New In The “White Room” – Airbag Attitudes

Throughout my backcountry ski life, a number of safety devices have come along that one should have when traveling in avalanche terrain. A problem I’ve seen with some of these devices is that, at times, they give people too much confidence that they can survive riding a 100 mph avalanche to safety. Common terrain features such as cliffs, cornices, trees and traps make this likelihood slim, though skilled riding and luck can help. We grasp for a technology fix to the phenomenon of snow, but at times, these fixes betray us by overriding our own good judgment.


Compared to the primitive $60 Ramer Beacon I used to use, digital beacons today (which come complete with a whiz-bang list of features) allow a skier to find others with the fingertip ease of a video game.

We used to struggle to remove ski baskets to stab the pole into the snow or, worse, connect our ski poles together to probe deeper. Today we carry compact 12-foot carbon probes that fly open with the flick of the wrist.

Since 2004, the Black Diamond Avalung Pack has served many as the last-ditch device to add critical minutes of life during a rescue effort. This device allows one to insert a mouthpiece and inhale/exhale air through a series of tubes from an exterior membrane embedded in the pack’s material. Though useful for skiers who have a partner close by to dig them out, the Avalung serves little purpose if you are solo.

Today, Avalanche Airbag Systems (ABS) are the current pinnacle of backpack innovation. This is for good reason (particularly when considering the soloist). Data indicates that the ABS can increase your chances of not dying to 50%. That level of improved survival still sounds like a flip of a coin if you have to pull a cord on your ABS. But as risk takers, wouldn’t we better betting on a royal flush based on information derived from the snowpack by proven methods and observations?


BCA ABS testers on Thompson Pass

The large orange balloon, designed to deploy by pulling a chest chord, should keep you on top of an avalanche wave-like a crab pot buoy on a stormy Alaska sea. It has already saved a number of skiers and sledders. However, other “testers” died or were seriously injured by a number of other terrain features which complicated the effective use of the ABS.

ABS data shows that the units don’t always get activated in time, giving more credence that avalanches occur extremely quickly. This trend is similar to Avalung deployment. It was found that often, the Avalungs were not deployed properly or fast enough. In many cases the victim died of trauma regardless of Avalung deployment. The 2014 European report does not go into the level of injuries of surviving victims who used an ABS, but one may assume that serious injuries occurred. Bottom line is that the odds of surviving are still not very good if you make a mistake.

The reason ABS devices are not more common is their high cost. At $800 to $1,200 a pop, skiers must make a substantial financial decision to purchase one. Another reason for the lack of penetration within the backcountry community is that air travel with an air cylinder scares airlines, border guards, TSA and flight attendants silly. They also add weight to an already burdened skinner. Eventually, for some, the nauseating taunt of a safety-freak gear- head asking “Why don’t you have one? I do” will echo in one’s ears and finally result in the purchase.

I’m waiting for more beta about the lighter, battery operated JetForce Avalanche Airbag by Black Diamond, now in its first season. There were only a few companies offering ABS’s in 2008. Now you can select from dozens of brands that offer pressurized gas or air systems.

Black Diamond Saga 40 Jet Force $1250

Black Diamond Saga 40 Jet Force $1250

It’s a personal choice to get one or not, but the units have been used with success and deserve a serious look. Like ski helmet injury research, the numbers are rolling in, perhaps a little bit too fast to rely upon too much, but they provide some analysis of the ABS success, or lack thereof.

It’s important to note that the data shows that regardless of whether you carry the ABS, strap on a beacon, or wear an Avalung, it’s what takes place in your head (awareness) as you make route decisions that is your key to survival in the backcountry. Collective and recent field experience, along with formal education are the basis for achieving the goal of traveling safe – isn’t it the better solution, after all, to render your airbag or beacon superfluous by making excellent decisions?

The following highlights were taken from an excellent report by Lou Dawson on his  “Wild Snow”  backcountry discussion on the topic. This is updated information from the presentation I saw at ISSW 2012 in Anchorage, Alaska. These trends were noted in that first paper.

I would post the study here and let it present the analysis, but I could only find it in German. I read the data to indicate that airbags are not the total panacea we had hoped for, but again, worth consideration as a component in your overall safety plan.

Findings from data:

  1.  More people die while wearing airbags than expected.
  2.  Risk of death without airbag is 22%. With airbag inflated is 11% (preventing 50% of deaths).
  3.  In 20% of all cases, airbags were not inflated (among people who were wearing an airbag).
  4.  When not inflated airbags risk of death is reduced to 13% (Instead of 11%, preventing 41% of deaths).
  5.  60% of all cases (where death occurred) where airbags were not inflated were due to not taking any action to inflate the airbag.
  6.  Gain of safety is reduced to zero when people use the security of airbags to go into areas where big avalanches are possible.