Two companies are poised to shake up the snow sports industry with radical new airbag backpack systems. They’re designed to provide the latest in defense against gnashing avalanches, and solve problems with an earlier generation of systems.
But experts do have concerns. In a blog post, director of the Utah Avalanche Center, challenges claims made by some advertisers. Although he’s supportive of new winter tech, he points out that if skiers and snowboarders rely on it too much, they may find themselves in increasingly dangerous terrain and situations where airbags won’t help.
Market demand, meanwhile, seems strong. At least a dozen brands are now offering the products. Here’s a rundown on the evolution of airbag packs.
While there are three main kinds of avalanches, the most dangerous slides, often triggered by humans, occur at weak layers in the snowpack. It fractures and releases large slabs that dredge up compacted layers of snow and ice. Avalanches exhibit almost fluid-like behavior as they move down the mountain, settling into heavy masses as they come to rest.
If a victim gets buried completely, rescuers may have to remove a ton or more of snow to reach them — not to mention deal with severe injuries once they do. Avoiding an avalanche altogether is the best course of action through proper training, planning and weather knowledge.
Avalanche survival has traditionally focused on passive safety. The core pieces of equipment are the shovel, the probe and the transceiver. In other words, you have to wait for your buddies to find you and dig you out.
Black Diamond helped push the passive winter tech envelope with its AvaLung, a breathing device that prolongs how long a victim can remain under the snow. It pulls in oxygen through a filtration system while moving dangerous carbon dioxide away from the face. The AvaLung can be strapped to the body, and it also comes as a built-in feature on certain backpacks. Though it’s simple and lightweight, the trick is getting the mouthpiece clenched in your teeth before it’s too late.
A German company, ABS Peter Aschauer, started the airbag backpack movement in 1980s with the launch of systems powered by compressed gas cartridges. Airbag packs were designed to augment the traditional tool bag and help skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers stay afloat. Once inflated, airbags also protect the head and upper body. They became popular in Europe.
As more companies entered the fray, they began racking up the number of human “saves.”
Pro snowboarder Meesh Hytner fell pray to a nasty slab avalanche in Colorado in 2012. She deployed her Backcountry Access Float 30. “I felt like I was riding a mattress down the stairs. This thing saved my life,” she’s quoted on BCA’s website.
Arc’teryx caused a small stir in 2012 when it filed for a U.S. patent for a fan-filled airbag powered by a battery instead of an air cylinder. Then Black Diamond started teasing the market with its newfangled airbag system that sounds less like an explosion and more like a vacuum cleaner.
Lou Dawson of Wild Snow had his hands on a prototype version and provided the first detailed report on Black Diamond’s “JetForce” technology. The pack uses a ducted fan to inflate the bag in 3 seconds. An electronic brain then initiates a series of cycles based on a typical avalanche scenario. The fan keeps sending air to the bag in case of tears. After 3 minutes, the bag deflates to provide an air pocket if the victim ends up buried.
Dawson points out some advantages to the system: no hassles with traveling on the airlines or having to find places to refill air cylinders, multiple inflations without having to carry heavy spare cylinders, lesser chance of accidental inflation and easy repacking. And there are some disadvantages such as relying on lithium batteries, possible obstruction to ambient air intakes and limited pack styles.
Black Diamond’s system won’t be cheap and is expected to be in the $1,000 range, comparable to some of the more expensive compressed-gas systems. Weight for its smaller Halo 28 pack will be around seven pounds. A Black Diamond spokesman says the company doesn’t have a set product release date.
Ultimately, Tremper advises backcountry adventurers to choose slopes carefully. “In terrain with few obstacles, terrain traps, sharp transitions and smaller paths, avalanche airbags have the potential to save significantly more than half of those who would have otherwise died,” he writes.