Field management of avalanche victims

Resuscitation. 2001 Oct;51(1):7-15. doi: 10.1016/s0300-9572(01)00383-5.


The median annual mortality from snow avalanches registered in Europe and North America 1981-1998 was 146 (range 82-226); trend stable in Alpine countries (r=-0.29; P=0.24), increasing in North America (r=0.68; P=0.002). Swiss data over the same period document 1886 avalanche victims, with an overall mortality rate of 52.4% in completely-buried, versus 4.2% in partially-, or non-buried, persons. Survival probability in completely-buried victims in open areas (n=638) plummets from 91% 18 min after burial to 34% at 35 min, then remains fairly constant until a second drop after 90 min. Likewise, survival probability for completely-buried victims in buildings or on roads (n=97) decreases rapidly following burial initially, but as from 35 min it is significantly higher than that for victims in open areas, with a maximum difference in respective survival probability (31% versus 7%) from 130 to 190 min (P<0.001). Standardised guidelines are introduced for the field management of avalanche victims. Strategy by rescuers confronted with the triad hypoxia, hypercapnia and hypothermia is primarily governed by the length of snow burial and victim's core temperature, in the absence of obviously fatal injuries. With a burial time < or =35 min survival depends on preventing asphyxia by rapid extrication and immediate airway management; cardiopulmonary resuscitation for unconscious victims without spontaneous respiration. With a burial time >35 min combating hypothermia becomes of paramount importance. Thus, gentle extrication, ECG and core temperature monitoring and body insulation are mandatory; unresponsive victims should be intubated and pulseless victims with core temperature <32 degrees C (89.6 degrees F) (prerequisites being an air pocket and free airways) transported with continuous cardiopulmonary resuscitation to a specialist hospital for extracorporeal re-warming.

MeSH terms

  • Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation*
  • Disasters*
  • Emergency Medical Services*
  • Heart Arrest / therapy
  • Humans
  • Hypercapnia / therapy*
  • Hypothermia / therapy*
  • Hypoxia / therapy*
  • Snow
  • Survival Analysis
  • Switzerland
  • Time Factors