Mountain outdoor winter activities are mesmerizing, the epicness of exploring white unique landscapes and establish true nature connection. The feeling of that white soft fluff and the brise of fresh air while floating on the snowpack. Wonder overflows, but do not forget that if you adventure into the side country and backcountry, most likely, you are stepping into avalanche terrain. Mountains are playful with spectacular beauty, and among its stunning experiences a latent danger always lays on it.
As you know, mountain winter sports and activities imply, at different grade, certain risks depending on snow conditions. The goal of this post is not to grow up awareness of avalanche terrain reading, and make sure you have the knowledge to navigate it, the goal of this post neither is to pinpoint that YOU and YOUR GROUP have to be properly equipped with all your basic safety gear (transceiver, prove and shovel), the goal of this post it is not to make sure you know how to use your safety gear and you practised in real scenarios, and you know exactly what to do and the best practices to be effective in case of an accident.
There are plenty of professional organizations who work continuously to provide and arise the knowledge of mountain dangers and they do courses to train people and guide them to better and safety practices when stepping into avalanche terrain like Associació pel Coneixement de la Neu i Allaus (ACNA) and Avalanche Canada, among many others.
The goal of this post is to highlight the physiological demands of an insitu avalanche rescue and what are the physical needs to save a life , and most importantly the takeaway reflexion of in what capacities do you intend to do so.
1. Fitness in avalanche terrain
Fitness is understood as your body state of being physiologically capable of handling challenges above a resting threshold of activity. In other words your readiness to succeed. Your readiness might be variable depending on your fitness condition and your fatigue level. Your readiness won’t be the same 1h post activity initiation than after 5h tour of energized vertical and powder descends. Fitness has a variety of applications and perspectives depending on its approach and outcomes as Physical, Health or Skill fitness.
The attention here lies on the physical demands of a certain skill set, which is specifically avalanche rescue. A perfect fitness readiness without the proper avalanche rescue skills bring us nowhere, meanwhile consolidated avalanche rescue skills with optimal physical fitness can be an additional contribution factor to success, even more when small groups venture into the wild.
If you are involved, clock is ticking. Avalanche Canada statistics establish an 80% rescue effectivity to recover a buried victim alive within the first 10 minutes. The survival rate at 30 minutes drastically drops at 30%. In 75% of burials, fatality is due to asphyxia which can cause several brain damage and ultimately death. Traumatisms are another potential injury factor upon burial chances. Actually time matters, the clock is ticking.
Two video links will be shared, if you would like to revive some avalanche accident scenarios. Both are good examples thanks to Jones Snowboard crew (@jonessnowboards) and Utah Avalanche Center (@utavy). A lot of good knowledge to be learned from their experiences, for which we are extremely thankful to share. Luckily or thanks to their experience and practice, both cases were successful rescues.
Two different accidents, different locations, different snowpacks, different terrain, different people and even different activities. However, there is a common point. In both cases the video review and reconstruct the events and both group rescuers refer to the same vivid experience regarding the required physical work and effort to commit to the rescue.
How did the rescuers felt their performance?
How do they describe their physical exertion?
How these details relate to our physiology?
There is any chance to, as well as avalanche search and rescue are practised, have better tolerance and performance in such an event?
2. Rush, shortness of breath and exaustion
Long story short, an avalanche burial rescue requires a large amount of work need it to be performed precisely in a short amount of time, cognitively (rescue skills) and physically (rescue step protocol).
These amount of work depends on avalanche size, number of victims, the location of the rescuer/s vs the avalanche site an debree, how many rescuers are available, rescuers efficacy and ultimately where and how deep and how the victim/s are buried. No matter what, get ready because its gonna be intense and the responsibility of saving a life is on your hands.
What do those common physical characteristic demands are? What do they mean and how do they relate to fitness:
+ Feeling of rush: The fight or flight response is an inherent life threat/risk response that may contribute to enhance overall performance diminishing exhaustion perception, the ability to maintain unconsciously a higher work rate and increase focus or have a negative effect and produce chaos. An strong adrenergic response is triggered, heart rate baseline is increased, energy production and re-utilization via different metabolic pathways can be enhanced.
+ Shortness of breath: The intensity at which the activity (walk, hike, shovel…) needs to be performed leads metabolism threshold in the higher end of the spectrum. High end energy production, anaerobic energy metabolism, are limited by resources end physiological mechanism, in consequence ventilation and respiratory frequency is raised to maximum according to energy demand.
+ Physical exhaustion: The work rate on continuous high demand and enhanced cognitive function can lead to exhaustion. Exhaustion, sickness, nausea are clear physiological response indicators of overreached high energy production using anaerobic metabolism profiles. Physical exhaustion threshold and tolerance are trainable, they can be extended over time but biologically limited.
3. When time is ticking
First of all highlight that search and rescue is a skill set and practice makes perfect. Once this is clear, as a matter of fact is a question of work capacity and metabolic system thresholds driven by a shocking psychological experience with a big impact on normal biological function. Decoding exercise physiology is a little contribution to understand search and rescue performance, and prep to handle with increased probability the success of any situation.
Endurance ( as the physical work or the sustained amount of force produced and its efficiency maintained over time) and Metabolism ( as the energy management, efficiency and tolerance) are the main key points into this approach.
The goal is to increase fitness level to a point where the work rate performance and its intensity can be high, maintained over time and efficiently impacting in to two aspects 1) delay mechanical acute fatigue and 2) exhaustion does not impaired cognitive function. Reality in our biological realm will always be dependant on how much mechanical work (run, hike, shovel,…) needs to be performed and the relative strain or toll that will imply to our body systems. An overall outright Strength & Conditioning profile with properly developed Balance, Strength, Metabolism, Endurance and Recovery generate a positive performance scenario to increase fitness readiness upon most important challenges, the search and digging.
Therefore, methodologies to achieve and tolerate higher work rates and efficient metabolism profiles will guarantee efficiency to increase focus and efficacy into the search and rescue skill sets.
Strategic search, digging and swap systems approaches are emergency tactics detailed into multiple search and rescue protocols, which goal is to optimize the task at hand, reduce the loose of time and offer windows of recovery meanwhile the work rate is performed at fast pace. This considerations actually have a large impact and consequences when small groups (2) are involved in an accident, mainly, when all the workload an responsibility has to be performed by one person.
Fitness and avalanches? Wait, it actually does make sense. A pathway to achieve specific performance profiles is to consult an Strength & Conditioning specialist or an Exercise Science Professional seeking guidance towards how to successfully and safely achieve you goals to boost your skills.
When practising physical activity and sports on winter mountain environments It is primordial to have dialed safety practices when stepping into avalanche terrain. Regarding search and rescue skill set, again, practice makes perfect.
Strength & Conditioning is composed by the integration of multiple fitness attributes and its physiological adaptations to serve a purpose. A framework that develops and optimizes the reflected requirements, needs and strengths for an specific scenario with its outright profile. Enhanced fitness can be a powerful contribution into emergency search and rescue when involved into an avalanche accident. Purposeful physical exercise and training have the potential to add quality and confidence into our passions.
Additionally, psychological management is crucial during an emergency, an ideal flow state and response will be a decisive factor to success. In such events “slow is smooth, smooth is fast”.
Header photo: @Ortovox. For educational awareness purposes. No copyright intended.
About the author:
Albert Piñol – MSc in Physical Activity and Sports Science, MSc in Exercise Physiology, DHE Snowboard Coach, DE Mountain Guide and Mountain Bike Coach. Specialized in exercise physiology, hypoxia, neuromuscular system and motor skill development. IG: @albert_pinol