Georg Röggla on avalanches

Georg RögglaThe avalanche danger level was the second highest possible this week in most parts of the Alps. But the warning did not help: six alpinists died in avalanches within 24 hours in Austria. Although the scientific knowledge about the pathophysiology of being buried under an avalanche has improved, and the number of hospitals with technical equipment allowing resuscitation of deep hypothermic avalanche victims without spontaneous circulation have grown, the number of people who die in avalanches is not declining. Wolfgang Ladenbauer from the Austrian Mountain Rescue Organisation told me that the reason is the absolute number of ski mountaineers has increased considerably. Also, the efforts to teach alpinists about alpine dangers and better equipment may have lead to a decrease of fear rather than an increase of knowledge in alpinists. So therefore the number of casualties has not declined.

A recent avalanche of protest has forced scientists in Austria to abandon experiments on pigs buried in snow. Scientists from Austria and Italy have been burying animals in the snow and monitoring their deaths, in an attempt to determine what factors make it possible for humans to survive avalanches. Protests by animal rights activists and a lot of coverage by the international media have brought these controversial experiments to a halt. The scientists involved said the pigs were sedated and given an anaesthetic before being buried. The Medical University of Innsbruck, Austria, posted a statement on its web site saying that the experiment had been approved by the Austrian Science and Research Ministry.

Hermann Brugger from the Institute of Alpine Emergency Medicine in Bozen, Italy, who is leading this project, said that the tests were necessary because they would help emergency doctors to judge better which victims have a realistic chance of surviving in the dramatic situation after an avalanche. He did not convince the mountain rescue service which questioned the sense of carrying out this kind of test and, it seems, most of the general public. Even many scientists were critical due to the rather unclear and general research question.

From my point of view as a mountaineer, as well as a scientist, the old alpine rule to be careful not to trigger avalanches has proved to be true again.

Georg Röggla is an associate editor with the BMJ.