In February 2011, Kristoffer Carlsson set out with some friends for a backcountry ski outing in Verbier, Switzerland. Things didn’t go as planned. Carlsson was caught in an avalanche, and buried at a depth of 5 ft. (1.5 m) to 6.6 ft. (2 m) by an avalanche. The dramatic footage above was shot with the helmet cam Carlsson was wearing; it shows him thrashing around, trying to stay afloat of the snow.
“Luckily, I was wearing the right equipment and managed to create an air pocket in front of my mouth by holding my hands in front of my face when the avalanche stopped moving,” Carlsson wrote on his YouTube account. Thanks to his quick thinking, Carlsson was able to survive.
Most avalanche victims suffocate to death, but some are able to survive for hours under the snow, and creating an air pocket in front of the victim’s mouth can be the difference between life and death. On average, 350 people are caught by an avalanche each winter in the United States. Of those, about 40 are buried and 28 killed. But only one in four people who are completely buried survive, according to data from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
But what makes the difference between those who died after being buried by an avalanche and those who make it out alive?
“It’s mostly luck,” said Dale Atkins, the former president of the American Avalanche Association. “But what puts you in a place to be lucky are things that make you searchable to your friends and to the rescue teams.”
If skiers are completely or partly buried by an avalanche, there are three specific types of equipment that would increase their chances of survival by making it easier for rescue teams to find them.
Many backcountry skiers carry avalanche transceivers, small radio devices that help members of a team find each other. Then there are avalanche airbags—wearable backpacks with a built-in airbag that inflates upon impact—that help in reducing the chances of being buried. In the same way that smaller crumbs tend to fall towards the bottom of a cookie jar, while bigger pieces remain at the top, avalanche airbags will help force you towards the top—and towards air. Thirdly, radar reflectors —chips that can be integrated in skiwear—can also help search teams narrow down a skier’s location.
On average people are buried under a ton of snow when they’re caught in an avalanche. The snow increases in density as it settles, and comes to resemble cement. It’s critical for rescue teams to have shovels and for the person buried to be easily seen, something airbags and radar reflectors can help.
Atkins, who was once caught in an avalanche himself, says that an avalanche travels at the same rate as a speeding car, but “hits you with the same force as a freight train.”
On average, 10,000 avalanches are reported every year in the continental United States. But researchers say that it is more likely that 100,000 avalanches occur every year, with most going unreported—and unfilmed.