Objective: To confirm that the accumulation of exhaled carbon dioxide (CO2) is the principal cause of nonmechanical asphyxiation during avalanche burial by demonstrating that complete exclusion of exhaled CO2 during experimental snow burial results in normal oxygenation and ventilation utilizing the air within the snowpack.
Methods: In the experimental group, 8 healthy volunteers (mean age 32 years, range 19-44 years) were fully buried up to 90 minutes in compacted snow with a density ranging from 300 to 680 kg/ m3 at an elevation of 2385 m. The 6 men and 2 women breathed directly from the snow utilizing a device containing no air pocket around the inhalation intake, in addition to an extended exhalation tube running completely out of the snowpack to remove all exhaled CO2. Continuous physiologic monitoring included oxygen saturation, end-tidal CO2, inspired CO2, electrocardiogram, rectal core temperature, and respiratory rate. As controls, 5 of the 8 subjects repeated the study protocol breathing directly into a small, fist-sized air pocket with no CO2 removal device.
Results: In the experimental group, the mean burial time was 88 minutes, despite the absence of an air pocket. No significant changes occurred in any physiologic parameters in this group compared to baseline values. In contrast, the controls remained buried for a mean of 10 minutes (P = .003) and became significantly hypercapnic (P < .01) and hypoxic (P < .02).
Conclusions: There is sufficient oxygen contained within a densified snowpack comparable to avalanche debris to sustain normal oxygenation and ventilation for at least 90 minutes during snow burial if exhaled CO2 is removed. The prolonged oxygenation observed during CO2 exclusion is irrespective of the presence of an air pocket.