Still On The Avalung Fence?
It might be time to
by Mitch Weber
Norwegian skier Martin Gulsrud
being dug out by the Tignes Ski Patrol. Photo: Cathrine Ude
"If you are going to wear a beacon
in anticipation of possibly getting buried in an avalanche, why
wouldn't you want to also wear a simple device that will allow
you to breathe while you are waiting to be dug out?," a
friend of ours asked Big Tim and me earlier this winter. "I
guess if you put it like that..." I sort of mumbled weakly.
We had been carrying around a pair of Avalungs in the back of
the Telemarktips.com van all season. They were still chilling
in their boxes, waiting for us to get off the fence. After hearing
the following story...and especially seeing the pictures...we
didn't just climb down on the side of the Avalung, it was more
like we fell off the fence with a loud thud. What were we thinking?
On January 29, 2005, 24 year-old Martin
Gulsrud of Norway was skiing an area near TUFS at the Tignes,
France, ski resort with two close friends. It was a beautiful
and sunny day, the final day of their holiday in Tignes. Martin
was wearing an Avalung that had been a Christmas present from
his girlfriend, 2 years earlier. The avalanche rating forecast
for that day had been decreased from 4 to 3. Everyone in the
group was stoked as they set out to ski an area they had had
their eyes on for a few days. "Four days earlier there had
been an avalanche right beside where we wanted to ski,"
says Martin. "We saw craters in the same side from which
we believed they had secured this side with explosives. There
had been many people skiing on the other side of the old avalanche,
near the piste. We thought this side was safe. We knew about
the high avalanche risk during this week, but due to what we
have skied earlier years we hoped the conditions had stabilized,
and decided to give it a try."
Upon reaching the top of the slope, Gulsrud
went first. "I skied a straight line for approximately 15
meters to gather speed, then I took 2-3 turns and an avalanche
cracked all around me. I was carried for approximately 200-250
meters down, and it went fast," Martin remembers today.
"I think I had the same speed all the way down to the bottom,
where all the snow gathered in a bowl. Reaching the bottom of
the slope I was buried at once."
As soon he realized what was happening,
and that he wasn't going to be able to ski out of the slide,
Gulsrud worked to get his Avalung mouthpiece in place,
"I took the mouthpiece in my mouth
as soon as I noticed that I had lost all my speed relative to
the avalanche, and at this point I was still standing up."
Martin recalls that it was was a huge help
to breathe through the Avalung while being dragged down the slope,
"The Avalung was easy to breathe through, and I could focus
on what to do when I was buried, instead of struggling with snow
in my mouth and lungs."
When asked later if he gained a sense of
calm from being able to breathe freely while buried Gulsrud replied
with an enthusiastic YES!
The scene. Photo: Cathrine
"Still in the avalanche, I was carried
down the slope at high speed. I surfaced right before reaching
the bottom of the slope. At that moment I thought that, luckily,
I was not going to be buried," remembers Gulsrud. "While
surfacing I was able to turn around so I could see where I was
But then things took a turn for the worse,
"I saw the snow raise up like a wave when hitting a roll
over at the bottom of the slope," says Gulsrud. "I
understood that I was going to be buried seconds later, so I
started to expand my lungs so I could have space to breathe under
the snow pack. At the same moment I crashed into this wall of
moving snow, I was covered and the pressure started to increase.
I could hear the bouldering sound of snow landing upon me and
the pressure was increasing extremely fast. This sound continued
for around 5 to 10 seconds, and during this time I concentrated
on taking short and fast gasps of air with as much air in my
lungs as possible. Even though I fought for the space around
my lungs I ended up with less than 50% of full lung capacity.
The pressure was enormous; I couldn't move a finger or open my
Martin relates that during the ride down
the slope, and after everything had settled down, he didn't try
to struggle or move around to position himself any differently
in the snow, "The only thing I focused on was having space
around my lungs, and I remember thinking how this would be without
the Avalung. I am very glad I didn't panic and struggle against
the forces of the avalanche. I was very frightened until I concluded
that the snow wasn't moving any more, I realized I could breath
and that I was in a position where I cold stay alive for awhile."
Martin's two ski partners were not caught
in the avalanche, the group having made the wise decision to
ski the slope one at a time. They used radios to quickly contact
the ski patrol via other members of their group, then began a
search. The Tignes Ski Patrol accessed the scene quickly and
dug Martin out as fast as possible. He was found 2.5 meters down
and spent approximately 20 minutes under the snow.
Gulsrud describes his time buried and the
details of the search and rescue, "I was sure I was buried
deep because I could hear the rumble of the avalanche getting
weaker and weaker. It didn't take long for Erik and Andreas to
be standing on top of me. I cold hear through the snow that they
were at the right area, and I heard over my PMR 446 radio that
they were in contact with other people in our group. I heard
a lot of activity in the snow but still I hadn't felt any probes
hit my body. I thought 'maybe I am deeper than 3,5 meters ' (the
length of Erik`s probe) since they still hadn't hit me."
Unfortunately Martin's partners had started
to dig around 2 meters away from where he was buried, "Suddenly
Erik got some new signals from his beacon," says Martin,
"and and he used his probe in another place and hit my arm
and shoulder at 2,5 meters. At this moment the first guy from
the ski patrol arrived, and right after this there were 7 others
digging around Erik's probe. The ski patrol had now taken over
the rescue. Andreas had this small plastic shovel, and Erik had
a bigger aluminium bladed shovel. They told me afterwards that
they would never have been able to dig me out without help from
the ski patrol. After digging 1 meter, they were totally exhausted
and the snow was too hard for their light shovels."
Martin says that the ski patrol got there
so quickly because his partner Erik's girlfriend Cathrine was
sitting outside a cafe near the top of a nearby lift, "She
was watching us and could see the avalanche setting off. She
had contact with Erik and Andreas over the radios.The ski patrol
had a base there, near where she was sitting so she reported
the accident at nearly the same moment it happened. The patroller
just traversed to get to the bottom of the avalanche. This was
pure luck again, as we have been skiing other places where it
would have taken more time to get help."
Also lucky was that Gulsrud did not suffer
any other injuries. When asked if he thinks he might have been
able to last longer than the 20 minutes he was buried, Martin
said yes, "I started to feel a bit dizzy when the rescue
team reached my hand, but the rest of my body was still under
the snow. I was a bit chilled by the heavy snow, and because
when I had the thought that maybe I buried deeper than 3.5 meters,
I was a bit concerned about the cold."
Patrollers work to free Gulsrud from his icy
tomb. Photo: Cathrine Ude
Regarding the performance of his Avalung,
Martin says now that as he lay buried under the snow he got some
spit in the mouthpiece, "I was wondering whether or not
I could let this spit go on into the Avalung. I thought about
what I had read about the Avalung in the user manual, about how
it works. I concluded that the spit would be drained out through
the outlet valve, the same way as my breath, so I let it go this
Martin remembers that towards the end of
his time waiting under the snow, he heard gurgling sounds from
the Avalung, "but I was still confident that a hard breath
out would clean the pipe. I never felt this was a problem so
I didn't worry about it."
Gulsrud says the scariest part of his ordeal
was the time he spent fighting for the space around his chest,
"Without the Avalung, I think this would have been impossible".
"So even though my friends and I were
lucky in this experience, I do not believe that I could have
survived this avalanche without my Avalung."
Gulrud and a friend revisit the avy site.
Photo: Martin Gulsrud
Indeed, avalanche statistics reveal that
approximately 80% of avalanche fatalities are due to suffocation
or asphyxiation.* The chance of survival decreases exponentially
over time. After 35 minutes, the chance of survival is approximately
When asked recently how this experience
might change his approach to skiing off piste in the future,
Martin Gulsrud said that when assessing the risk he would always
factor in how long it might take for help to come in case of
another emergency. He also said, "Neither myself or any
of the ski partners I regularly ski with will ever go off-piste
again without an Avalung and with aluminium shovels having good
Martin Gulsrud's story, in combination
with the above mentioned casual conversation with our friend
("wouldn't you want to also wear a simple device that could
help to breathe while you are being dug out?"), has been
an eye opener for myself and Big Tim. Two shiny new Avalungs
have finally made it out of their boxes and into our backcountry
We are finally off the fence once and for
Avalanche survivor Martin Gulsrud. Photo:
The author wishes to thank Penn
Newhard and Martin Gulrud for their considerable contributions
to this story.
*Falk and Brugger, Nature Vol.