It's Avalanche Awareness Days this week and if you didn't already get the memo, if you head out of bounds without a transceiver, shovel and probe, you're an idiot.
It doesn't matter how safe the avalanche advisory reads or how many tracks are already in that right-next-to-the-resort-backcountry-bowl, the only way to build good habits is to employ them everyday. So start now. And stop putting off that AST course until next season, you may need it to save your buddy's life next week.
If you are caught in an avalanche and you get fully buried, you have 15 minutes for your friends to pinpoint you and dig you out before your chances of survival drop dramatically. Those minutes can be quite painful for the victim, especially if you have suffered trauma or if snow was forced down your airway during the slide. To add another level of security, some safety-conscious backcountry travellers are choosing to wear packs equipped with avalanche airbags in order to prevent full burial all together.
Airbags work on the principle of inverse segregation, which can be illustrated by shaking a bowl with different sized marbles in it. As you shake the bowl, the smaller marbles gravitate to the bottom, leaving the bigger marbles on top. So too, in an avalanche. When the victim deploys their airbag, they suddenly become more voluminous and float towards the top layer of the debris, therefore avoiding a complete burial.
So why are these airbags not on the backs of every skier, rider and snowmobiler in the backcountry?
The biggest hurdle is the price. The cheapest airbag on the market starts at about $600 and gets more expensive depending on features and the pack's carrying capacity. If you are willing to throw down over $1,000, you can pick up a Mammut PAS — for which the airbag wraps around your head and shoulders to protect you from trauma — or the ABS Twin Bag, which inflates two “wings” from the sides of your pack to ensure you float on top of the debris after the slide.
The other factor to consider is weight. These airbags are great for short hauls, but if you want to get out deep in the backcountry you'll likely be need to prioritize that weight and volume with other essentials like food, water and extra layers. Snowmobilers, of course, aren't too concerned with weight and after investing thousands of dollars into their sleds and trucks, the price shouldn't be too much of an obstacle, either.
But as awesome as this technology is, the marketing statistics on airbags can be a little skewed. You may have read about tests in Europe that revealed a 97 per cent survival rate for avalanche victims who were wearing air bags. What they don't tell you is that avalanche victims not wearing airbags already have around an 80 to 90-per-cent survival rate.
At the 2012 International Snow Science Workshop, Swiss-Canadian avalanche researcher Pascal Haegli presented his findings on the effectiveness of avalanche airbags by comparing mortality rates of victims who wore airbags and those that did not. His findings suggested that a deployed airbag saved about half of the people who would have otherwise died. When he included the cases where victims were unable to deploy their airbag — a common occurrence — wearing an avalanche airbag saved about a third of those who would have otherwise died.
There is no doubt that an airbag gives you more chance of surviving an avalanche, but the confidence inspired by having “get out of jail free card” strapped to your back could also work against you in the field. Pulling the ripcord is your last lifeline, don't go out there to test its reliability.
Vince Shuley has triggered one avalanche in his backcountry career, which he considers one too many. For questions, comments or suggestions to The Outsider, email email@example.com