When heading for the hills, practice avalanche safety

Seventeen people have lost their lives this year in accidents related to avalanches. Although uncommon in the northeast, many winter sports enthusiasts will soon be heading west for the spring season.

An avalanche consists of large volumes of snow sliding down a mountain at high velocity. These sudden events result in destruction of roads, homes and lives. Trees, boulders and debris often become part of the descending flow.

Snow and ice will accumulate in layers as the winter season proceeds.

As the adherence of these layers weakens, the chances of an avalanche will increase.

Many factors play a role in loosening these layers. Natural causes include rapid warming, sudden precipitation and falling rocks. Artificial influences consist of skiers, snow boarders and snowmobile riders who may disrupt the snowpack. Animals may cause stress just by walking over a weakened area. Explosive use will certainly cause an avalanche in a vulnerable zone.

Avalanche risk can be calculated based on prevailing conditions and location. They are most commonly seen on back country ski trails that are not frequently used. Warnings are posted when the chances of an avalanche are high. Sometimes they will be intentionally triggered as a way of avoiding an unsuspected downfall.

Safety equipment and measures have proven to be effective:

• Pay close attention to warning signs and closed trails. Closing trails are not arbitrary decisions and there is most likely a reasonable degree of danger.

• An avalanche beacon will emit a signal to allow others to quickly find a victim and begin digging out.

• The avalanche balloon is a device that is designed to keep a person above the rising snow when deployed.

When planning to escape the unseasonable warmth of the northeast for a northwestern adventure, remember to invest in specialized safety equipment along with common sense.

Digging deeper into exercise immunology

One of the most exciting fields of research in human physiology involves the effects of physical training on the immunologic response.

Immunology is the study of the ability to fight off attack from infection and certain forms of cancer. It consists of a response that utilizes white blood cells that isolate and destroy an offending agent.

Among the more common triggers of the immunologic response is the influenza virus. It also has a negative effect on the ability of athletes to attain their peak performance.

Pertinent findings regarding the effect of exercise on the immunologic response include:

• Studies performed on marathon runners reveal that intense exercise lasting longer than 60 minutes has an adverse effect on the ability to summon immune cells. This results in more frequent upper respiratory infections. Moderate regular exercise is associated with an improved response.

• There is a natural decline in the ability to mount a response to infection with age. Physically conditioned elderly subjects had a superior response to infection versus a sedentary group.

Mental stress has also been shown to have an adverse effect on the immunologic response. Athletes who meditated for one hour a day for 8 weeks had an enhanced response to infection.

Diet plays a big role in immunologic function. Athletes who were undernourished or involved in rapid weight loss were more susceptible to infection. This particularly applies to combat sport athletes and other athletes who must achieve a weight level.

Adequate sleep is crucial to efficient immunological function.

After a very thorough review of the current literature in a recent lecture at the University of Connecticut, Professor Neil Walsh from Bangor University in the UK discussed the importance of hygiene.

Ironically, in addition to following solid training principles, it may be merely proper hand washing and covering the mouth and nose when sneezing that can lead to victory.