PARK CITY — A onetime search-and-rescue volunteer, Colin Little has spent hours combing California slopes for those who have perished in backcountry avalanches.
The surges of snow can reach about 60 mph in a second or two, leaving anyone buried underneath just 15 minutes before they run out of air. Many rescue missions can quickly transform into recovery efforts.
Now a fellow in wilderness medicine at the University of Utah, he is part of a small team of researchers who are finding that a special type of air bag can significantly prolong the timeline.
"Even an extra 15 to 20 minutes is a lot when you’re trying to find someone and dig them out with just a couple of people, just your companions. I think every minute helps," Little said Monday.
When a volunteer subject called in sick Monday, Little filled in. He laid facedown in what looked like a snowy grave before pulling a cord on his backpack, then remained still in a helmet and orange ski suit as a crew heaped snow over him as part of a test near the Nordic jumps at the Utah Olympic Park.
A fan propelled spurts of air into a roughly 3-foot tall balloon in the shape of an airplane pillow above his head, then reversed and deflated three minutes later, leaving a pocket of air that allowed him to breathe normally, if not close to it, for an hour. About 2 feet of snow on top of him did not collapse.
The Monday trial, the group's 11th of 12, was typical of the earlier runs, said Scott McIntosh, an emergency doctor and the study's principal investigator. Early analysis of the data shows the participants' vital signs remained stable for the hour they spent under the snow pumped to create a 200-liter air pocket.
"The deflation and the creation of that air pocket, we think that it works," McIntosh said.
The group says the technology has potential to help the majority of those caught in the churning white walls, which generally come to rest within a minute. Prior studies have shown that about 1 in 4 avalanche deaths are caused by trauma like tumbling, but the rest are due to asphyxiation. In Utah, four winter sports enthusiasts have died in avalanches this season.
"We think that that should be zero every year," McIntosh said.
The team believes the device could possibly keep a person alive and stable for up to 10 hours. A university medical ethics board approved only a 60-minute trial.
Before the bag created the air bubble, Little said, the crashing snow made it hard to breathe. Afterward, he could pull his head back and felt toastier than expected, but the rest of his body was stuck. Only his boots remained uncovered in the event he needed to kick them to show distress.
The device, from Salt Lake City-based outfitter Black Diamond Equipment, has been on the market for some time, said McIntosh, who has long-studied how people fare when buried in snow.
But he wanted to study the gadget and quantify its potential, providing "real, live data," he said.
Aside from Little, his team includes Natalya Polukoff, an incoming medical student and volunteer research assistant who monitored and recorded her colleague's heart rate and other vital signs Monday. Each is a backcountry enthusiast.
Black Diamond loaned the airbag packs for the study but is not footing the bill for the research, McIntosh said. AirMed supplied monitors and ski patrollers helped shovel.
Not every test has been flawless. Earlier in the study, one buried participant signaled he wanted out at 48 minutes, emerging nervous, light-headed and hyperventilating. McIntosh believes a chunk of snow may have fallen on a device measuring his inhales and exhales.
Avalanche airbags, designed to help a person float atop a surge, or in the worst cases, provide air to breathe, have long been popular in Europe and have migrated to the U.S. over the last decade, McIntosh said, but Black Diamond's is the only one that uses a fan to deflate.
He believes the study also is unique in the U.S., though Italian researchers also have probed similar questions.
His team cautions that the technology, which runs upward of $1,000, cannot take the place of avalanche education, consulting forecasts and reading terrain. He carries one of the packs on his own backcountry tours, he said, but originally wasn't convinced of them. He believed the training and tools such as a beacon, shovel and probe were enough.
But he has come to believe the extra tools can only help.
"You can do everything and put all the science behind trying to predict avalanches, which the Utah Avalanche Center does, and they're amazing at it. But there are small inconsistencies. There are things that happen that we can’t predict. And in those situations, I think the airbag allows for an extra layer of safety."
The team plans to analyze the data over the next month and report its formal findings sometime after.
Editor's Note: An earlier version said the avalanche airbags leave a pocket of oxygen. They in fact provide a pocket of regular air, which includes other gasses.