Study Aims to Improve Avalanche Rescue

Study Aims to Improve Avalanche Rescue

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Sammy Linebaugh reportingAvalanche danger has become a fact of life for Utahns who venture into the backcountry.

There's no way to eliminate the risk, but a Utah doctor is looking for new ways to improve rescue operations.

New technology is making it possible to breath long term even under heavy snowpack. The challenge: Search and rescue teams could now face a new type of victim. One whose coldest moments could still be ahead.

Lindsay Yaw/About to be Buried: "I’m a little nervous...trying to relax and breathe."

Colorado's Lindsay Yaw will be buried in this snowpit for sixty minutes -- or, as long as she can stand it. She will breath using a device called an Avalung.

Chris Harmston/Avalung Engineer: "Rides on your body like this mouthpiece is in the ready position when you suspect you might be in avalanche terrain."

Used by more and more backcountry adventurers, the Avalung works by diverting the CO-2 that builds up and causes asphyxiation, allowing the user to survive snow burial for extended periods of time.

On the other side of the snowpit, Dr. Colin Grissom, who has designed the medical study and will be monitoring Lindsay's every breath.

Dr. Collin Grissom/Critical Care Specialist: “She's going to enter the mild stage of hypothermia."

Lindsay's core body temperature is the focus of Grissom's research.

Chris Harmston: "The goal today is to study the effects of hypothermia after somebody's been extricated with an Avalung."

Dr. Grissom deals in Celsius, and says normal body temperature is about 37.5 degrees.

Dr. Collin Grissom/Critical Care Specialist: "She'll probably only drop a degree to a degree and a half during snow burial."

But it's what happens AFTER she's removed from the snowpack that he hopes to better understand.

Dr. Collin Grissom/Critical Care Specialist: "There's a certain insulating property to snow, and when you extricate the avalanche victim, if you had a rate of decline in core temperature that was like this, it takes a steeper decline."

About three feet of snow is packed around Lindsay’s mouth really tightly, so communication is kept very simple. If at any point she's had enough, she's instructed to say 'dig'."

Lindsay spends 45 minutes under the snowpack. Once she's exposed to outside air, monitoring continues as Lindsay's shivering becomes more pronounced. One full hour after she's been extricated, her temperature is still dropping to a low point of 34.5 degrees Celsius, three degrees below normal.

Lindsay Yaw: "Did you feel like you were colder once you got out? Definitely, definitely."

Dr. Colin Grissom: "The intent is that we can find things that will improve the ability of avalanche rescuers to take care of any avalanche burial victim who's been extricated."

Lindsay Yaw: "I never, ever want to be that victim."

Lindsay says as uncomfortable as it was, she's glad to take part in a test that may someday help save a life. She's one of 8 volunteers who took part in the study.

We'll have more on this story Monday morning on Eyewitness News Today.

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