Avalanche Protection

The air we breathe in ( inspired air) is 21 % oxygen and has no carbon dioxide. The air we breathe out (expired air) is only 16 % oxygen and 5 % carbon dioxide.

May 9, 2014, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol: 07 No. -21 May. 9- 2014 (Baishakh 26, 2071)

The recent tragedy on Everest clearly showed that the Sherpas on Mount Everest bear a disproportionate amount of risk in Himalayan climbing. The notorious Khumbu Icefall is a dangerous jumble of seracs and crevasses. This area is very prone to avalanches which killed at least 13 Nepalis, mostly climbing Sherpas in the early morning of  April 18, Friday, making this the worst disaster in Everest history. 

For decades the Sherpa work force has been working diligently every climbing season, stocking supplies and preparing the route in advance of the fleeting summit weather windows of May for the final ascent bids. Probably theSherpas’ most dangerous work is preparing the ladders and securing the fixed ropes in the disaster prone Icefall, especially the “popcorn” area .The climbing  Sherpas have to make dozens of trips through the treacherous Icefall in preparation for their clients attempts at climbing the mountain.  Clearlywith the large number of trips that have to made through the Icefall every season by the Sherpas,their lives continue to be in mortal danger.

The market forces driving the commercial climbing industry is not going to change. Westerners will continue to come to climb Everest in large numbers; in fact with publicity like this ( negative though it be), in all likelihood, if past tragedies are anything to go by, the number of groups applying for Everest permits next season is going to soar.

So what can be done to help decrease the risk of Sherpas dying while going through the treacherous Icefall?Here are some practical gadgets that the Nepali government and the climbing agencies need to strongly considerthat the Sherpas carry with them while climbing. As far as we know most Sherpas working in the Icefall do not carry any of these potentially life-saving equipment .

1 A simple, useful collapsible shovel (which can be put in a back pack) made of high -strength plastic to dig avalanche debris.

2 Avalanche Rescue Beacon ( transceivers). These are thought to be the best devices for quickly finding  companions buried during an avalanche.  In developed countries these are standard issue for ski patrollers involved in avalanche work. Skilled practioners can find buried people in about 5 minutes after they pick up the signal. The best proved rescue equipment is a transceiver for promptly finding the general area of the victim, a probe to confirm and pinpoint the spot and a shovel to dig the debris.

3 Avalanche airbags:  The avalanche airbag systems ( ABS) may help prevent trauma and burial by the avalanche debris. In a sense they are like motor vehicle air bags which protect the victims from being crushed. The compressed airbags are stowed in the outside pocket of the backpacks which are commercially available. The Germans among others have documented proof of theirprotection against avalanche injuries.

4. The AvaLung: This is alight breathing device also attached to a backpack which prolongs survival during avalanche  burialby diverting expired air away from inspired air. The air we breathe in ( inspired air) is 21 % oxygen and has no carbon dioxide. The air we breathe out (expired air) is only 16 % oxygen and 5 % carbon dioxide. By not mixing these 2 inspired and expired gases, the victim does not readily asphyxiate ( that is, die from lack of oxygen)and remains alive for longer for rescue.Asphyxiation  followed by trauma and hypothermia are the main causes of death in an avalanche victim.

There may be many other ways to deal with avalanche problems, but if we can implement the use of at least some of these new gadgets, it may prove to be life- saving. The cost of these gadgets should not be a factor as clients pay huge sums of money in their bid to climb Everest. Money spent on trying to avoid devastating tragedies like thepresent one is well-spent.

Buddha Basnyat.jpg

Buddha Basnyat MD

Buddha Basnyat, MD, MSc, FACP, FRCP, Director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit-Patan Academy of Health Sciences, Kathmandu.

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