In Austria, there have been close to 1,000 fatalities from avalanches in the last 40 years. There were on average 24 deaths per year – not just on the slopes however, the figure also includes residential areas and transport routes. Although numbers of people ski touring and freeriding has increased exponentially in recent years and over the past two decades in particular (no exact data exists but estimates are that 500,000 to 700,000 people are active in the backcountry in Austria), the number of avalanche fatalities is decreasing: If you look at the last 20 years, the yearly average was 20 avalanche fatalities and in the last ten years that number drops to 16 (www.avalanches.org).
As tragic as each fatality is for those affected by that person’s death, the actual figure is comparatively low. From a positive point of view, the drop in avalanche fatalities is down to better equipment, better weather forecasting, greater frequency in alerting emergency services because of mobile phones, and better education. Some of these developments also influence other mountain accidents of course. But the statistics nevertheless clearly demonstrate that fatalities from avalanches predominantly occur in winters with poor snowpack layers.
Unsurprisingly, the probability of fatality from an avalanche increases the greater the burial depth and duration since the main cause of death here is ‘suffocation’. However, it has been found that more people who are caught in an avalanche are fatally injured than was previously thought.
But having first responders on the ground remains the best chance of survival for victims who are fully buried. This refers to other members in the group who must be properly trained to organise and carry out a search for buried victims and administer any necessary first aid.
An avalanche air bag is an effective way of minimising the chances of full burial. According to one study, using an air bag reduces the risk of fatality by half. In other words, for every 100 people buried in an avalanche, around 22 are killed without an airbag and only eleven with an inflated air bag (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24909367/).