A speedy rescue is often important for survival. Most survivors have only been buried for less than two hours. Rescue statistics show that only half of avalanche victims survive after being trapped for more than 30 minutes.
People who are buried under light, fluffy snow have a higher chance of survival because they can breathe air trapped around loose snow. Being buried under three or four feet of heavy, wet snow will most likely lead to suffocation. That amount of snow weighs near a ton. One survivor who was trapped under wet snow recalls that he couldn’t even flex his fingers. He said, “It was like being encased in concrete.”
Rescue teams that arrive at an avalanche site will listen for transmitter signals. They also look for clues - a piece of clothing, a knapsack, or anything that shows evidence of people. They will next form a probe line, where 20 to 30 volunteers line up and advance up a slope. Every few seconds, each person pokes a long pole into the snow in front of his or her left foot. The pole is then moved to the center of straddled legs, and then by the right foot. If they don’t find anything, the people take one step forward and probe again. Rescuers will do this silently, the whole time listening for calls for help or muffled sounds beneath the snow.
Electronic aids are great, and careful probing can save lives, but they cannot match the success of trained dogs. The famous St. Bernard dogs have been raised for centuries by Augustin monks in the Great St. Bernard Pass, high in the Swiss Alps. These dogs have the strength and stamina to move through deep snow. Their thick coats also help protect them from freezing winds and cold weather.
St. Bernards are very sensitive to sounds and motion undetectable by people. This heightened sense helps them feel even faint tremors of avalanche victims under the snow. It has been said that “a monk and his dog need no compass,” for the St. Bernards can find their way through even foggy nights and blinding snowstorms.
Adult male "Saints" weigh about 170 pounds and stand 3 feet tall at the shoulder. Females are a little smaller, but not much. Trained as a team, the dogs “scent” out avalanche victims and dig them out. The female dog will then lie down next to the person, keeping them warm while the male runs back to its handler for additional help. Over the years, these huge, lovable dogs have saved more than 2,000 lives. However, none has ever carried a keg of brandy on its collar as most pictures show.
Perhaps the most famous Saint was Barry I, a dog who saved four people every year between 1800 and 1812. Since his time, there has always been a dog christened Barry at the monks’ kennel. The real Barry has a display at the Natural History Museum in Bern, Switzerland, as well as an honorary statue in France.
Today, most rescue dogs are German shepherds, but some other breeds are also trained for this type of work. Together with their handlers, these dogs are taken to disaster sites by helicopter or snowmobile and get to work. Most teams no longer use St. Bernards because their strength and stamina are no longer necessary. In addition, they are more difficult to transport because of their size.
Well-trained dogs, with their amazing sense of smell, can roughly search an avalanche area as large as a football field eight times faster than a line probe of 20 people. Avalanche dogs contributed to 305 rescues between 1945 and 1972 alone. 45 were alive, 224 were dead, and 36 others were never found. It is easiest for these dogs to locate living people. Exhaust from snowmobiles and helicopters also make it more difficult.
On any given day, there are thousands of skiers out on slopes across the United States. Most researchers say it’s a tribute to avalanche prevention and preparation, as well as the dedication of rescue teams, that so few lives are lost each year. In the last 20 years, there has been an average of 13 deaths per year due to avalanches in the United States. During this same period, property damage has totaled close to $500,000 a year. This is still much less than the damage caused by floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.