Avalanche accident in Kitzbühel Alps

06 Feb 2010

On Saturday, a friend of mine (Stina S.) and I wanted to ski down from Resterhöhe via Stangenjoch to Aschau in Tyrol. Bad visibility, however, meant that we got lost. When looking for the proper descent, we crossed a not particularly steep hillside facing the west, which I mistakably didn’t consider as being at risk of avalanches, and triggered a slab avalanche. We were both immediately pulled over. With my head up and in a side position, I slipped downwards. I cannot report much about the first seconds as I fully concentrated on activating the airbag. Immediately I pulled the activation handle (which worked without problems) and the airbag started to inflate. This went relatively fast and then I concentrated on the way the avalanche took.

All the way down I stayed in the same position (similar to being in a water slide), with my feet pointing towards the valley (the skis hadn’t released at first, but eventually one of them released) and I was in a half sitting and half laying position with my view downwards. My lower body and my legs were in the avalanche, my upper body and my head were out of it. I had the feeling that the airbag gave me quite some lift in the avalanche. After a couple of meters, the avalanche slipped over an edge into steeper terrain and accelerated. Nevertheless, I kept going down in the same position. At the bottom of the valley, the terrain got flatter and narrower. The snow accumulated there and I was buried deeper (but only up to my chest). At no point was I whirled around in the avalanche. I felt the pulling of the balloon via the strap, but mainly when the avalanche came to a halt.

When I dug my second leg out, I found Stina’s ski near my lower leg. Luckily her ski binding hadn’t released, so I was quickly able to dig her out without having to use the avalanche transceiver and the probe. Firstly I uncovered her mouth so that she was able to breath, and then I dug her out completely. I guess that it took about 6 minutes until I had uncovered her mouth. She started to breath immediately, but wasn’t responsive. Shortly after that, she started to respond. At the beginning, her legs hurt a bit as she found herself a little twisted in the avalanche but this eased up after a few minutes.

I called the emergency number from my mobile phone. Because of the extreme weather, the emergency helicopter wasn’t able to land there and dropped two rescue team members off down in the valley from where they were to climb up to us. In consultation with them, we went up half of the avalanche cone and dug a cave into the snow as it had got dark in the meantime and we didn’t want to take any further risk. As rescue by helicopter wasn’t possible, additional members of the mountain rescue service were alerted and ascended from the other side to us. The mountain rescue team was very well organized and we are really grateful for all of the people involved for the very professional rescue. My conclusion concerning the airbag: I will never know for certain if I would have been buried without the avalanche airbag, but given the fact that I wasn’t under the avalanche at any point while Stina was relatively quickly and I was only partly buried in the runout zone of the avalanche, whereas she was buried 1.50 meters under the snow, I assume that I would have also been buried and not able to free myself. Given the weather conditions and the descent we chose, I think that it would have taken at least an hour (or even until the next day) for the rescue team to find us. So I assume that neither Stina nor I would have survived this avalanche without my airbag.

Daniel B.