They call it the White Death: an avalanche can strike the unsuspecting mountaineer or backcountry skier with almost no warning. During the 2001-2002 winter season, there have been a record number of 35 avalanche-related deaths in the United States alone. An avalanche can be compared to a landslide, only with snow instead of land. Some have likened it to being in a giant washing machine filled with snow. When in such a life-threatening situation, a device called AvaLung can save one's life. Provided one survives the impact, the AvaLung helps the victim of the avalanche breathe fresh oxygen from the snow.
Most avalanche victims manage to survive the impact. It has been documented that 75% of avalanche-related deaths occur due to suffocation. However, suffocation is not due to lack of air, as one may think. Instead, carbon dioxide builds up around the mouth and face area making vital oxygen less available. At the same time, as the person exhales, the temperature of the exhaled air causes some of the snow around the head to melt. Subsequently, the snow re-freezes thus creating an ice mask around the face which makes it even more difficult for the exhaled carbon dioxide to dissipate into the surrounding snow.
As a safety breathing device, the AvaLung equipment can increase the time one has to breathe if trapped in an avalanche. Air is pulled in directly from the air-rich snowpack by the use of a mouthpiece. The device consists of a mouth piece, a flap valve, an exhaust pipe, and an air collector. One shoulder strap has a zipper compartment for the AvaLung bite tube, while the other strap holds your drinking sip tube. In seconds one may have the tube installed. The Idea is to keep it out and handy whenever in avalanche terrain, and even keep it in your mouth if you’re in an extremely dangerous situation. Thus, the device is a simple and relatively low-tech means of ensuring oxygen availability, while diverting carbon-dioxide rich, warm exhaled air away from the intake. This allows the victim to breathe and buys significantly more time for rescuers to locate and dig out the victim.
Although admittedly a low-tech device, several engineering disciplines have undoubtedly participated in the development of the AvaLung. The tubes, mouthpiece and plastics materials were researched and developed by a chemical engineering expert in materials science. They were manufactured in plants, by specialized machinery that have been designed, built and are operated and maintained by mechanical engineers. Civil engineers would have designed the buildings that house the assembly plants, as well as the roads and bridges needed to transport the materials and the finished product to the end-user.
Avalanches are a naturally occurring phenomenon. They cannot be prevented, and even though in most cases, there is some measure of warning, every season, there are avalanche-related deaths. As most of these deaths occur due to suffocation, the AvaLung device provides a measure of added safety and may save lives. Although simple, the AvaLung is quite innovative, and many engineers contributed to its design and manufacture. It would be a very good idea for people to venture into avalanche high-risk areas to equip themselves with an AvaLung device. Who knows, it may save their life!