Pascal Haegeli

Post-doctoral fellow Pascal Haegeli says we need to rethink approaches to avalanche safety.

Trauma kills a third of avalanche victims: study

March 5, 2009

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A new study of avalanche deaths in western Canada reveals that trauma causes as many as a third of all fatalities, raising the need to rethink approaches to avalanche safety. Existing safety devices and rescue methods focus primarily on asphyxia and not on trauma, says study co-investigator Pascal Haegeli, a post-doctoral fellow in the School of Resource and Environmental Management.

"Our study shows that one-third of avalanche victims in Canada had sustained potentially lethal trauma before the avalanche even stopped, and that most of these died from this trauma," says Haegeli.

"This clearly confirms that avalanche safety devices are only a last resort and most efforts should focus on avoidance of avalanches in the first place."

The study, which was published online in February in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, traces 204 deaths over a 21-year period (up to 2005). Its findings differ from those of European studies, which determined the vast majority (95 per cent) of deaths are caused by asphyxia.

Haegeli notes that the causes of death in the Western Canada study vary considerably depending on activity. Nine per cent of snowmobilers died from trauma while the number of out-of-bounds skiers who died from the same cause was significantly higher at 33 per cent.

While March is typically the peak month for avalanche-related deaths, the unusual weather early this winter—cold and relatively little snow—has led to unusual avalanche conditions in Western Canada. There have been 16 avalanche deaths so far this season in B.C. and Alberta.

Haegeli says the findings are a grim reminder for those who hit the slopes looking for adventure, to play it safe. "Take an avalanche course, read the bulletins carefully and be observant," he urges. "And don’t ski anything that looks dangerous unless you’re sure that it’s safe."


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