The discovery of a soldier still alive six days after being caught in an avalanche on the Siachen glacier is nothing short of a miracle and seasoned mountaineers agree to this. A rescue team found Lance Naik Hanumanthappa Koppad under a block of ice on February 8, where he had been trapped since the accident on February 3. Koppad was part of a 10-member team of soldiers caught in an ice fall at 19,600 feet above sea level.
There’s little you can do when you’re in an avalanche, said Wing Commander Amit Chowdhury, vice president of the Indian Mountaineering Federation, who has also had the frightening experience. Your body is rolling in all directions and you may not know which way is up and what is down. When the mayhem of the falling ice or snow ends there are four factors that determine survival – access to air, whether a victim’s airway is clear, how badly she has been injured in the fall and time.
Anil Gutroo, professor of medicine at Lady Hardinge Medical College explains why finding Koppad alive was so unexpected. “There is a 90% survival chance if you are found in 15 minutes. If you are buried for 90 minutes the survival chance falls to 20%,” said Gutroo, who survived an avalanche at Siachen nine years ago. Gutroo and two others were hit by a snow avalanche and he was buried in the snow for hardly five minutes before member of the Indian Army who were in the vicinity dig them out. Even though being caught in a slide of snow is less damaging than being hit by blocks of ice Gutroo had severe injuries –broken ribs, an injured back and wounds on his head that needed at least 20 stitches.
Here are some that Gutroo and Chowdhury recommend to increase your chances of surviving an avalanche.
Swim: Mountain climbers in avalanche prone regions are often told to try to “swim” in the snow. The thrashing motion of swimming helped a climber on Mont Blanc in Italy ride an avalanche for about 700 meters till it came to a stop.
Create an air pocket: After the avalanche the immediate problem is for a person buried in in the snow to find air. “After the avalanche settles, because it is cold an often below zero degree Celsius, snow freezes very quickly. What was fluid quickly becomes solid,” said Chowdhury. “What you must do is to draw your hands out in such a way that you quickly make a gap around you head and keep as much of air around you as possible till someone can dig you out.”
Protection from wind and cold: Up at the high altitudes where avalanches occur, cold is a big killer. But the avalanche-experienced know that being buried under snow and ice offers automatic insulation from the cold. If you are in a position to breathe easily and otherwise safe, stay protected from the wind.
Conserve energy: It’s going to be hard to tell how long you might be stuck on a snowy mountain. One of the smartest things you can do is to conserve you energy by remaining calm and not exerting yourself. “Without food and water, you can survive for seven days to a two weeks,” said Gutroo. “When temperature falls and there is hypothermia, the body’s metabolism slows and conserves energy. A cardiac arrest patient who has been buried in an avalanche has a better chance of being revived of he has survived, because cold preserves and sows down the metabolism and oxygen uptake. With slower metabolism the body can recover.”
If you see light, dig your way out: Having said that though, here’s a tip to figure out how deep you may be buried. “If you are under more than a meter of snow, then here won’t be any light. You may not even know which side is up,” said Chowdhury. “But if you are on a slope and you can actually see some light, then it’s worth trying to dig yourself out.”