Avalanche Safety Equipment is a Proven Lifesaver

Just after Christmas day in 2009 three separate avalanches in Italy killed seven people. Among those swept to their deaths were experienced instructors and alpine guides who were searching at night and under difficult conditions for members of an earlier party that had also been buried under snow. The tragic deaths right at the start of the snow sport season highlighted once again the dangers posed by avalanches to outdoor sports enthusiasts and is a reminder of the need to take basic precautions to minimise the risk of death or injury.
Avalanche awareness has increased among skiers and snowboarders in recent years and many are now skilled in assessing risk. Training and hazard avoidance has to be the first line of protection for all those venturing out. Yet assessing the risk of a snow slide is an imperfect science, despite much research into the field in recent years, and highly experienced guides still fall victim to avalanches. This highlights the need for additional protection. In recent years there has been a clear trend in the adoption of basic avalanche rescue gear by skiers and snowboarders. This is backed by law in some jurisdictions such as in Italy where skiers are required to carry a minimum of a snow shovel, avalanche beacon (sometimes known as a rescue transceiver) and snow probe before venturing off piste.
Wider adoption of basic rescue equipment appears to have contributed to a reduction in the proportion of fatalities among victims of avalanche slides. The number of people killed by Avalanches in Switzerland, for instance, had fallen in recent years from around 30 a year in the early 2000s to the low teens food industry companies by the late 2000s. Tragically this number increased sharply in the 2008/2009 skiing season. Research by the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research has found that at least part of the reason for the reduction in deaths may be attributed to skiers and snowboarders carrying rescue beacons.
The chances of a successful rescue of people buried in an avalanche slide depend largely on how long they are under the snow. Those that are only shallowly buried with clothing or parts of their bodies visible on the surface can usually be found quickly and dug up within about 10 minutes. They have an 85% chance of surviving. It found that the overall chance of surviving if located using a transceiver was about 50%. That figure had, however, improved dramatically by the late 1990s when the chances of being rescued alive when located by snow beacon food processing magazine had increased to about 75% from about 35% in the 1980s, according to the research. This indicated greater training in the use of transceivers as the ones being used at the time in Switzerland were largely analogue beacons. The impact of the widespread introduction of digital avalanche transceivers over the past decade was not measured in that study. But it would probably have led to further reductions in burial time and improved survival rates because digital snow beacons are easier to use and require less training than analogue ones.