Rescue missions for totally buried avalanche victims: conclusions from 12 years of experience

High Alt Med Biol. 2008 Fall;9(3):229-33. doi: 10.1089/ham.2007.1061.


The planning and execution of avalanche rescue missions to search for totally buried avalanche victims are mostly based on personal experience and preference, as evidence-based information from literature is almost completely missing. Hence, the aim of this study was to identify major factors determining the survival probability of totally buried victims during avalanche rescue missions carried out by organized rescue teams (Austrian Mountain Rescue Service, Tyrol). During the 12-year period studied, 109 totally buried persons (56 off-piste, 53 backcountry), were rescued or recovered; 18.3% survived to hospital discharge. Median depth of burial was 1.25 m; median duration of burial was 85 min. The majority (61.6%) of the rescue missions were conducted under considerably dangerous avalanche conditions. The probability of survival was highest when located visually and lowest for those located by avalanche transceiver; survival did not significantly differ between those found by rescue dogs and those located with avalanche probes. Multivariate analysis revealed short duration of burial and off-piste terrain to be the two independent predictors of survival. Whenever companion rescue fails, snow burial in an avalanche is associated with extraordinarily high mortality. Searching the avalanche debris with probe lines seems to be equally effective as compared to searching with rescue dogs. The potential hazard for rescuers during avalanche rescue missions comes mainly from self-triggered avalanches, hence thorough mission planning and critical risk-benefit assessment are of utmost importance for risk reduction.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Asphyxia / epidemiology*
  • Asphyxia / prevention & control
  • Austria / epidemiology
  • Avalanches / mortality*
  • Avalanches / statistics & numerical data
  • Disaster Planning / organization & administration
  • Disasters / statistics & numerical data*
  • Emergencies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mountaineering / statistics & numerical data*
  • Rescue Work / methods
  • Rescue Work / statistics & numerical data*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Reduction Behavior
  • Snow