By Eric Freedman
Capital News Service
Dead isn’t always dead.
That’s the lesson learned from the near-miraculous survival of a 12-year-old Upper Peninsula skier who was buried head-down and unconscious in an avalanche for at least three hours.
Although the incident took place almost 80 years ago, a newly published study in the journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine says it offers an important lesson for rescuers today.
The study, based on news coverage in the Ironwood Daily Globe, recounts the 1939 experience of Henry Takala, who suffered from hypothermia, a condition with an abnormally and dangerously low body temperature.
Avalanches in Michigan are “rare but not unknown,” according to the study.
A number involving the complete burials of victims have been reported in the Upper and Lower peninsulas, including a fatal 1924 accident that killed a rabbit hunter at Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Michigan’s last known avalanche fatality occurred in 1982, also at Sleeping Bear Dunes, said Dale Atkins, a past president of the American Avalanche Association and co-author of the study. The National Park Service now warns winter visitors to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore that avalanches are possible on steep dunes.
So how is an 80-year-old Michigan avalanche relevant today? And what happened to Henry Takala?
As the boy was skiing, an overhanging snowdrift broke off, totally burying him and partially burying his companion. Henry’s father and neighbors dug him out and took him home, where the father administered artificial respiration for three hours.
Snow-blocked roads kept a doctor from arriving quickly.
“Whenever the father stopped his first aid work, his son would stop breathing and the work would have to be resumed,” the Ironwood Daily Globe reported. “It looked hopeless at the time, and so the father was told by the neighbors, but he continued until the boy recovered.”
The father, a miner, had learned first aid on the job.
“Although Henry appeared dead to his father at the time of extrication (from the avalanche), he was most likely breathing spontaneously. In hypothermic subjects, breathing may be shallow and difficult to detect,” the study said.
Two days after the accident, “The boys are no worse for their experience,” the newspaper reported. “Henry feels soreness in one of his legs.”
Michigan has the terrain and in some years the weak, soft layers of snow that are conducive to avalanches, Atkins said. While many people associate avalanches with the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada and Cascades, they can happen anywhere steep slopes are covered in snow.
Atkins described a 1954 incident that killed two 12-year-old boys who were sledding west of Marquette at an abandoned iron mine. Thomas Lecklin and Ernest Falo of Negaunee were buried in 10 feet of snow and a third boy was rescued.
The Michigan Snowmobile Safety Course acknowledges that they’re rare in the state, but advises snowmobilers to check with local officials if visiting a known avalanche area.
Such areas include slopes steeper than 30 degrees and where there are “overhanging masses of snow or ice, often found on a ridge,” according to the safety course. “Before crossing an unstable slope, look for possible escape routes should an avalanche occur.”
Atkins said, “Time is the enemy of the buried victim. Nature is not very kind. More people die than survive avalanche burials.”
Ken Zafren, the lead author of the study and an emergency physician in Anchorage, Alaska, said someone with hypothermia “might look dead but might be alive. Don’t give up.”
That’s the lesson of the story of Henry Takala.
Rescuers “should attempt to resuscitate a hypothermia victim unless there is an obvious condition that is not compatible with life, such as decapitation or a completely obstructed airway,” the study said.
“Don’t give up until the victim is warm and dead or warm and alive.”