morrisey stated that he and friends determined his burial time
at about 38 minutes. (Morrisey reported the heli-ski company
thought his burial time to be 20 to 30 minutes.)
Morriseys head was buried about 4 feet deep.
An upright, sitting position with his left hand above his head.
Found by transceiver search. Morrisey does
not remember hearing rescuers. He remembers opening his eyes
to daylight and rescuers.
Events Leading Up To The Avalanche
Which AvaLung model do you own?
Why did you buy it?
The AvaLung was a Christmas gift from his girl friend. He asked
her to buy it.
Morrisey is a self-described gear freak
who wants to increase his chances of survival. He knows the Colorado
snowpack is often unstable, and if he is going to take a calculated
risk he wants to increase his chances of survival.
How frequently do you use it?
He has gotten out in the backcountry with it about 5 times
this season. He also stated that he practiced
positioning the mouthpiece and putting it in his mouth. He made
a decision to always use it because it is so unobtrusive
Did you use it every day prior to the accident?
The avalanche occurred on his first ski day, shortly after lunch.
Where were you on the slope?
He and his group were stopped part way down the slope. They had
re-grouped after skiing the upper portion of the slope. He and
most of the group were waiting while skiers took turns starting
down the lower portion of the slope.
Where you stopped or skiing?
Morrisey was stopped and waiting his turn to descend. He said
he just happened to look up and saw the avalanche
headed toward his group. At first he thought it was a cloud,
but he quickly realized it was not a cloud but rather an avalanche.
Morrisey yelled avalanche and turned his back to
the snow and put the mouthpiece in his mouth and bit down.
Did you have any difficulty placing the mouthpiece?
A little. Morrisey said that he had zipped the tall
collar on his jacket all the way up, so he could
not just push it [mouthpiece] into his mouth. It
[the collar] made it more difficult to get into my mouth.
Morrisey stated that back home [Colorado] he had
practiced with the AvaLung, but that it was always while
traveling. He explained that his jacket was always zipped
down, and that it was easy to bite down or stuff it into
Describe what it was like to be caught?
He did not hear the avalanche. He felt it
push hard when he was struck. The avalanche tumbled
him; sometimes he rose up and then would sink down in the moving
snow. He tried to swim. He stated he was always
aware of his body position.
He remembers being carried over a rock band,
but described the snow as supporting him, like being in
a clothes drier with a bunch of towels.
He said he had only a split-second
realization the snow was stopping and then it stopped fast. He
never thought about creating an air space. His only goal was
to get to the surface.
Did you have any problem keeping the mouthpiece
Morrisey stated it was no problem keeping the mouthpiece
in while he tumbled. Describe your experience under the snow?
Morrisey found himself buried fast in debris. He was in an upright,
sitting position with his left hand about his head. He was not
able to create, nor did he have an air space. He could move only
his left hand.
Morrisey stated there were three great
things about the AvaLung:
Once it [mouthpiece] was in my mouth
I could breathe there was no snow in my mouth.
The fact that I could sit and breathe comfortably and knowing
that I could breathe helped me remain calm.
I could calmly wait and that gave me a positive attitude.
These three points Morrisey mentions are super
critical to surviving an avalanche burial. Interestingly, after
waiting and waiting he started to have doubts
about his being rescued. He started to think that his entire
group might have been caught and buried and that no one would
get to him. He even thought about and tried pushing
the mouthpiece out so that he would drift off.
This might explain why when found, he did
not have the mouthpiece in his mouth.
Have you had any problems post-burial in terms
of sleep, dreams, anxiety, staying focused and/or on task, etc.?
During our phone conversation I found Mike
Morrisey to be an intelligent, articulate, and savvy skier. He
is better versed in avalanches than most recreational winter-travelers
are. He feels strongly the AvaLung saved his life, and I must
agree, too. There are three compelling pieces of evidence that
the AvaLung helped Morrisey survive.
First, Morrisey survived a relatively long
burial without an airspace. Though Morrisey was buried in a favorable
position (upright) he was buried for a significant length of
time. Survival statistics reveal that by only 30 minutes only
50% of avalanche victims survive; however, by 35 minutes only
1-in-3 buried victims survive. Very few victims without an airspace
have survived as long as Morrisey did.
The second and third reasons for the AvaLungs
contribution to Morriseys survival are found in his comments
above. The AvaLung enabled Morrisey to establish and keep an
open airway while being tumbled about in the moving snow. Many
avalanche victims complain about or are found with snow packed
into their mouth and/or nose so they cant breathe after
the avalanche stopped. Thirdly, since Morrisey could breathe
he was able to remain calm and have a positive attitude. A positive
attitude is an important factor in any survival situation.
Surviving an avalanche burial has always been
more a matter of luck, than skill or equipment. However, in this
accident the equipmentthe AvaLung made the difference.
Submitted March 1, 2002.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center