24 Aug 2015

Survivor: Heli-skiers should use airbags

9:01 pm on 24 August 2015

A man who was hauled unconscious from an avalanche four years ago believes the heli-skiing industry is being negligent by not providing life-saving airbag technology.

Studies have found they can cut the death rate for someone caught in an avalanche by half.

Guy Pope-Mayell nearly died in an avalanche in 2011, and told Nine to Noon he wanted all heli-ski operators to make use of the airbag backpacks.

"Before I knew it I was caught in the avalanche. Probably a few seconds later, I became aware that the momentum had stopped and the snow was starting to crush around me.

"My leg was almost at breaking point behind me, the snow crushed and held me like concrete - I couldn't move - I realised at that point there was no oxygen down there," he said.

Watch Guy Pope-Mayell being pulled from the snow after the avalanche

Mr Pope-Mayell said he realised it was pointless to try to do anything, and he could not do anything to escape anyway.

"I slowed my breathing down and went through this massive emotional experience... Just an overwhelming feeling that this was the end of my life and that this was just not right," he said.

Mr Pope-Mayell said it was his firsthand experience of being in an avalanche that made him sure that airbag backpacks were vital.

"I feel very lucky to be alive because frankly I shouldn't be considering the circumstances of the avalanche.

"What I do know is that had things been slightly different, an airbag would have absolutely changed the odds from almost certain death to almost certain survival," he said.

Mr Pope-Mayell was eventually dug out of 2.5 metres of snow.

He donated $10,000 to Queenstown-based Alpine Heliski after his near-death experience so the company could buy airbag backpacks.

The company bought them, but only its guides use them regularly.

"It's time for the industry to actually take stock of the evidence, and bite the bullet and do something about it," Mr Pope-Mayell said.

Other problems

Charlie Hobbs, from the Heliski Operators' group, said there was a range of reasons why customers were not being given the airbags.

"They may not be able to use it properly, they may not be able to pull the cord - I mean you have to be really onto it if you get caught in an avalanche you've got to be able to go 'there it is, bang'," he said.

"Now that takes a little bit of practice... a lot of people find airbags really uncomfortable, they're heavier, some people, especially intermediate skiiers, would find it difficult to ski with."

Mr Hobbs said there were other problems such as having the backpacks in helicopters and described this scenario as "a potential bomb flying around".

Mr Pope-Mayell said he had a vivid memory of what happened to him and "knew for a fact" he would have had a chance to pull a ripcord if had he been wearing an airbag.

"If you can stay on top of the snow then basically you are very likely to survive, you've got a 97 percent chance of surviving or higher.

"If you're not on the surface then you have a 50 or 60 percent chance of dying," he said.

He said the industry as a whole had a responsibility to use the latest and safest technology, and that he was disappointed this was not happening.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs