Avalanche Air Bag Backpack – Use One or Not?


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

So you’ve been debating whether or not to get one of these new air bag pack things. Is the cost and the weight worth it? Are they dialed in enough to be reliable? Are the packs any good for backcountry skiing? Airplane travel? No one you know has one, so why take the plunge?

The statistics are there, and they demonstrate an amazing effectiveness at keeping an avalanche victim from being buried, which translates to a significantly greater chance of surviving. Documented accidents show a 97% survival rate of avalanche victims with an ABS airbag. I won’t go too into the science of how avalanche air bags work but basically they rely on the principle of inverse segregation. If you shake a bag full of sand and pebbles, the pebbles will rise to the surface as they have more volume than the sand grains (this also works with a bag of chips- the big ones work their way to the top). In avalanches, making yourself bigger can help keep you on the surface, and air bags do that by inflating a bag which increases your size. This is not a new concept and has been demonstrated for years in Europe to be very effective. Given the surprising statistics of survival using avalanche packs, I don’t think they can be ignored in the U.S. any longer. Fortunately, this change is beginning to happen with two U.S. companies making them and several ski patrols purchasing packs (Jackson Hole and Telluride, among others); now, individual users need to jump on board.

As opposed to an avalanche beacon which relies on disciplined friends to find you and is therefore a passive safety system, air bags are an active system that you can buy to increase your personal odds of survival. Skiers complain about the cost, but how many don’t flinch at dropping $1000 on new skis, boots, and bindings each season? What about snow tires? No one flinches at that piece of safety equipment. I think it’s time to set priorities and make air bag packs just as important as the beacon, shovel, probe combo (you’d actually be better off with just the air bag if you had to choose). After all, the chances of being dug up alive by your friends are actually not all that good. In a study by the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, 53% of people completely buried by avalanches did not survive, while only 4% of those who weren’t buried died. Your best bet is to stay on the surface, and an air bag provides a significantly better chance of that happening.

Below, I’ve tried to compile most of the meaningful info into one place, based on my experience with some of the packs over the last two years and the experiences of others here at Wildsnow. There is still a lot of confusion surrounding these things, so I’ll try to set some things straight. If I’ve missed something, made a mistake, or if you have something to add, please share it in a comment. This page will hopefully grow and change to become a useful resource. Also, it should go without saying that these packs are no substitute for practicing safe and informed backcountry travel decisions and are no excuse to increase acceptable risk levels.

The Choices
Currently, there are now five manufacturers of air bag backpacks and systems: ABS, the original German company; Snowpulse, the relatively new Swiss contender; Backcountry Access, who introduced their pack last year out of Boulder, CO; Mystery Ranch, based out of Montana, who just announced their pack; and Avi Vest, who make a vest that is not compatible with a pack and therefore impractical for backcountry skiing, but are supplying their system to Mystery Ranch. In addition, Rossignol, Dynastar, Arva and Millet make packs that are compatible with the ABS Vario system. All of this is awesome considering that not long ago ABS was the only option!

General Info
I’ll go into more depth with each brand later, but some general things to know are:

Use- All of the airbag packs have a handle located on one of the shoulder straps for activating the airbag. When in safe terrain, the handle can be stowed out of reach to avoid an accidental trigger (something to be wary of while bushwacking). When ready to ski, put the handle in the ready position, and if (God forbid) you need to use it, pull on the handle which causes a cartridge full of air to inflate the air bag. Venturi valves are ingeniously used to suck in more air into the bag than is actually in the air cartridge. In an avalanche, your body and air bag are subjected to tremendous forces, and in order for the back pack to not come off you in an avalanche, the pack hip belts use metal buckles, which are much more cumbersome than standard plastic buckles but are needed for strength. In addition, a leg or crotch loop is supplied to keep the pack from being pulled up over your head. This is a pain in the ass, but probably necessary, and the different manufacturers address it in varying elegant and not so elegant ways. After use, the bag needs to be deflated and repacked; it won’t work again until you get your cartridge refilled or if you carry a spare–which might be advisable for multi-day trips.

Testing and Refilling- When you first get your air bag pack, you should perform a test release to familiarize yourself with the process and to make sure it works. Ideally, you should do this while wearing everything you would wear while skiing (or at least goggles, jacket, and your least dexterous pair of mitts), and for extra points do it while skiing on a safe slope. Then, depending on the system you have, you will either have to refill the cylinder or, in the case of ABS which ships you two filled cartridges, return the spent one to recoup your deposit. You should test your bag at least once a season to re-familiarize yourself with the deployment and to make sure it works. I like to do this in the late fall before the season begins.

BCA, Snowpulse, and Mystery Ranch use a cylinder system with a gauge (not a cartridge, which is sealed) that the user can refill with compressed air at certain locations. They recommend using licensed retailers, but any paintball shop can do it or any dive shop or fire station if you have the correct adaptor. Dive shops require a paintball to SCUBA adaptor, while fire stations require a paintball to SCBA adaptor. Your home compressor or gas station won’t cut it, you need 2700-3000psi (varies by manufacturer). I have found some fire stations to be very helpful and accommodating, they probably won’t charge you anything, so be sure to make a donation to keep them happy, and always call in advance. Also, when the cylinder is filled, it will get very hot; you must let it cool down and then top if off again (gas expands when it is hot), a water bath will work for this. After refill, the O-ring must be replaced and silicone grease reapplied, then everything sealed up again to keep water out. It’s a bit of a ‘DIY’ project, but very doable if you follow the instructions. I love having the freedom to refill when I need and not having to deal with any shipping. One other thing, regardless of how you get the cylinder filled, there is a two step process to attaching it to the pack. The cable that goes to the activation handle must be attached to the release pin (don’t accidentally pull it out!), and the valve must be attached to the hosing that goes to the air bags. Not difficult, but not as idiot proof as ABS.

Air Travel- Flying with your air bag backpack is not a terribly difficult thing in most of the world, provided you notify the airline in advance, follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer, carry the material safety data sheet (download it off your manufacturer’s website), and bring it as a carry-on, NOT checked luggage. However, the U.S. is a different story due to our paranoid TSA. The manufacturers have worked with the Department of Transportation to get their U.S. cartridges DOT certified, but there are also Euro cartridges out there that are not. ABS’s system is by far the easiest as their cartridges are sealed without a valve. Just make sure the filled cartridge and the explosive activation handle are not attached, but loose inside the pack. The cylinder systems (Snowpulse, BCA, MR), however, must be emptied and, according to current TSA restrictions, must have the cylinder head assembly removed for visual inspection of the inside. This can be done by unscrewing the head from the body–you may need wrenches to overcome Loctite, which may or may not be there. Screw it back on hand tight when you arrive at your destination, and skip the Loctite. Despite what is officially allowed, your experience may differ based on which TSA agent or airline official you get. Your mileage may vary, but you can read about some travel experiences and advice as posted on TGR. If you have any travel experiences, please chime in.

Availability- Not long ago, it wasn’t easy getting an ABS or Snowpulse from Europe. However, times have changed and all the manufacturers are now distributed in the US. Not picking favorites, but Snow Big Deal is one that carries them all and is super helpful to work with.

Studies and Data-There have been several tests of the effectiveness of air bag packs, and they are further validated by the substantial records of real world accidents. Please take the time to browse the data for yourself.
Field tests of some new avalanche rescue devices (2001)
Avalanche Balloons – Preliminary Test Results
Avalanche Rescue Systems in Switzerland: Experience and Limitations
Documented Accidents
More documented accidents
Accident reports

Please see our Avalanche Airbag Backpack Overview for our up-to-date report on what’s available in this category of backcountry skiing gear.

Comments

161 Responses to “Avalanche Air Bag Backpack – Use One or Not?”

  1. stewspooner December 15th, 2010 9:15 am

    Perhaps these things make sense for bold high marking sledders, anxious heli-skiers, and rad side-country shredders, but for someone who has invested a lifetime in acquiring the judgement to avoid avalanches, and obsesses over every last gram in order to climb and ski unencumbered, airbags seem an absurdity, and this article a sales pitch rather than a thoughtful consideration.

  2. cory December 15th, 2010 9:49 am

    Stewspooner-Are you upset that they are talking about avalanche airbags in an article about avalanche airbags? That’s weird.

  3. Nick T December 15th, 2010 9:59 am

    stew- You’re a grown up and can make your own decisions about what to take in the backcountry. The purpose of this post is to provide some info on an option that others might be interested in. I’ll admit I came in a little heavy in the intro with a ‘sales pitch’, but the truth is I’d like all my friends to have one as I can’t ignore the benefits.

  4. Njord December 15th, 2010 10:38 am

    Nick,

    Thanks for the great article… I’ve been seriously considering getting one, but this is the first real resource on trying to figure out what the solution for me would be!

    Thanks again,
    Njord

  5. g December 15th, 2010 10:49 am

    lot of time went into this write up. it is much appreciated and very informative. wish i could afford one.

  6. Ryan December 15th, 2010 11:05 am

    Nick- Thanks for putting this together. If Stewspooner is looking for unbiased journalism then I don’t know what he’s doing reading Wild Snow. It’s always a wealth of information but there;s definitely a lean to it.

    I like many skiers am very intrigued by these packs and assume that the weight and cost will come down over time as more companies get on-board. I know at least one parter of mine is nearly ready to pull the trigger (or should I say cord) and buy one.

    My main concern though is regarding the potential for a victim to go further in the slide due to increased float. In Europe and certainly parts of the US this may be a small problem when above treeline but for us in the PNW with so much skiing below treeline I worry that a victim is much more likely to hit something big and fatal if they are carried further. Cliffs too become an obvious concern for you guys up in the thin, treeless air.

    Now they may in fact not be carried significantly further while wearing the air bag but most of the testing doesn’t seem to address this and most of the data is from Europe, where trees are less of a factor. I’d be curious to see info pertaining to distance traveled with and without an airbag to see if this is a valid concern for those of us making most of our turns below the trees.

  7. Eric December 15th, 2010 11:08 am

    Stewspooner, what about those of us who fall in between a rad side-country shredder and a skier with a lifetime of experience who’s obsessive about weight? I’d like to claim I won’t ever get caught in avalanche, but I’m humble enough to realize I can’t ever make that sort of guarantee. I agree that the weight of these is a little off putting, but the advantages for someone like me seem hard to ignore.

  8. Ken December 15th, 2010 11:24 am

    Stew – Right, and seatbelts and carseats only make sense for drunk drivers, ex-formula one drivers, drag racers, and kids born to stupid parents. Don’t get so caught up in all of your fancy knowledge that you can’t see a safety improvement when its in your face. It only takes one wrong move to kill you and some friends.

    Nick – Thanks for the well researched article….and thanks for actually giving an opinion on things (sales pitch, bias, etc.) Without your opinion on things, its not a review at all….just a collection of info that I can find myself with enough time.

    -K

  9. Peter Banta December 15th, 2010 11:26 am

    I don’t think people wil get these as an alternative to classes/knowledge/safe pratices, but just as another way to help their odds, if they screw up.

    I think it is pretty obvious that these things work, and are getting more affordable, and it will only be a short matter of time before these are as universal as beacons/etc.

    People will still want to avoid avy’s. It isn’t only burial that gets you, but if you can have a back-up tool to avoid burial, if it happens, why not use it? Sometimes people get buried by factors outside their control (ie group above), and then there is nobody to look for you, even if all were prepared. Insurance.

  10. Andy December 15th, 2010 11:27 am

    Thanks for breaking down the air bag selection. I will take all the help I can get. I am human and understand error!

    Check out the latest accident on the CAIC. He was on a sled and had an airbag.

    http://avalanche.state.co.us/acc/acc_report.php?acc_id=232&accfm=inv&view=public

  11. Carl December 15th, 2010 11:31 am

    Very thorough review. Thanks. And timely in light of a snowmobiler using his air bag to avoid what could have been a burial just a couple days ago near Jones Pass http://avalanche.state.co.us/acc/acc_report.php?acc_id=232&accfm=inv&view=public

  12. Nick T December 15th, 2010 11:40 am

    @Ryan
    Good question, and something I’ve wondered about as well. On page 310 of this study (http://www.slf.ch/ueber/mitarbeiter/homepages/schweizj/publications/Tschirky_Schweizer_Avalanche_balloon_ISSW1996.pdf) you can see that all the airbag equipped dummies ended up lower on the runout than the airbagless dummies. This just shows one avalanche, so it would be interesting to see more, as there are many factors that could affect it such as slope angle and height, runout angle, etc.

    Having an airbag might keep you on the surface, and maybe provide a small amount of trauma protection, but trees can still smash you up. Whether or not an airbag will send you into them with more velocity is something to wonder about, and I’d be interested to see a study that addresses it. Based on that single study, it does appear that with an airbag you might go further through the trees and therefore hit more of them than without a bag.

  13. Nick T December 15th, 2010 11:45 am

    I’m glad people are finding this useful. I felt there was a need to see it all in one place.

    I’m pretty busy at work today, so sorry if I can’t keep up with responses.

  14. Nick T December 15th, 2010 11:50 am

    Good to hear the snowmobiler at Jone’s pass made it out ok. I found this part interesting considering that the air bag kept him from being swept as far as he could have, and off a deadly cliff.
    ‘He was able to swim to the edge of the avalanche, and came to a stop after about 100 feet, partly buried under 6 to 18 inches of snow. “Below me was a cliff that would have destroyed me, period.”’

  15. Matt December 15th, 2010 11:56 am

    Nick, Thanks for putting this together. Great info. I can see a trend towards these in the next couple of years, people are getting caught and using these, and living to tell about it.

    Just like all our gear, weight and ease will be addressed in future models.

    Keep up the product testing.

  16. Nick December 15th, 2010 12:22 pm

    Nick – what is the timing of BCA putting out the Float 40, the larger version? Thanks for putting this together.

  17. Steve December 15th, 2010 12:22 pm

    I thought it was a great article, but then again, I work at BCA.

    What we’re seeing right now in the ski industry is unprecedented: massive backcountry growth driven by the alpine companies who are mainly producing fat powder and freeride skis. This has resulted in an increase in avalanche courses being taken over the last two years which is a good thing. It’s also resulted in some progressive new designs and concepts by safety manufacturers.

    In my biased opinion, I think there are a few categories that need to be more clearly identified where airbags are applicable:

    1. Slackcountry. This is defined by riding lifts, heading into the backcountry, and then cycling back to a chair. No skins are used. This is a popular mode of backcountry travel in the Northwest, Canada, and Europe. Often the terrain is uncontrolled.

    2. Sidecountry: this is defined by riding lifts and then going out and skinning. Popular as well in many places. Uncontrolled terrain.

    3. Backcountry: defined by using skins or boot packing and your own power! Uncontrolled terrain.

    4. There are also occasional days at some ski areas in Canada and the NW where skiing in bounds with beacon, shovel, probe and partner becomes mandatory to access some in-bounds terrain. I have seen this first hand at Mt. Baker.

    I think that airbags are appropriate for all of the “categories” mentioned above but they do not trump education, beacon, shovel and probe, which are mandatory. However, we will see airbags becoming much more popular and widely accepted in the next few years.

    Ryan brings up a good point about terrain. The ABS stats are all from Europe where people tend to ski in a higher alpine environment and in areas that can fan out onto shallow slopes. These are very favorable conditions for an airbag, and for surviving an avalanche in general (keep in mind all avalanches are different and this is a general statement). Thick timber could pose an issue with airbags but there’s really no data to prove this yet so everything is speculation. Is it better to have an airbag deployed when being carried through trees, or not? Tough call. In our first instance where a Float 30 was deployed in an avalanche last year, the person came out on top of a ten foot debris pile and stopped before he was carried into trees below the slope where he was caught. We’ve performed some good tests on “trauma” to the actual airbags being hucked off cliffs and things like that with good results, but the bottom line is this: continue to choose your terrain wisely and do not rely on your safety products to help you make a decision. My guess is everyone at this site knows this but I thought I should bring it up.

    Happy Holidays and get out in La Nina! Steve

  18. Michael December 15th, 2010 12:56 pm

    Thanks for the great review Nick.
    I must make full disclosure in that I work with an affiliate of ABS… Regardless, its funny to hear the negative comments about weight and cost of these packs… the same things people said about beacons 25 years ago! Now anyone travelling in avy terrain without a beacon is considered a fool.
    Ryan brings up some great points, but at the end of the day I would much rather be in avalanche terrain with an ABS (or other airbag pack) than without! Of course avoiding a slide is priority #1, but as the link to the Article about the snowmobiler who recently survived a slide in CO suggests, even when you think you aren’t in avy terrain, you just might be! LIkewise, there is a situation that happened here in BC last season (or perhaps the season before) where a ACMG guide was caught in a slide on similar low angled terrain, he survived thanks to his airbag pack…
    Keep up the great work Wildsnow!
    Cheers,

  19. aviator December 15th, 2010 1:50 pm

    Thanks for putting this together, tons of research up in here!
    I’ve been wanting a roundup like this for a while!

    I have my eyes on that abs powder 15 liter.
    I would strap an UL roll top bag on it to increase capacity and stay light.
    If I don’t go the DIY-UL-pack-on-abs-base route.
    Did y’all see this thread:
    http://tetongravity.com/forums/showthread.php?t=112055
    (the UL pack mod part, not the avalung part)

    I really hope this post+comments will become that useful resource nick proposes.
    Maybe we could keep this thread on the details of the technology and the products and keep it lite on the general “do we need this or not” to avoid clutter?
    Most of us are way past that point and there’s been plenty of that before? :D

  20. Nick T December 15th, 2010 2:20 pm

    Kai’s custom pack is pretty sweet, I’ve been thinking of doing that myself- perhaps have Cilo gear do it with dyneema? Check out Kai’s website for more:
    http://www.larsonweb.com/backcountryskigear/id1.html

  21. Mark W December 15th, 2010 2:52 pm

    By simple physics, these things work really well. One day I hope to own one.

  22. Jim December 15th, 2010 3:18 pm

    Seems like the only and best solution for the solo skiier when the beacon is just a body recovery aid. Hope they get the weight down, and make a separate unit, like the Avalung, where you use your own pack. Seems like it could hook into your harness somehow.

  23. aviator December 15th, 2010 3:57 pm

    @jim
    an airbag can never become a separate attachment to your own pack since you need safety-harness-level on webbing, stainless clips, and crotch strap

    what is possible and already here is the base units including harness in different sizes (abs vario and abs powder) and then lots of packs in different sizes to put on the base unit and change between from day to day.

    there are third party abs compatible options from other manufacturers like arva, millet and dynastar. soon there is gonna be a LOT to choose from.

    @nick
    I think you forgot about the dynastar 28 liter vario compatible in your list?

  24. Nick T December 15th, 2010 4:12 pm

    Thanks aviator, I didn’t know about that one. I’ll update the post later, but for now, here’s a link
    http://www.dynastar.com/index.php?_lang=NZ&_cnt=NZ&&oidprod=PRODUCTS:ch6v6zcc3a3qn&function=productDetail&insidefile=fiche-produit.html

    Also, I believe Deuter used to make a Vario compatible pack, but I can’t seem to find it. Anyone have more details?

    Hopefully these 3rd party companies will jump on the Powder platform soon so there are lighter weight options.

  25. Lou December 15th, 2010 4:21 pm

    I always find it amusing when someone realizes nearly everything we write here (me, guest bloggers, whatever) is the result of an opinion., and quite often could be called opinionated. Communicating with passion about the broader issues of backcountry skiing is our mission, passion and opinion go hand in hand. Sorry, but reality strikes.

    As for airbags, they work, stay tuned for . more opinionated coverage of them :D

    Lou

  26. Daniel Dunn December 15th, 2010 4:21 pm

    my good friend was just caught in a slide, while wearing one of these packs. I’m not sure what pack. He was snowmobiling, and attributes the fact that he is alive, in part to the pack, some good luck, his smarts of trying to “swim” to the top, and body armor he was wearing. He was very lucky, and knows it, and his pack was one part of the puzzle. Who knows if it was the defining factor?
    Read his story here:
    http://www.summitdaily.com/article/20101214/LETTER/101219926&parentprofile=search

  27. Bryce December 15th, 2010 4:26 pm

    The only drawback to me seems like the possibility of being carried farther because of the airbag and increasing the chance of hitting something. But that Colorado slide provides some great anecdotal evidence that that’s not always the case.

    The airbag brought him to the top, where he could see what needed to be done, and it let him swim himself to the side before the cliff.

    Great stuff, Nick.

    http://www.randogear.com

  28. Bryce December 15th, 2010 4:33 pm

    Thanks for that link Daniel. I think that’s the first person account of that same slide linked to earlier — http://avalanche.state.co.us/acc/acc_report.php?acc_id=232&accfm=inv&view=public …. ?

    Glad he’s OK.

  29. Lou December 15th, 2010 5:02 pm

    I also wanted to say, NICE JOB NICK!

  30. Kitesurfer December 15th, 2010 6:19 pm

    Great article, loads of info, best on the web regarding all the packs I reckon. I think they are a great benefit to any off piste skiier, if you have enough money to pay for it then I dont really see any reason not to have one.

    I’m off to buy a ABS powder 15l tomorrow, hopefully I wont need to pull it!

  31. aviator December 15th, 2010 8:11 pm

    It seems to me like ALL the ABS dual-bag packs since 1996 use the same cartridge connector?
    So they can all take the new carbon cartridge?
    I’m getting an idea here, why not get any old dual-bag off of german or austrian ebay and then do a kai larson custom UL mod on that?

    Even if I was doing it on the vario or the powder base unit, I know that heavy big ass zipper would have to go immediately…

    And to all of you who say you can’t afford an airbag:
    ABS bags sell for $300-350 on ebay all the time, check the german completed listings.
    And german speaking euros actually speak english.
    Some dislike paypal but they ship abroad if you ask nicely.

  32. stewspooner December 15th, 2010 8:55 pm

    Apologies for being such a contrarian, but I can’t help sharing an alternate perspective, no matter how unwelcome amongst so many gadget lovers. For backcountry skiers, managing risk and the attitudes that contribute to poor decisions may not be as satisfying to some as shopping, and may require uncomfortable reconsideration of one’s own behaviors, but it can be interesting
    and effective (as well as cheap, simple and light weight). Risk compensation, where individuals will behave less cautiously in situations where they feel more protected, is real, and something I would like to see considered more on Wildsnow.

  33. Greg Moellmer December 15th, 2010 9:12 pm

    This was just the article I was hoping for. When I read the write-up about the mystery ranch pack, I was very skeptical. Nevertheless, it planted a seed of insatiable gear lust. Now I’m dying to get one. On top of my list right now is the ABS vario. I love the multiple pack volume option. The dual bags make it appealing because everyone knows that 2 is greater than 1. Finally I tend to trust the manufacture that has been at it the longest (for example you can get the tried and true dynafit boots or you can buy the newly released solomon boots with tech fittings. We all know how that ended.) The biggest downside for the ABS for me is the issue of refills. All that shipping could really add up (Not that I plan on deploying it very often, if ever).

    Now as for the risk compensation issue: Will owning this pack make me stick my neck out a little more. Yup, it actually might. But the way I look at it, that just means even more epic descents and deep days. I’m failing to see the downside to this.

  34. aviator December 15th, 2010 9:43 pm

    @ stew
    yea… and the internet is just a fad, it will soon die out…

    Morons will be idiots, with or without airbags.
    Personally, I want as many of them as possible to wear one, so I never have to dig for them. Cuz I will be too busy digging you out. :D

    Freak avys have hit many FAR MORE experienced skiers than you and me, even tho they made all the right decisions all the way…

    Have a look again at those stats.
    You will be wearing one too in just a few years from now, just like you carry your beacon, probe and shovel today. Or maybe you don’t carry anything? You know, risk compensation and all…

  35. Randonnee December 15th, 2010 11:39 pm

    Nice article Nick, good information. The avalanche airbag pack is the only real safety device. The only true safety is staying out of avalanches.

    Funny how it seems OK many places to discuss endless fascination with transceivers and shovels- last time I studied it gave overall a 10% increase in survival of completely buried victims! Compare that to high-90th percentile success figures with avalanche airbag use in avalanches.

    Wildsnow is one of the few sources of information and opinion that has a realistic approach to avalanche avoidance and in the futility of transceiver-partner rescue.

    In regard to judging avalanche potential, get it right or die, and I wear my ABS for the time that I get it wrong!

  36. Zoom December 16th, 2010 1:57 am

    I am 51 years old, started skiing when I was 4 and started ducking the rope and heading out of bounds when I was a teen. I have been a powder hound for decades. I now am able to ski the backcountry over 100 days per year I got a snowpulse air bag three years ago. LAST SPRING IT SAVED MY LIFE!!. Anybody who thinks they know it all and will never be caught is arrogant and ignorant. Many avalanche professionals with years of training and experience have been caught. The first avi death this year was a pro patriler. One of my friends has a calous saying…all the avi experts are dead. I attended an avi seminar this fall and the forecasters stressed predicting avalanches is an art not science. One speaker had been with search and rescue for 30 years and dug up 32 dead bodies. He had been in an avalanche himself years ago. He endorsed airbags and said he would not ski without one. The only time I will ever ski without my snowpulse is in the summer on a consolidated snow pack. Save money and weight some place else .An airbag is worth its weight in gold and much lighter!!

  37. Rocco December 16th, 2010 4:04 am

    Hi,
    first to be a bit patriotic and wise: ABS is a German company and thus the packs are developed and made in Germany. No offense ;-)

    Now the interesting part:
    you stated that the metal hip belt buckles are “much more cumbersome than standard plastic buckles”. The new base units that came out this year have a newly designed metal buckle which are a lot easier to use. The smaller part of the buckle now slides through the bigger part much easier since the bigger part has small notches on either side. The smaller bit now does not have to be maneuvered through the eye as difficult as before.
    Furthermore, the redesign includes another change which allows to open the buckle a lot easier. The bigger part of the buckle has a wave design on one front so you can easily lift the smaller part up with your thumb and therefore it slips out in a second.

    See this picture from another blog where you can see this detail very well. This is not represented in any of the product pictures on the product website so it’s easily missed.
    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/__-k_Bu6qYWs/TQT9nK7LYBI/AAAAAAAAAUE/h_eTvecayf4/s1600/4+-+Miscellaneous.png

    Another benefit of a metal buckle for general us is it does not break. The other day somebody stepped on my old pack’s plastic buckle with a ski boot and broke it…

    Last but not least: Thanks wildsnow team for all these good reviews and the other infvo we get from you. Keep up the good work.

  38. Rocco December 16th, 2010 4:48 am

    after my last post on the technical side I have to now also state a few points regarding the whole discussion on opinion and should you wear an airbag or not:

    first, I also have to say what zoom says. all the people that have been caught and would now invest in an airbag are not here to state this change in mind.
    avis are just unpredictable and all the things you learn from classes and literature and experience might be worth nothing in that one situation. this means:

    if you have to, go get a loan for it and you will have ca. 97% ability to pay back the loan. better than being dead with $1G extra in the bank…

    Another point on the purchase. these items are very stable in value and as aviator stated you can get them on European ebay very easy. I am German myself and can tell you that you can get a new one every 2 years and be able to recover almost 80% of the purchase price each time.

    now a little experience report:
    we go skiing with a group of people all equipped with the standard beacon, probe & shovel set up and additionally an ABS. we are all very considerate of the avalanche/ snow pack situation and well educated on snow science and risk reduction strategies.
    nevertheless, one of us got caught ca. 2 years back in a slope where a few people have skied down before that day (7th skier syndrome).
    he released the airbag and survived. only his tele boot was broken in the bellows and his skies were gone.

    bottom line:
    IT DOES WORK and THERE IS NOT GOOD REASON NOT TO HAVE ONE ONCE YOU REALIZE THIS AND GO OUT OF BOUNDS REGULARLY!!!

  39. Lou December 16th, 2010 9:24 am

    Stewspooner, I thought I was the only person allowed to preach around here? :D

  40. Nick T December 16th, 2010 9:26 am

    @stew-People will need to be careful in watching how their acceptable risk can change. I have felt it myself with these airbags, and fight with myself to understand that I could still die and must not consider the airbag a guarantee. All safety equipment can cause this, and it is up to the individual to not kid themselves.

    @Rocco- Thanks for the clarifications. I was aware that ABS (and Snowpulse) have redesigned their buckles since the packs that I have, and look forward to testing them. Good to hear that they are easier to use!

    @Nick- I believe the larger Float42 should be out next season. Steve?

  41. Lou December 16th, 2010 9:31 am

    Is this going to be like the helmet proselytizing and debate that’s gone on for years now?

  42. Bob December 16th, 2010 9:31 am

    I just want to add my thanks for a nice overview article. Much food for thought.

  43. Dave December 16th, 2010 9:45 am

    Highly informative article. Much appreciated. It’s going to be interesting to see how much more people tempt fate with these things on. That is in no way to be construed as an argument against wearing them. I don’t relish skiing with the extra weight, but then again, I don’t relish dying, either.

  44. Lou December 16th, 2010 9:54 am

    Ya’ll, I’ve got another blog post to put up this morning if we feel like it. But, I think I’ll just leave Nick’s post as number 1 for another day, with Avalung and Chapman just below. No need to push such interesting stuff down…

  45. Andrew December 16th, 2010 10:18 am

    I recently bought a BCA Float 30, but can fully relate to Stewspooners point. Between this and all of the other gear that is considered “mandatory” nowadays, ie beacon, shovel, probe, helmet, cell phone, Avalung, etc., the sport is definitely getting heavier and more expensive, but statistically not that much safer. The other day as I was unzipping the trigger handle and making sure it was ready to go, it occurred to me that if I wasn’t wearing my airbag pack I would be skiing a safer, more conservative line. There is a lot to be said for using your brain instead of just relying on gear.

  46. Lou December 16th, 2010 10:29 am

    Good point Andrew, I did notice over the past couple of decades that I do carry a lot more junk than I did way back when. My pack is about the same weight because the weight of everything except water has been significantly reduced, but wow, what lot of stuff… by choice, of course. Multi-use items are still the solution to much of this, wish we’d see more of that. Can I use my airbag backpack as a pillow?

  47. Andrew December 16th, 2010 10:38 am

    Really? What did you use to carry in your pack that was so heavy? I suspect that a) your pack is actually way heavier nowadays and b) that your tours are shorter (sled access not included). I know this is true in my case and I think the root cause of it is death by 1,000 ounces.

  48. Lou December 16th, 2010 10:53 am

    Don’t understand… if you’re wondering why my backpack 35 years ago was similar weight to these days even though it had fewer items it was probably all the wool clothing and heavier repair kit, for starters. My tours are most certiainly shorter and steeper, as I started more as a slogger when it came to backcountry skiing. But then, perhaps I’m imagining things and my pack is heavier these days, though I just don’t feel that is the case. No way of knowing for sure, really…

  49. Louis December 16th, 2010 10:58 am

    According the link to the study in Switzerland, these devices work well on slopes, but don’t work well for someone buried in a terrain trap. While avalanche bags do seem like they could be a good idea, they have their limitations.

  50. Louis December 16th, 2010 11:08 am

    @Jim, even if we assume–for the sake of argument–that the airbag makes avalanche deaths a low probability–solo backcountry skiing doesn’t become that much safer–if they get injured, there may not be anyone to help them.

  51. Lou December 16th, 2010 11:31 am

    Safety through good judgment and risk management is so all fired important, but so dang hard to measure and quantify. I’m certain I go out tons of days where I’d be fine without a partner, beacon, or shovel, but how to know which days those are? Instead, I always carry the minimum I think I’d need for a worst case event, except during spring tours when I might eliminate a few items, but not much. I have to say that after years of messing around with communication options, I feel super fortunate to be able to carry a sat phone, as we’ve got some really eager and quick rescue folks available now. But yeah, weather comes in or an injury is really bad, communication isn’t much help and unfortunately nothing else is either. And nothing works perfectly. Beacons even fail, I’ve had it happen. Will that airbag deploy when you yank the trigger? Will your Spot Messenger work in those dense trees where you’re stuck with a broken leg? Hmmmmm…

  52. Nick T December 16th, 2010 11:40 am

    @Louis- Yes a limitation of airbags is that they only work when in flowing debris. If the debris you are in stops moving, the buoyancy effect ends. This explains some of the deaths that have occurred with air bags- the slide stops with the victim on the surface but then a second slide comes and buries them. Terrain traps could cause a similar situation.

  53. Louis December 16th, 2010 11:43 am

    Risk-shift is a real, though sometimes overstated, problem. However, I fail to see the point of carrying 1/2 or even 1/3 of your body weight–with certain exceptions– merely for a day trip. Obviously, carry 1/3-1/2 of your body weight is unlikely scenario–the the more important point is that tou can carry as much stuff as you like, but you will never completely eliminate all of the risks inherent in backcountry travel.

    Carrying too much stuff can create more problems than it solves. The consequences of not carrying enough stuff are self-explanatory. There are always trade offs here. While I’m not suggesting that merely having an avalanche airbag will push you over the weight threshold, I do think that the growing trend of heavier packs–if continued–could backfire.

  54. Lou December 16th, 2010 12:14 pm

    Being light, fast and maneuverable in the mountains can’t be overstated as a positive safety factor. Anything that compromises that should be worth the tradeoff, that is for sure!

  55. Lou December 16th, 2010 12:15 pm

    BTW, virtually every airbag backpack I’ve looked at appeared to be easily a pound or two heaver than it really needed to be. Very disappointing. But I have hope, as I’ve not seen them all!

  56. Hendrik December 16th, 2010 12:31 pm

    Great article with lots of interesting insight. Just wanted to highlight two things

    1) One needs to do everything to AVOID an avalanche in the first place. With the increasing popularity of backcountry skiing we see all sorts of dangerous behaviour off piste and there are simple steps to minimise the danger of causing an avalanche.

    2) The airbag only works if you can reach the handle and rip the cord. I’ve talked to a lot of mountain rescue folks and if caught in an avalanche, there’s usually very little time to do anything, let alone think to pull the handle of your airbag or even physically get your hand to your shoulder. So if in doubt, pull it while you can.

    Also the cause of death in many avalanches is from trauma, ie broken necks as well as from asphyxiation (double death?) so the product that goes around your head might be better suited to prevent that.

    Don’t get me wrong, I ski with an airbag and the other safety gear but avoiding an avalanche situation is always the first thing on my mind, not relying on potential safety measures to get OUT of one.

    Enjoy the season fellas.

  57. Louis December 16th, 2010 1:22 pm

    I can see the point of an airbag for those who are fortunate enough to be able to ski 100 days a year. For us mere mortals whose schedules rarely allow for more than 20-30 days a year, is it worth getting one, or just keeping the standard beacon and shovel?

  58. Frank K December 16th, 2010 1:24 pm

    Thanks for the informative post. Personally, I think I’ll wait another year or two, as I suspect other pack manufacturers will also join in with their own offerings, hopefully ones which are lighter and cheaper to boot.

    A question for those in the know: Do airbags also tend to orient the person wearing it in a head-up/feet-down position? Granted, a big slide will push you all over the place, but I’m curious if the bags have some tendency do keep your head up (and, by extension, not be the first part of your body to hit a tree)

  59. Lee Lau December 16th, 2010 1:52 pm

    I thought about emailing Stew but will put it out here in public.

    I totally agree with him. I actually bought an ABS pack for a good price ($80) and tried it on one tour. The pack was so heavy, so poorly made, so poorly thought out from the perspective of being a backpack that I couldn’t see myself using it. My thoughts were (feel free to criticize as I am putting them out in the open), if a piece of gear is bad that I don’t want to use it and am really reluctant to go out with it, that piece of gear will then be useless for me, because I will probably not want to take it out on tours. This applies even if that piece of gear is a useful safety device

    By the way this was an older ABS pack; probably a few generations older. I had the pressure on the canisters checked and sold it for the same price I bought to someone else who was willing to put up with the pack’s deficiencies.

    Having said all that, this is a useful article. I’d like to see someone make a simple backpack that happens to incorporate flotation devices. Of course, good being highly subjective in that I want simple and light (while acknowledging that the flotation component will add weight) and don’t want useless doodads and flapping accoutrements. I know that’ll be a tall order as simple backpacks seem to not be that popular.

  60. aviator December 16th, 2010 1:58 pm

    @frank k
    I think you’ll find the lightest being the most expensive, always.
    now and in 2 years from now, and I bet it will still be ABS not the new players.
    it seems to me the others are about 15 years late, using designs ABS left behind in 1996

    yes people do tend to end up head-up
    it was discussed in the mystery ranch airbag thread a week ago
    http://www.wildsnow.com/3956/

    @lee lau
    why don’t you do it lou style: bring out the scissors and razors and make it lite yourself? cut it ALL off I say!

  61. Nick T December 16th, 2010 2:48 pm

    @Lee- Which model did you have? I bought an older (discontinued) ABS Escape 50 a couple years ago, and wasn’t at all impressed with it as a backpack at first. However, I forced myself to use it and have grown to be happy with it. I’d of course be a lot happier if it were lighter, simpler, carried better, and had a better ski carry system. I’ve held off on making any mods in the interest of selling it for an upgrade at some point. I manufacturers will get better, especially as more interest from skiers is generated. Right now, most of their sales are going to snowmobilers, so that drives the market. (We largely have snowmobilers to thank for the increased US presence)

  62. Randonnee December 16th, 2010 3:04 pm

    Great discussion! One point for this debate is that one must reflect that by choosing to go into the mountains to ski mountaineer or skitour, we are adding risk to our life. We add the risk of dying in several types of accidents that would cause trauma or asphyxiation. It is naive to assume successful rescue or even partner rescue! We all hope for that, but one must embrace the reality! We will not eliminate this risk by using gadgets.We best control it by careful consideration and self-discipline.

    A second point about weight- I feel that the weight and hassle of my transceiver is a fairly useless burden. And yes, I am acquainted with two guys that I have skied with who have rescued and been rescued by transceiver without injury. If caught, one will still be entrained and will be subject to trauma from the forces of an avalanche. Unless one of my former Pro-Patrol colleagues is with me, I do not expect rescue from other folks until at least anoxic brain injury has occured or death, and this is aside from terrible potential trauma to be incurred! Read the accounts and statistics- the wonderful transceiver rescues are the exception, not the rule! One survives that by luck or for me by the Grace of God!

    Six years lugging my ABS and I have done nothing while wearing it that I would have done without it. Why take a risk- it is a mechanical device that may fail. However, in the two avalanches that I have ridden in 30 years I could have easily pulled the handle and deployed the ABS. One of those avalanches was unexpected, and that is the reason that I like to lug my ABS around.

    Since I am a big guy the weight is not as significant, although on a couple of tours it has been tiring. My weight runs 225 to 235, and this year is on the low end so that little weight loss accounts for more then the ABS weight in my case!

  63. Randonnee December 16th, 2010 3:21 pm

    ” should you buy an ABS pack? Mine saved my life today, I vote yes”

    Here is a great posting at Snowestonline from the snowmobile rider recently caught unexpecetdly and used his ABS:

    http://www.snowestonline.com/forum/showthread.php?t=241549

  64. Scott Davenport December 16th, 2010 3:23 pm

    Hey just wanted to say thank you for the info. I have been interested in the airbag for a few years but have never been able to pull the trigger. Mainly because of weight and cost but this info sheds much light on going forward with the purchase.

  65. fallingwhite December 16th, 2010 4:19 pm

    Want to echo Scott Davenport’s comment. Wonderful post. As usual Wildsnow timely with the info on the new stuff coming to market.

    I like most people think the Avalanche bag will become standard equipment for backcountry skiing. The problem is the expense and weight. Now that there are 4 to 5 players in the market are we going to start seeing these things being made for the backcountry tourers and not just the heli ops, european off piste guides that don’t tend to have long vertical approaches and snowmobilers that don’t care about weight.

    If I buy one now for a grand, are they going to be lighter and cheaper next year. Probably, but then where does that leave me now…… hmm tough one.

  66. Lee Lau December 16th, 2010 4:26 pm

    aviator/ I was tempted but I figured that someone else might not be as fussy as me and would want to have a chance at using the pack. So I passed along the good deal I got — karma and all that stuff

    Nick – the pack was badged as “Dynafit Profil” and had the ABS side flotation devices

  67. Nick T December 16th, 2010 4:32 pm

    I talked myself into buying mine when I did instead of waiting with the thought that they would probably hold their value pretty well for resell/upgrade, and I could then have the added safety right away instead of waiting. As Rocco mentioned above, this method has been working in Europe for him.

  68. Nick T December 16th, 2010 4:39 pm

    @Lee – looks very similar to my Escape 50. Wonder what Dynafit had to do with it?

  69. aviator December 16th, 2010 4:54 pm

    2002-2003 Dynafit handled the international sales and marketing for the ABS backpacks.
    http://abs-airbag.com/historie.php?chid=1248&m=17&lang=uk

    A lot of the ABS airbags I’ve seen have been dynafit branded.

  70. Nick T December 16th, 2010 4:57 pm

    Thanks aviator, I’d read that before, but had forgotten.

  71. Patrick Odenbeck December 16th, 2010 5:33 pm

    Here are some more things to throw into the mix- by the way this discussion has been great.

    By now everybody knows that there are basically two different canisters out there- nitrogen (ABS) and compressed air everybody else. The release systems actually work in different ways.

    The compressed air packs either work by a puncturing a disk with a needle like aparatus or by opening valve when you pull the activator.

    The ABS System is a bit different. Most are unaware that it uses an explosive charge. When you pull the activator you cause a canister to explode and that creates a high pressure through the line that punctures the nitrogen canister.
    Here is an exert from the ABS manual.

    “Release System
    The release system is made up of the pressure hoses with the golden
    shaft and the white release handle. The release handle is equipped with
    a release cartridge by the manufacturer. The release cartridge explodes
    when then handle is pulled and the resulting air pressure triggers the
    puncture of the nitrogen cartridge.”

    This is also of interest because the process to release compressed air canisters is a two part process: (1) pull the activator (2) open valve or puncture disk. For the ABS System it is a three part process: (1) pull the activator (2) activate release cartridge (3) pressurized air punctures canister.

  72. aviator December 16th, 2010 5:50 pm

    Thanks Patrick for all the details,

    How does the remote release work on the Mystery Ranch?
    It must use some kind of exploding release right?

    I read somewhere the reasons ABS uses nitrogen instead of air is less volume, less weight and less problems with freezing.
    Any thoughts on that?

    There must be patents on a lot of the ABS stuff since they were first?
    Nitrogen system?
    Carbon cartridge?
    Dual-bag system?
    Pack bases with different zip on bags?

  73. Bob December 16th, 2010 6:13 pm
  74. Ryan December 16th, 2010 6:14 pm

    Well I pity anyone who clicked the notify by email box. If we’re 78 comments in I’m sure those of us that are still reading this are very interested and hopefully thoughtful, experienced folk. With that in mind maybe here’s an opportunity to talk about what we’d like to see from our ideal BC pack of the future since so much of this conversation is about how the packs suck and less about whether to bag or not to bag.

    Here’s a start: Maybe two size options and my guess is enough of us would want BD to make it so we could incorporate an Avalung into it.

    Something that could carry skis in both A-frame and Diagonally as well as a snowboard vertically. They’d need to market this to a broad audience to justify it.

    Helmet storage capability as this is an uber-safe customer.

    Keep the fabric weight light and durable. We’re willing to pay for it.

    What else would you like to see?

  75. Patrick Odenbeck December 16th, 2010 6:30 pm

    @ aviator

    No explosion is part of the system. Mystery Ranch uses a puncture system. When you pull the activator a needle punctures a disc on the compressed air cartridge, air flows into the bag and additional air is brought in through the venturi inflating the airbag.

    I have not heard of any differences with freezing problems between the systems. There might be but they would be at temps that people probably would not want to be skiing in- like well below -30 F ambient.

    Everybody has patents on their system to protect it mostly on the way the system activates. The interesting thing is that the ABS system never really had any pressure from anyone else till recently. Pretty cool because it is all a different way to solve a problem.

    We (Mystery Ranch) are in the game because not only are we avid packmakers but skiers as well who actually use the designs. We make them and test them and we are very picky, the Blackjack went through many prototypes and the end result is a really special piece of gear- it is just so versatile. We are psyched to be working with Avi Vest because the system is just so simple and elegant.

    If you really want some more info about differences in the systems out there just give us a call at the Ranch 406.585.1428

  76. aviator December 16th, 2010 6:43 pm

    @ryan
    weight, weight, weight
    dyneema, or something else ultralight AND strong
    everything else is negotiable, can be modded, cut off, sewn on

    Its obvious ABS are FINALLY seriously focusing on weight now with the new bags, carbon cartridge, lighter material in the actual bags and so on.
    but I don’t see any of the others doing it?

    why do we need a combined airbag/avalung?
    the avalung is just dead weight, it’s a faint hope like a beacon or worse?
    are there any numbers on survival rate with the avalung like for airbags counting casualties wearing the avalung?

  77. Lou December 16th, 2010 7:05 pm

    @ryan, I’d like a danged airbag pack with one simple compartment, simple everything, Dyneema, medium size. Would easily be a pound or two less than the airline luggage they’re trying to sell as backpacks.

  78. aviator December 16th, 2010 7:15 pm

    @patrick
    thanks again for all the answers
    sorry, I read the blackjack announcement wrong,
    I thought there was a wireless remote release

  79. aviator December 16th, 2010 7:38 pm

    Apart from some mild weight pressure in the larger sizes from Snowpulse,
    And maybe some price pressure from BCA.. (although I would prefer a cheaper used double bag ABS to a new more expensive BCA)
    I really fail to see all that pressure on ABS from the other makers you all are talking about? ABS to me seems to be years ahead? Am I the only one?

  80. Matt S December 17th, 2010 3:37 am

    Hey Nick, great article; lots of great information, much of which can be tricky to track down. Thanks! Take the rest of the week off…

    I do, however, want to raise some concerns about the statistic that 97% of avalanche victims with airbags survive. Everyone cites it, but I think it’s misleading at best. The problem is that it doesn’t matter how many airbag-wearing avy victims survived slides, what matter is how many of these people survived WHO WOULD HAVE DIED IF THEY HAD NOT HAD AN AVY PACK (sorry for the shouting). I took a look at the data, and I concluded that these packs are much less life-saving than they might appear based on the 97% statistic. The biggest reason is that a surprisingly large percentage of people caught in avalanches without airbags are not completely buried, and in Switzerland, almost everyone who isn’t completely buried lives (caveat 1: please, several someones, check the following math; I am very much practicing statistics without a license).

    Analysis:
    The key question is:, what is the likelihood that an avy victim with no airbag who died would have lived had they had an airbag? The 97% statistic comes from Jahrbuch 2002 (Analysis of all recorded Swiss Avy accidents, 1981-1998). It breaks out burial and survival data for airbag users, and finds 40 airbag victims, one of whom died. Hence, 97% lived. To find out how many of those would have lived anyway (macabre, I’ll admit), requires some more digging.

    From the SFR study (which Nick linked to; all recorded Swiss avy accidents from 1980-1999) I get the following information:
    -Out of all victims, about 96% who were unburied or partially buried lived and 50% who were completely buried lived.
    -Out of all victims, 62% were not or were partly buried, and 38% were completely buried. (these %’s are conservative, in favor of the avy packs. They are for reported incidents. The report estimates a 75/25 split when unreported are factored in).
    From Jahrbuch, I get the following:
    -83% of airbag wearers caught in slides were not buried or were partly buried.
    -17 % of airbag wearers caught in slides were completely buried.
    Assuming that 50% of people who are completely buried die, regardless of whether or not they have an airbag (see caveat below), I added everything up to get:
    -(4% of 83%)+(50% 0f 17%)= 11.8% chance one of these Swiss people would have died had they been caught in an avalanche while wearing an airbag pack.
    -(4% of 62%)+(50% of 38%)= 15.5% chance one of these Swiss people would have died had they been caught in a slide without an airbag pack.

    Conclusions and Caveats
    Based on the data I found in 15 min (always an effective basis for a study), airbag packs don’t provide nearly the level of safety the 97% stat seems to convey. However, please note that:
    -The airbag stats are from a pretty small sample size of 40 incidents. The reasons the survival rate is so high in the study is that because the sample size is so small, the number of complete burials is REALLY small (6) and only one of those died, far below the average of 50%. I think it’s unlikely that an avy bag offers much chance of increased survival other than keeping you on the surface, so I believe the 50% figure. However, if you want to hang your hat on a 1 out of 6 result, be my guest.
    -These data may not be all that applicable to your situation. The Alps are weird (just look at all that spandex). According to Tremper, 25% of US victims were killed by trauma, compared to 50 % in Canada (what gives, I thought you guys cut down all your trees? Are these from rocks? moose?), but only 6% in the Alps. That means that staying on the surface is far more valuable in Europe than in North America, and therefore airbags should be less valuable in NA. Unless your local terrain is Alp-like, of course. This basic idea seems to be pretty common knowledge, but that’s a pretty big difference.
    -I have a lot of questions regarding how representative the airbag population in this study is. After all, we’re using these people to understand how safety would improve if the entire BC ski population wore packs. Were they more likely to be guided, which might inflate (ha!) the airbags’ safety numbers due to competent group-mates? Or were they more likely to ski radder, more dangerous terrain, which might skew the data towards the packs seeming to provide less safety than they really do?
    -Avy accident data is pretty poor in general. Mostly because the slides that get reported tend to be the ones that kill or injure people. Generalizations can be hard. The SFR study estimates that roughly 50% of slides went unreported. That leaves the possibility of serious skews in the data.
    -BC skiers often talk about risk separately from consequences, but given that the consequences in skiing are often literally life and death, it’s important to remember what is at stake. It’s tempting to look at 16% vs 12% and say that that’s not worth 700$ and 8 lbs, but that’s four people out of 100 who would have made it home to their families given an avy pack. Given the length of the study, that’s something like 60 people. Alive. Those odds may be worth the cost to you.

    Hope that’s useful, and boy is it going to be funny if I made a math mistake 40,000 words ago. Just kill me now. Also stay tuned, I’ll be taking up a collection to get Lou back he 10 hours of his life he’ll never get back after moderating this.

    Finally, my favorite part of the linked study is that they took the time to report that 100% of the people who self-rescued (not companion rescue) were still alive after the slide. You think? :roll: Although a part of me hopes that TGR will put out a flick on the self-rescued undead. Could be killer…

    PS. Okay, actual favorite stat: everyone caught in an avalanche with an avy bag that didn’t inflate…lived. So forget that expensive dyneema, Lou. Just remove the cylinder! Lightweight AND safe.

  81. Lou December 17th, 2010 7:07 am

    Pretty good there Matt, and laughing out loud! I’m not sure the numbers are as misleading as you say they are, and the testing they’ve done over the years is pretty convincing as well, showing that nearly everyone who inflates an airbag in an avy will end up not buried unless it’s a terrain trap situation. Not getting buried is the key, anything that keeps you from getting buried is key to survival — chance, or an airbag.

    I think your best point is to emphasize the difference between Euro and North American trauma rates. Common wisdom holds that’s because people simply do less tree skiing in EU, not only because cable access gets them vast amounts of alpine terrain, but also because even the lower elevation ski touring is frequently done in agricultural areas where hundreds of years of forestry and grazing have created vast amounts of open area. That’s very unlike the western U.S. and Canada, where we still ski in or above what is essentially boreal forest that’s even more dense and overgrown than is natural, due to fire suppression and much less logging than the same areas would have in more populated areas of Europe where the forest is essentially “farmed” for biomass and lumber production..

    But yeah, perhaps our resident statistician will get a bug tickling his behind when he sees your comment, and try to beat your word count (grin).

    Jonathan?

  82. Joel December 17th, 2010 9:16 am

    @ Steve,
    any truth to the rumors that BCA will have a larger volume pack with a SNOWBOARD attachment next year? I swung by the BCA offices this fall and was lead to believe that “may” be the case. Would love to see a solid yes!

  83. goatwhisperer December 17th, 2010 10:04 am

    A quick bit of data gleaned from issw this year is that there is an attribution toward snow density (S.W.E.) affecting survival rate that may describe the difference between US and Canadian avalanche trauma fatalities. The Euro rate is strongly influenced by terrain as noted previously. I realize I’m out on a limb without specific source citation here but i will search a bit and find more substantiation if someone else doesn’t piggyback this comment with more data.
    My 2 cents on airbags is that they can be a great tool in small soft slab avalanches with clean run outs. We still succumb to the whims of physics when you throw in rapid stop trauma from trees, rocks etc. and our soft gushy bodies are no match for the sausage grinder of a hard slab release, especially class 2 and larger events. Probably better to first drop the cash on education and supporting your local avalanche center. Better to avoid an avalanche than depend on technology to bail your ass out.

  84. Lou December 17th, 2010 10:14 am

    I thinking all this through quite a bit the last few days, as we’ve got a Float 30 sitting here, and Louie is over in CB at his level II course. (He’d be using the Float, but the waist belt was too big for his skinny rear end so we’ve got to re-sew it and haven’t gotten around to it). Yeah, it is just so important not to get caught in the first place, but even though I’m a huge proponent of that POV, I still get sucked into thinking all this junk is pretty likely to save me, when in reality, thinking about the kind of terrain we ski here in Colorado, that’s probably not the case.

    That being said, if my son is out there with the full compliment of safety gear, I’ll feel better. That feeling is driving some Christmas sales, so I hear (grin).

  85. aviator December 17th, 2010 10:18 am

    @matt s
    Wow, thanks for all that! I understand what you’re trying to say.
    But sorry I think some of those math acrobatics you tried don’t make very much sense. At least I think you are not focusing enough on the really interesting numbers.

    @lou
    I think I wore Jonathan out in the mystery ranch announcement thread: http://www.wildsnow.com/3956/ :D
    As I said there, focusing on the most interesting numbers only:

    SURVIVAL RATES COMPLETELY BURIED:
    w airbag 24/31 77%
    w/o airbag 12/29 41%

    http://abs-airbag.com/doc2.php?id=30&tblname=us_down&iname=dwid&lang=us

    Even the ones without airbag were still in groups where others wore airbags, those 41% are WAY better than in groups where no one is wearing them. “Normal” survival rates completely buried in those groups are shockingly low, less than 10%? Jonathan? These numbers are what makes me get and wear an airbag NOW, even if it would cost $10000 and weigh 10lbs.

    I guess my thought that this thread could stay on topic, product comparison and technology, cause we all agree on getting airbags now was naive. So many people in here stuck in 1987 on to wear or not to wear…. 8)

  86. aviator December 17th, 2010 10:31 am

    All this tree and rock talk.
    Are y’all really saying since an airbag keep you up top and therefore it’s more likely you smash a tree or rock you really feel it is safer to get buried?
    SMDH

  87. Ryan December 17th, 2010 1:01 pm

    Aviator- Regarding trees and rocks, many slides aren’t deep enough to fully bury a victim so its not always a question of whether or not you get buried but also a question of how far do you travel with the slide and what to you encounter along the way (trees, cliffs, rocks). Considering the only study cited here shows that a person dummy wearing an avy bag is likely to travel farther in a slide than one not wearing one I feel like in terrain where physical trauma is as much a factor in surviving as burial is that avy bags are not all you guys are blowing them up to be.

    To put it very simply, if I’m in heavy trees or cliffs and I think any slide is likely to be fairly shallow due to safer snow below or I’m just concerned about sluffing then one could argue that deploying an avy bag in a slide is more dangerous than not. If I’m going to travel a good deal further with it I’m that much more likely to hit something or go over a cliff.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of these things and they seem like a pretty good idea, I just think the evidence we have here is not taking a world of factors into account. Matt’s comments hit the nail on the head (Thanks Matt) that we’re infering way too much from way too little. No study is going to be able to accurately reflect this but the bottom line is how many people would have died or been injured had they not been wearing an avy bag and the number is going to be much smaller than 97%.

    Also no Avy bag manufacturer is going to do a study and publish it on the effects of avy bags in relation to trauma incurred when skiing below treeline. Until we have a large sample set of data under these circumstances to pull from you’re comparing apples to oranges or at least you are if you ski in treed areas.

    Maybe an article compiling all the avy bag specs in one place is not the best place to debate their merits but I think for some of us the jury is still out and to say unequivocally that avy bags are the greatest and everyone who doesn’t use one is living in 1987 is a bit of a stretch.

  88. goatwhisperer December 17th, 2010 1:14 pm

    @ aviator
    you have posed a false choice. i don’t feel it is safer to be buried OR smash into rocks.
    i’m just sayin’ there is no panacea. the best avalanche tool we have is our brain, don’t substitute that with technology and ski things you wouldn’t feel good about otherwise (screw the propagating q1 shears and recent activity i’ve got an airbag, or helmet, or a new digi beacon with altimeter, heart rate monitor and mp3 player). An airbag is a tool that provides an advantage in a window of instances. in the handful of avalanche fatalities i’ve worked, all were dead or the better part of the way there before the slide stopped moving. high neck fractures, blunt force, multi system traumas that an airbag would not have done shit for ( neither would a beacon, helmet, partner, or body armor). buy all the tools you want, the best thing you got going is shaping yourself into the best decision maker you can be before you even click in.

    do i think a level 2 course is a better buy than an airbag? Yes. Do I think researchers and forecasters have provided us with far more lifesaving potential through knowledge than the industry’s gadgets? Yes.

    Thanks to WS for providing this forum and topic! we can all be better at skiing powder, staying alive and having friends to do both by having sites like this.

  89. Ryan December 17th, 2010 1:26 pm

    Well said Goatwhisperer. Thanks.

  90. aviator December 17th, 2010 4:02 pm

    @ryan
    Sure, you have a point, there are situations where you might not choose to deploy an airbag. (Even though I think it’s VERY hard to determine in a split second if it is gonna be shallow enough to take that chance.)
    But how does that translate into not buy/wear one at all?
    Are you saying you ONLY ski terrain where you wouldn’t wanna deploy one?

    @goatwhisperer
    Why is an airbag and other safety measures always mutually exclusive?
    No one here said it can substitute anything else?
    Why wouldn’t we continue taking courses, focus hard on weather and make safe decisions? Why do we have to turn into idiots and forget everything we know when we put one on? Why wouldn’t we still know that getting caught has to be avoided no matter what? We don’t leave our shovel or first aid kit at home so we can stay more alert and make safer choices?

    I agree, that 97% doesn’t say much. But like I said , there are some very interesting numbers in those ABS reports, mainly the full burial survival rates.

  91. aviator December 17th, 2010 4:42 pm

    @lou
    two questions:
    1. Are you saying you will probably not start wearing an airbag, at least not in Colorado?

    2. Are you still wearing your avalung?

  92. Matt S December 17th, 2010 4:49 pm

    @aviator
    Thanks for tracking down some more data, it can only help. At first glance I wonder if that 24 out of 31 stat is statistically significant from the 16 out of 31 deaths you would expect with no airbag. That’s not a tiny sample size, but it’s not great, given that the difference is only eight deaths.

    However, I think you raise a great point (possibly THE key point): that airbags will have a much bigger safety impact if they not only keep more people from being buried, but also increase the survival rate for people even if they are buried. The reports I read didn’t really offer enough data to be conclusive, but there are certainly conceptual reasons to think that that might occur. My calcs assume that being buried is the only thing that matters, not whether or not you are buried with an airbag.

    What shocked me was that these studies suggest that a much higher percentage of slide victims (up to 75%) than I thought are not completely buried. As a result, the data suggest that avalanche bags DO keep you on the surface more often (80-90% of the time), but that that’s not that many more than would be expected without a bag. Although again, it’s still an improvement.

    @Lou
    I think poor Jonathan is having trouble seeing his screen through the tears after reviewing my math. Would love to have his (or anyone’s) input on the calcs. Oh, and you ARE paying us by the word, right? :wink: My bill is in the mail…

    @everyone
    I’m deeply troubled that you all let my Canada stereotyping/bashing slide (ha!). You should be ashamed of yourselves. What would your mothers think?…(I mean, other than “who is this Matt S, and is he as ruggedly handsome as his writing suggests?”)

    Also, I would be curious for someone to do this sort of analysis (but better) regarding beacons (if it isn’t out there already). Tricky because I’m sure the average beacon user is much more knowledgeable about avalanches than the average non-user. I would look at it, but if I don’t finish this paper by Monday night, Ryan will make me his avy poodle (rendering moot the question of him getting an airbag). I eagerly await the research that says that to maximize safety, we should all ski naked, in flippers, carrying nothing but bbq tongs and an avy probe. (wait, is this mic on?…)

  93. Matt S December 17th, 2010 4:56 pm

    Oh, and I did just catch one mistake: I forgot to pull the airbag data out of the general data (reason number 437 why history majors should be kept separate from the numbers). I don’t think it affects my conclusion much, because I assumed a lower % of avy victims remaining unburied than the study concluded (62% as opposed to 75%), but it might.

    Jonathan????? Help!!!

  94. Lou December 17th, 2010 4:57 pm

    Johanthan ???? Help!!!

  95. aviator December 17th, 2010 5:44 pm

    @matt s
    I’m stoked someone else find the burial survival rates one of the most interesting parts. Jonathan sure didn’t. :D

    I don’t really understand those last numbers:
    -16 out of 31 deaths with no airbag?
    and
    -8 death difference?
    Can you explain how you got those numbers? I feel really slow reading these reports and studies, it’s NOT my thing at all, I can tell you that…

  96. goatwhisperer December 17th, 2010 7:13 pm

    Aviator
    I really never intended to imply mutual exclusivity of any rescue set up with another. more just a reply toward the tone i’ve perceived and certainly heard directly (not from you) that the avalanche bag is like the “hand of god” coming to pluck us from harm. (the tool is only as useful as the craftsman) There is an attitude present whenever new tech moves happen that they will remove all obstacles and implicit fear and we can really start to give ‘er. As long as we are skiing in slide paths, avalanches will be there and I don’t see away to reach the “nine- nines” of certainty concerning stability or safety. such is life, and thank Ullr we will never have dinseyland in the mountains. Whatever though, i just hope everyone has a kick-ass, deep, safe winter. now, go git sum!

  97. Lou December 17th, 2010 7:17 pm

    Matt S, you should do some guest bloggin’

  98. xranz December 18th, 2010 1:14 am

    Great article… great discussion…

    I think you forgot the Snowpulse Prorider 15L:
    http://www.airbag-avalanche.com/en/rubrique/produits/pro-rider-15/

  99. RHS December 18th, 2010 11:26 am

    Thanks for the article. Really good resource of info.

    I have kinda fought the airbag thing for a while on the basis that I didn’t want something that in 50/50 situations would make me go for it. However, eventually, my lovely mother in law has bought my wife and I for christmas, wedding and every other present giving time a Snowpulse. She said when I used that logic ‘I don’t care. I don’t want to die and I don’t want my daughter to die’

    From a lamen’s point of view its very simple and looking at all the people that have perished who knew what they were doing, its very simple.

    Nothing changes when that bag goes on my back. Still the same decisions and thought processes but a less worrying mother in law.

  100. Jeff D James December 20th, 2010 5:23 am

    I honestly believe that anything that can help anyone in the case of an avalanche, or even give some sort of chances of survival is vital irrespective of ‘comfort’ issues. Great write up on the research and product types here.

  101. Nick T December 20th, 2010 10:42 am

    @xranz- Yes, I left the Snowpulse Prorider 15L out, as it’s just too small for real backcountry skiing. However, it could work for sidecountry/slack country forays and I did mention ABS’s 15L Powder pack, so for fairness and completeness, I should probably add it in. Just got back from a hut trip where, once again, the ABS 50L Escape was perfect for carrying all the food and wine that wouldn’t fit in Rachel’s 30L Snowpulse.

  102. Matt S December 22nd, 2010 4:47 pm

    @Lou
    Well, all I know is that right now the snow in CO must be amazing beyond words if you’re willing to hand the keys over to me for the day so you can get out of the office. I am happy to help. My only guarantee is that I will be worth every penny. Let me know what, if anything, I can do.

    @Aviator
    Sorry, I did just sort of throw that out there (how all my best arguments are made). The 16 out of 31 number comes from applying the figures I found (50% of burials survive) to the numbers you found (24 out of 31 survive, if they have an airbag) to make 16/31 (50%). My point is that 77% looks much more impressive than 50% on paper, but it may actually be a meaningless, or at least less meaningful, distinction given the sample sizes involved. My larger point is that I don’t think the available data on whether airbags improve safety are as meaningful and definitive as many people seem to believe.

    I liked your point because you highlighted a key area of uncertainty: even if my original calculations are both correct and applicable, they assume that airbags only improve safety if they keep you on the surface. I just couldn’t find a large enough sample size (not that many people have been buried wearing airbags) to convince me to assume anything else. However, if in fact airbags do improve survival rates even if the victim is buried, that could dramatically improve the packs’ safety benefits. There are reasons to theorize that that might be the case, but again, I didn’t see any good actual…you know…proof.

  103. Randonnee December 30th, 2010 5:23 pm

    Another avalanche airbag save story. Here is a news story about a British couple caught in an avalanche in France. The wife deployed her avalanche airbag and lived, the husband found by transceiver was dead-

    http://icburton.icnetwork.co.uk/news/natnews/tm_headline=british-skier-dies-after-avalanche%26method=full%26objectid=27898442%26siteid=82449-name_page.html

    With all of the complaining about weight and the avalanche airbag pack, perhaps one would be better off getting rid of the transceiver weight and wearing the ABS? Not really, but a dramatization of the point anyway. When I tour alone (gasp!) and ski cut then ski avalanche paths, I wear my ABS but I leave the transceiver at the car unless I know that others will be in the area. That is mainly because if needed I should be able to try to rescue someone else.

    All of this effort, interest, and expense directed at gadgets and shovel/ probe-size fascination is just marketing-induced toy/ hero-dream hysteria.

    In regard to avalanches, get it right or die and for the day I get it wrong I wear my ABS. :”The avalanche does not care that you are an expert.” Andre Roch

  104. Mike Wilson February 3rd, 2011 4:35 am

    Nick, you mention that the ABS Powder-Line may be expanded to larger sizes in the future. Can you say anything more about this? Larger zip-on packs from ABS, or from other makers?

  105. Nick February 24th, 2011 8:01 pm

    Mike, sorry for missing your comment earlier. All I’ve heard is talk. The Powder line could certainly be expanded, but as is mentioned in the Powder 15 review ( http://www.wildsnow.com/4408/abs-powder15-firstlook/ ), it has a small back length and therefore may be uncomfortable with a bigger zip on for taller people. That’s just conjecture, however.
    I’ve heard the possibility of ABS partnering with other manufacturers to make a pack tailored to the North American market (Bombardier, Cilogear??), but we’ll have to just wait and see.
    Anyone who just came in, I just did an update of the chart with some verified weights. At some point I need to update this to include Mammut, who will be licensing Snowpulse’s new R.A.S system, which is basically a removable air bag system.

  106. Mike Wilson February 25th, 2011 3:15 am

    Thanks Nick. Since my last comment I actually contacted the manufacturer in Germany and asked the same question. They say there are no plans to produce a larger zip-on for the Powder model. So if something bigger is coming it should be from one of their partners, like Ortovox (that currently only makes zip-ons for the Vario).

  107. mike March 1st, 2011 12:19 am

    i would love to see an airbag made out of the white spectra fabric to save on weight, i realize it would up the price even more but would be worth it if you ask me.

  108. treehuggergraeme March 8th, 2011 3:34 am

    Thanks for the great article, after standing 30ft from the start of an avalanche and seeing a buddy carried about 200m down the mountain last week, made me really think again about the need for one of these packs – it amazes me how anyone survives without one of these packs.
    .
    Luckily he was ok and popped out at the bottom but could have been much, much worse, I don’t think you can put a price on safety and I will definitely be buying one of these before by next venture into possible avi terrain.

  109. Janie Graham September 7th, 2011 2:47 pm

    Yeah, I never want to be caught in avalanche without one of those devices. I wonder if you lived in the mountains and an avalanche came down, if your home exterior was hard enough, would it last through the snow? Really, this is not spam because home exteriors are incredibly important to backcountry skiers, or at least to the ones who don’t live in their Subaru.

  110. Jonathan Shefftz September 7th, 2011 8:08 pm

    Silly spam subtly subverted into ski-related service, superb!

  111. Chris Kipfer September 7th, 2011 11:33 pm

    Question? Skiing or climbing slope above cliff or other obvious source of trauma would deployment be wise in the event of avalanche? Any statistics of increased trauma?

  112. Dirk October 9th, 2011 3:36 am

    I bought my ABS three years ago and urged everyone I ski with to get one.
    2 of my friends here in Norway bought their ABS packs last year and I am glad they did.
    They got caught up in an big avlanche last year and the ABS saved their lives. The 21 year old girl that was with them, was not so lucky.
    She did not have an ABS and got buried 6 foot deep. They located her quickly (beacon) but she was buried too long and died.

    I wish I could have convinced her to get one too.

  113. murray November 18th, 2011 10:46 am

    Thank you for the informative article. I live in Western Canada and ski in Alberta and BC. I was talking to a very experience bc ski touring lodge owner and guide at the Banff film festival a few weeks ago and his lodge provides ABS packs for all his quests. His comment was that many of the other avi pack systems have had documented cases of the packs failing to inflate when the cord was pulled, but this was not the case with the ABS packs. Does anyone have any experience or even better stats on failure to inflate occurring. ABS is the only one that has canisters you must buy and can’t refill yourself so maybe not properly refilling the canisters etc account for some of the failure to inflate situations he was referring to. I am definitely going to purchase an airbag system just trying to decide which one. I was leaning towards ABS or the snowpulse system. BCA is attractive with the lower price point, but the guide I talked to mentioned BCA specifically having documented cases of the airbag failing to inflate. He was not a fan of the quality of BCA’s gear in general, so there may be a bias there as well.

    Also when I BC ski I always were a helmet as I do at resorts as well to help reduce the risk of head trauma. Is there any evidence the snowpulse system that wraps around the users head helps decrease the risk of head and neck trauma?

    Thanks in advance for any input.

    Cheers,

    Murray

  114. Judykay February 20th, 2012 5:16 am

    Today, Feb.19th, 2012. A young lady was saved by this air device.Her 3 companions were not.That’s why I was looking this up

  115. Lou February 20th, 2012 7:40 am

    Thanks for the comment Judy. We feel these devices are important to the whole avalanche safety equation, and may be much more effective at saving lives than radio beacons. But everything has its limitations, so it’ll be important to keep all that information flowing…

  116. Jo February 20th, 2012 11:21 am

    I’m not a winter sports enthusiast and don’t ever plan to be in an area where I might be caught in an avalanche, but I do appreciate your article. In the past two weeks I’ve heard of two different skiiers surviving avalanches because they were wearing some kind of airbag. I wanted to know more about the airbags and found your article easy to read and comprehend. Your example of pebbles and sand really helped me to understand how the airbags work and why those two skiiers survived.

    PS — I had to google to find the answer to your anti-spam quiz. That’s how little I know…..

  117. Lou February 20th, 2012 11:38 am

    Well, in all the hysteria that usually accompanies danger combined with sometimes life savings devices, let’s remember that a man did not survive a recent avalanche even though he deployed his airbag. Very sad and condolences to all involved. CAIC provides details at http://avalanche.state.co.us/acc/acc_report.php?acc_id=442&accfm=inv

    I didn’t want to publish above link right away out of respect for deceased and family, now it seems a bit more appropriate in the name of safety education, since were seeing a disturbing trend of people piling on to reports of avalanche airbag saves. Actually, while we are confident that airbag backpacks do save lives, there is really no way to know if they actually did in each individual case, only through overall statistical studies. Why? Because with or _without_ airbag, not every person caught gets buried. Many end up on surface even without an airbag pack. And again, some _with_ the airbag still do not survive, as the link above very sadly shows.

  118. Jhaus February 21st, 2012 1:37 pm

    So I’m a bit confused by this blurb from the Denver Post article linked in your Twitter feed:

    “Using European — mostly Swiss — data of avalanche accidents involving air bags, which have been used across the pond for more than 25 years, Atkins paints a much less rosy picture of the inflatable tools.

    Based on those statistics, about three in 100 people equipped with air bags survive an avalanche.

    While most air-bag stats show survival rates of people who deployed their air bags, those numbers do not reflect the people who could not or forgot to pull the ripcord; forgot to fill the cartridge in the pack; did not install the cartridge correctly; or suffered a technical malfunction with the system.”

    If I recall correctly, the Swiss data they’re referring to credits airbags with a 97% save rate, rather than the other way around. Typical poor reporting, I assume? I can’t imagine user incompetence accounting for so many failures.

  119. Lou February 21st, 2012 3:55 pm

    Jhaus,I think you’re somewhat correct, since even without airbags quite a few people caught in avalanches survive. In other words no way do 97% of people caught in avalanches die. On the other hand, a “97% save rate” sounds way overstated. And yeah, they don’t always work or people forget to pull. I witnessed an avy a while ago where the guy never pulled his trigger, and in the recent Telluride tragedy, the guy’s airbag was ripped and punctured and didn’t function. I think people have finally realized that beacons don’t really provide a whole lot of protection, so now that blind faith is being transferred over to airbags. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an airbag fan. Just trying for realism. Lou

  120. Lou February 21st, 2012 3:59 pm

    Aha, I think the thing might be that a statistic somewhere says that 97% of BURIED victims die. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was near that, overall.

  121. Jhaus February 21st, 2012 5:57 pm

    I wish there was more data on airbag failure rates, but I guess they’re either not common enough or failures just don’t get reported. Anecdotally there is at least one other story I’ve read of an airbag user having difficulty deploying the airbag, so that is definitely a reasonable scenario. And I for sure take that 97% number with the requisite brick of salt.

  122. Jonathan Shefftz February 21st, 2012 6:57 pm

    “I wish there was more data on airbag failure rates, but I guess they’re either not common enough or failures just don’t get reported.”
    ABS seems to have deleted from its website the previously very detailed (and periodically updated) file on all avalanche incidents involving an ABS-equipped skier/rider.
    But the last time I updated my summary (probably around 2010-11, and then I added one or two incidents that had occurred since the last update), 297 people with ABS had been involved in avalanches.
    (Note that website currently cites 262 activations, but that would appear to leave out attempted yet unsuccessful activations.)
    Of those 297 people, 19 died.
    That represents a 93.6% survival rate, but of those 297 ABS-equipped people, they would not necessarily have been entrained in the avalanche — rather, they were just concerned enough to activate (or attempt to activate) the ABS system.
    So what is the comparable rate for people who were close enough to an avalanche that they would have activated an ABS pack had they been wearing one?
    Impossible to say, but the data set did include 68 other people who were with those ABS people.
    Now, that right there indicates a problem to me with the data set, since it’s excluding most partners of the ABS people (unless ABS people tend to travel alone).
    So I suspect we have an apples & oranges problem, as the criteria for inclusion of ABS people is probably being just concerned enough to activate,
    whereas for anyone else in the party, being caught to some extent was necessary to merit inclusion.
    That said, out of those 68 people, 18 died, for a 73.5% survival rate.
    Across all people who get caught to some extent in an avalanche, I think that 73.5% survival rate for this small subset of people (i.e., no ABS, but with an ABS partner) is far lower than the survival rate across all caught people.
    I used to joke to my avy students that the conclusion was not to tour with ABS-equipped partners, but after the rather notable decision-making of the three most recent ABS incidents (and also the group handling of the most recent), I’m not so sure that’s a joke any longer.
    “Aha, I think the thing might be that a statistic somewhere says that 97% of BURIED victims die.”
    For full burials, the death rate is about 60%.
    ” I think people have finally realized that beacons don’t really provide a whole lot of protection […]”
    The only attempt to quantify this found a 135% increase in survival rate for fully buried victims with beacons (over fully buried victims w/o beacons).
    To illustrate this in my course, I have 10 people come to the front of the room.
    Everybody down on the floor — you’re fully buried.
    And none of you have beacons.
    I tap two people — you can get up, you live.
    Now let’s pretend instead that all of you have beacons.
    I tap three more people — you too get to live.
    Still, 5 out of 10 buried people are still lying there dead, so not all that great a result, but far better than without beacons.
    (Note that the beacon searches in the study by necessity include a wide range of search skills — improved searching skills would increase the survival probability even more.)

  123. Rob Mullins February 21st, 2012 10:30 pm

    Fairly stunning there Jonathan- apparently all of the folks living their lives in the Alps, studying avalanche survival and rescue, and the Euro companies who invested R& D were what- just wrong? Apparently they need to fly to Boston in order to study under the master of avalanche survival and rescue knowledge? So all of the avalanches that you have been entrained within were just cushy, just as easy to accept burial and await beacon rescue? IMO, that is enough. You are destroying credibility of Wildsnow. Many expert mountain folk who live their lives in the mountains, spend their lives on avalanche terrain, apparently in your analyses are just swatted aside [name calling redacted by moderator]..

  124. Dave B February 21st, 2012 10:52 pm

    Somewhere out there I guess there’s a study that shows that cyclists wearing helmets are more likely to get hit by a car in city traffic than cyclists not wearing helmets (cars give them wider berth), and the conclusion is that cyclists (in city traffic anyway) statistically are safer not wearing helmets. To me this begs the question. What I want to know is if I’m hit by a car or some other set of circumstances has conspired to cause my head to smack hard metal or pavement, am I going to want to have a helmet on or not? The answer is obvious. The same line of reasoning applies to the use of airbags, I think. I’m not interested in statistics and generalizations. To me the question is if I happen to be caught in an avalanche, am I going to want an airbag on my back or not? Again, the answer is obvious. You bet!

  125. Lou February 22nd, 2012 2:14 am

    Good discussion, and I don’t believe Jonathan is doing anything to destroy credibility. Jonathan is not WildSnow.com, he’s simply a blogger offering his opinion. Really, just as I myself am as well! And yeah, my opinion is that beacons offer a disappointing level of protection. Jonathan begs to differ. Good.

    And Rob, please be nice. Jonathan is just a guy trying to make sense of it all, just as the rest of us are…

    Lou

  126. Lou February 22nd, 2012 2:25 am

    The use of whatever safety gear is always an interesting discussion. Lots of perceived benefits as opposed to actual, those both go into decision making process. Ski helmets continue to be a good example. Now lots of people are wearing helmets, so we’re getting deaths of people wearing helmets (we know thanks to the media’s obsessive inclusion in nearly every report of whether the person was wearing a helmet or not). And yeah, I’ve seen the stats the “prove” wearing helmets is a good thing… and I’m glad they get used, especially by the folks I know who ski fast, but I can’t help but wonder how effective they really are, as opposed to mythology. For example, I’ve been around skiing for a while and on the ski hill the overall population is definitely skiing faster, so perhaps helmets are saving lives, but people are skiing faster, so overall mortality rate stays the same, or even gets worse? Same with airbags — and beacons. All sorts of factors come into play when trying to use the stats for decision to use the stuff or not.

    Our community has pretty much made beacon use as mandatory as wearing your pants, e.g., you show up without your beacon you go back home and get it (I hope). Are helmets next on the list of such stuff? Airbags? Personal SAR helicopter on standby down at trailhead? It’s all interesting to watch, and important to participate in if you do these sports.

  127. Jonathan Shefftz February 22nd, 2012 5:48 am

    Rob, although I am accustomed to internet posters appending their substantative arguments by resorting to ad hominem attacks (especially the inclusion of geographical disparagement, even though I’m within a daytrip drive of avalanche terrain, for which I just finished compiling a list of aspects for 73 distinct slide paths for my avalanche course students), yours is the first ad hominen attack I have ever read that didn’t even bother specifying the substanative point(s) of disagreement.
    To clarify, the section of my comment on ABS mainly just reiterated ABS’s own data.
    I then also explained the difficulties of trying to compare the 93.6% ABS survival rate with other survival rates.
    I’m sorry that I simply assumed that from all of the data I presented that the central conclusion was so obvious that it didn’t need to be stated explicitly.
    So here it is: yes, all else being equal, a person with an ABS (or competitor’s) pack entrained in an avalanche has a higher survival rate than a person without.
    Regarding the all-else-being-equal caveat, I had only one sentence on risk homeostasis, and I’ll leave it at that.
    But I’ll also add here whether across all ski tours and relevant backcountry risks the ABS weight would be better devoted to other emergency gear like AED, sat phone, extra insulation, shelter, etc.
    (No, I’m not providing the answer, whether in the form of data analysis or otherwise, but just bringing up the issue.)
    I suppose though that the above qualifies as the kind of “short 500 word uber-analytical reply…” that you disparage, as opposed to your own ad hominem attacks (with mistaken geographical basis)?

  128. Lou February 22nd, 2012 6:36 am

    Ok boys, here we go. From now on with this thread, all posts with name calling will be summarily deleted.

    I think Jonathan brings up an interesting point about what to devote pack weight to. I can think of many times for myself (take Denali, for example?) when a lot of other essential gear pretty much precluded lugging the extra weight of an airbag system. Now, if the things were lighter? Who knows… Lou

  129. Rob Mullins February 23rd, 2012 11:25 pm

    It is not arguable to carry a beacon and shovel, and probe, in the modern vernacular. However these are all failure devices, and one’s body is not spared the forces of the avalanche by wearing a beacon. An avalanche airbag provides real protection from the forces avalanche entrainment, especially resistance to burial, and a significantly high survival rate.

    Serious entities in Europe have invested significant R&D into developing and then demonstrating efficacy of an avalanche airbag. We read here and elsewhere that avalanche airbags are used extensively and increasingly. Also, protection/ survival is constantly demonstrated in actual incidents, as well as some failures to protect the user in a few cases.

    I have skitoured with one man saved by a transceiver rescue, and with another who saved his friend with a transceiver. However, I believe it to be foolish in the utmost to assume any increased chance of surviving an avalanche based on the proven low success rate of transceiver rescue in avalanche burial. Positive data is shown time after time for the efficacy of avalanche airbags. Spinning numbers will not negate the advantages of the only real avalanche safety device.

  130. Rob Mullins February 23rd, 2012 11:36 pm

    Lou, Wildsnow attracted me because of the extensive information about Dynafit equipment, and because of a blogger whose lifestyle is in the mountains, and who also recognizes the reality of avalanche hazard and even other dangers involved in backcountry skiing.

    So, please give us more about Dynafit, not just the intricacies of the hardware, but how does it tour and ski.

    There are many bloggers here who live the mountain lifestyle, yet serve up information with humility. Credibility in regard to mountain topics would best be given to folks who live, work, and ski in the mountains, evaluate gear in the mountains, and yes specifically western mountains.

    Many who read Wildsnow are high level and even professional folks who live and work in the mountains. No need for constant lecture from folks who (edit and redaction, added “in my opinion”) have information from visits and a lot of conjecture based on reading. Jeez, that would be as silly as perhaps a backcountry skiing magazine that has headquarters on the east coast…

  131. Frame February 24th, 2012 5:42 am

    I’m attracted to Wildsnow in part because the comments come from both hemispheres and a good selection of continents. If airbag r & d from Europe is good, so are opinions from Europe or the east coast. There’s avalanches all over the show. I have skied mountains in the West (not the East) Sth Hemisphere and Europe – all were serious on their day. A plane ride might do you good one of these days Rob.
    My Dynafit Titan’s are a great addition to my gear list and tour lovely….

  132. Jonathan Shefftz February 24th, 2012 7:49 pm

    Rob, very impressive that you continue your ad hominem attacks on me, and indeed in greater detail this time too (even if you didn’t bother to mention my name specifically in this latest round).
    I’m not going to bother looking up the bios now for the authors of the beacon study, but all four have very Germanic-sounding names, so maybe you’d like that, and they did find that beacon use among backcountry travelers increased the survival rate by 135%.
    As for how much ABS packs increase survival rates (over and above beacons), that is difficult to determine. The President of the American Avalanche Association believes that the increase is only 3% (even though he’s an advocate of their use). I suspect the increase is bigger than that, but fortunately for you my upcoming detailed analysis of the available data (“lecture?” “spinning?”) will be published elsewhere (so as to avoid “destroying the credibility” of this blog).

  133. SteveG February 24th, 2012 8:43 pm

    I’ll never forget the phone call from my son from 2000 miles away to his mom. Mom “What are you doing now.” Son- “Waiting in the parking lot for the group to meet up for my avalanche avoidance class.” Mom – “I’ll save you some time and money, STAY IN THE PARKING LOT!!!”. When you travel “out there” odds and statistics become moot. Keep you head on and take what the world offers with your eyes wide open.

  134. Lou February 25th, 2012 9:13 am

    Just a note on comment style. I think it’s fair for Rob to allude to the background and credibility of our writers and while, sure, his somewhat sarcastic style (which I personally do not find attractive) with above comment can be interpreted as an “attack,” he does bring up a good point and that’s that one needs to feel comfortable with the author of something they’re taking and using.

    think Rob is wrong to assume Jonathan doesn’t live near serious mountains, and to assume Jonathan is not involved enough in the sport to do his work with beacons. On the other hand, I totally agree with Rob that we need to be very careful about who we give the bully pulpit to, since Wildsnow has a vast bank of credibility and I would not want to errode that. Thus, I’ll continue to be careful.

    As for Jonathan in particular, I stand behind his work with beacons and his attempts to present confusing safety data in various ways.

    I might redact a bit of Rob’s comment… I’ll go back and read it. But I’d ask all our guest bloggers to keep their skin thick. After all, getting some comments is desirable, as that’s what happens when people actually read your stuff, which on the whole is actually quite unusual for most blogs out there.

  135. Rob Mullins March 10th, 2012 2:35 pm

    Above are logical discussion in regard to beacons and airbags in my view and experience. Yep to above, I have been on a plane, in the past a fairly broad exposure to avalanche science internationally didactically and on the ground, and in my recent years more locally and personally since I am raising a family.

    The latest example is the unfortunate and heartbreaking Stevens Pass incident, which included locals with whom I was acquainted. The survivor used an ABS. The victims were swept 2650 vertical feet and deeply buried. Tragically the best beacon and shovel with expert operators did not save them. We grieve for this situation and all affected, and miss those lost. http://www.nwac.us/media/uploads/documents/accidents/2011_2012/Preliminary_Tunnel_Creek_Avalanche_Accident_2-29-2012.pdf

    Sadly, yet another example of the futility or near useless fascination with beacon and shovel rescue. As I said above, it is not arguable to carry a beacon and shovel, and probe, in the modern vernacular. However these are all failure devices, and one’s body is not spared the forces of the avalanche by wearing a beacon. An avalanche airbag provides real protection from the forces avalanche entrainment, especially resistance to burial, and a significantly high survival rate.

    As for other opinion, there are various folks who post online. Background is indeed a valid question.

    There are folks who have a lot of experience and valid expertise posting and reading here. The transformation of the mainstream avalanche world and the presentation of merit badges and titles in the past decade is quite interesting in my view- my experience goes back a few decades. I learned transceiver rescue with Skadi with earpieces to unroll- we accomplished 3 minute recoveries in practice on avalanche paths, I recall development of ABS and bought one as soon as it was available. I trained the first avy dog in my area and started the program. I and many of my friends with similar views have survived being caught and buried or had rides- and we regret the failure of judgement. Many of us as well have been on avalanche rescues and recoveries, not just read about it. It is indeed not possible to appreciate avalanche entrainment by reading about it. I know many who have done avalanche work and travel in avalanche terrain for decades with more expertise and experience than the (redacted) lists and Titles, (redacted). I offer my opinion since I believe there exists a deficit of sober thinking about avalanche topics, and I offer my experience to back up my words without listing titles and etc.

    It really does not matter how much practice and evaluation of transceivers one does on the grass in a metro park. Rehashing available data ad nauseum really does not alter the physics of avalanche forces. Avoid this market-driven fascination with transceivers, shovels, probes, avalanche airbag packs. Manufacturers just want to sell more gear, and some of those getting Pro Deals in my view are selling out and promote the beacon/ shovel / probe fascination to some degree.

    All that matters is to avoid being caught in an avalanche. Avalanche potential is not at all mysterious- it is well studied and in practice forecasted with higher probability of accuracy than most things in life. It is only mysterious or unexpected to the ignorant and those who lack self-control even when they possess the knowledge. Most terrain is safe at times, a lot is safe most of the time. With proper study, consideration and discipline one can avoid being caught. In the end, when deciding to enter avalanche terrain, get it right or die- even if you have the latest gadgets. To quote Andre Roch “The avalanche does not know that you are an expert,”

  136. Lou March 10th, 2012 7:33 pm

    Ok Rob, I think you have some points but your rants about “experts” are getting tiresome. Some experts know their stuff, some don’t. Also, the technical details of avalanche transceivers is information that is necessary and proper to share. Please, no more.

  137. Bar Barrique March 10th, 2012 10:27 pm

    Rob; “avalanche potential is not at all mysterious”
    I respectfully disagree. I am experienced, and, I have sometimes thought that I could predict when there was avalanche potential, however; the more I see the less certain I can be in my predictions ( my shovel has been used, and, I have been caught in a couple).
    For example: About 10 days ago; I had climbed up a ridge, and, crossed steep side slopes on a very similar aspect to the slope that we skied (the side slopes were short). There were no signs of any natural releases. The snow looked very solid, and. there had been much less slide activity than normal.
    We were being cautious as it was getting later in the day, taking a route that was on the edge of a bowl through trees of varying sizes. About halfway down as I was gliding to a stop on a small ridge, the slope started sliding just above me on a 30 cm slab, I was able to gain enough grip (things like this have happened before), and, I was able to ski out of the slide which ran about 100 meters.
    On other occasions; I have seen slopes that I could not believe could slide that have been triggered by glazed snow patches from the previous winter.
    I have seen professionals make stability predictions based on digging a single pit.
    I don’t know all the answers, or maybe not even a few of them.

  138. Rob Mullins March 10th, 2012 11:52 pm

    Great, Barr, good discussion. Even your words show analysis and some understanding of what caused the avalanches that you mention.It sounds like you have an idea of how to approach the same in the future.

    In my case, I recall a high rate of knowing the avalanche potential, yet twice I have paid the price of near-death when pushing it too close. Even in my accidents, I had full knowledge of the potential and the snowpack, but inadvisably pushed it too far. We all may fight that tendency or temptation, the higher the level of expertise the higher the death rate in avalanches.That is the challenge, to beat that statistic!

    I was asked this week to write elsewhere again on these topics and thought of what my personal bottom line would be. I decided that I believe that if I enter avalanche terrain at all, I would do so only if I would without a partner, without a transceiver, without a shovel, without an ABS. I own and use all of this. But my point is, my bottom line is that the decision is the same. If I would not ski particluar avalanche terrain solo in the backcountry, then I should not do so even with a strong group, and while wearing an ABS. I believe that if a person cannot learn and then analyze the avalanche potential to that degree, then that person should not enter avalanche terrain. Otherwise, continual and increasing numbers of easily preventable deaths in avalanches will occur with recreationists.

    Those who venture onto avalanche terrain need to consider the avalanche problem soberly, and make the proper choice. Gadgets and puffed-up discussion do not alter the terrible physics of avalanche entrainment. For me, that choice is do I know the slope to be safe enough to enter solo without a transceiver or ABS, and enter it only if the answer is affirmative. (and I have transceiver and ABS for when I get it wrong!). Get it right, or die, simple.

  139. Lou March 11th, 2012 3:59 am

    Rob and Barr, the best comments relate your own experience, thanks for going that direction with the discussion.

    Rob, our bloggers and commenters go to the effort of being here and sharing. None of us can do that perfectly. I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “puffed-up discussion” but it sounds like an insult to those of us writing here and I’d again ask you to please go easy with that sort of thing.

    Rob, discussion is valuable. It’s never going to be perfect. Please get used to it and stop the insulting language. Sure, we can be critical of each other, but we must do so constructively and politely or this whole thing we devolve to near or utter uselessness.

  140. Rob Mullins March 11th, 2012 10:00 am

    It does not matter except for the decision to enter avalanche terrain. Get it right or die, and if you get it wrong someone may then inherit all of the fancy avalanche gadgets that were sucessfully marketed!

    My comments are not at all pointed specifically at Wildsnow. I had an issue with one line of Wildsnow comment that I felt overstepped the background of the commenter unreasonably. I have attended conferences and etc. and heard plenty of puffed up language and nonsense that attempts to deny or obfuscate reality. There is plenty of new circular hot air, as well as occasional incremental improvement in discussion and theory of avalanche topics.An interesting mix in the avalanche world- scientists, real fulltime practitioners, and then also attached various flotsam from part time ski area jobs, and folks with titles and merit badges, and ‘instructors’ of all backgrounds (or none).

    Weak thought and equivocation, agreeing with a popular line not strongly supported, surrendering to ‘mystery’, all are tendencies in this discussion that deny the hard reality.

  141. Rob Mullins March 11th, 2012 10:16 am

    And Lou, ‘puffed up’ likely applies to me as well sometimes. But to temper an idea, perhaps it needs to be put out there and subject to discussion and criticism. That is how we learn or prove a concept.

    I ski backcountry powder on avalanche terrain more than most, often solo, for three decades now. Perhaps one may imagine the tough self-dialogue and decision-making involved with staying safe and staying alive. If I make the final mistake, then some can have a grand discussion about the partners that I should have had with the best transceivers and biggest shovels!

  142. Nick March 11th, 2012 11:23 am

    Late entry into this, may I say, intense but valuable discussion. I won’t comment on the validity of anyone’s comments since I am a newbie – as a matter of fact, need to reread my “Staying Alive in Avalanche Territory” book for a class this weekend.

    Reading over many or Rob’s comments I can see how they might seem insulting – I am not defending his tone. But, I also see his phrasing sometimes seem a bit off – with some apparent non-sequitor and unusual choice of words. Sorry Rob, I don’t mean to offend. Perhaps, some of this interpretation of a combative/insulting tone may be a bit a result of that choice of phrasing?

    Anyways, Rob’s statement, paraphrasing here, that if he would not enter a specific area and conditions of avalanche terrain solo without any of the normal gear, he would also not do it with a group seems to be an interesting and very valuable view. Perhaps it is an already prevalent concept, but to a mere newbie like me, I find it quite provocative. Just having the right gear and a group of people along is not sufficient to ameliorate the inherent danger, even when it is slight. I might try to think of it the same way in my new found adventures. (Granted, even while skiing inbounds here in WA and last week in Alta, it was quite important to have a partner with me when skiing advanced and isolated terrain -it’s just smart).

  143. Lou March 11th, 2012 11:32 am

    Nick, thanks for your take. Yes, one has to take comments with some grace since most people are not Ernest Hemingway. On the other hand, there is an art to just how you set the tone of a blog comment, and for most people the art really isn’t all that tough. If you want people to read what you have to say, you have to be nice and caring, appearing too harsh just results in writing for yourself.

    As far as “puffed up” goes, one thing anyone should realize about blog comments or even the blog posts themselves is we are all trying to make a point or say something quickly. The result is sometimes the wrong impression. I know I’m guilty of that pretty often, stuff like appearing too strident, too know-itall… Again, being aware of these factors is key. “Slow to anger…” and all that.

    We do try to keep things a bit more civil than some places, but doing so is an imperfect art. More, it’s not like I never sleep and sit here and watch the comments roll in 24/7. I tried that once, but didn’t make it past 22 hours, and that’s about the time Rob’s comments started rolling in (grin).

    Lou

  144. Rob Mullins March 11th, 2012 1:51 pm

    Great Nick, no offense, open for discussion and debate. This is a serious topic, I have observed the avalanche world professionally and then in my personal activities since the late 70s- not as long as Lou and others. Perhaps I am a bit rough in these topics to some, not the intent. Not intending to cause grief, just a gift I suppose. I am puffed up as well sometimes but try to backup what I say by relating genuine experience.We need to challenge each other and ourselves in our thinking in regard to these life and death decisions, in my view.

    Nick I am thrilled that you grasp what I put forth. That is, I believe my standard should be to enter avalanche terrain while having partners, transceiver, and ABS ONLY if I would enter the same terrain without the equipment or partner. This is the best summary of my views. Sadly, many tragic events prove what I say, in my view.

    There seems too often the wrong focus. Hours of class time devoted to transceiver and probe/ shovel theory. Education must first emphasize avoiding being in an avalanche. Before digging pits and learning a new language to describe details probably not really understood, one needs to know the basic threshold of terrain, snowpack and weather factors to allow avalanching. If that threshold is met, then the slope may avalanche- and it is incumbent on anyone entering avalanche terrain to prove to themselves why it will NOT avalanche and cause harm. It is a body of knowledge and science that is definite and certain- the certainty however gets lost in so much unimportant bla bla.

    Do not enter a slope with avalanche rescue gear, ABS, and partners unless one would do so alone, without the avalanche gear. We see too often the consequences of pushing the limit- even with the transceiver, shovel, probe, and partners..

  145. Bjorn Naylor March 11th, 2012 4:52 pm

    yaaaaawn

  146. Bar Barrique March 11th, 2012 10:58 pm

    Good discussion, but my motivation to post was prompted by the loss of more folks who were experienced BC skiers. Often it seems that when the news of an avalanche victim is published; someone will second guess their judgement (not at Wildsnow).
    I am humbled enough by my experiences, that I do not wish to judge, but rather to share in the loss that we all feel.

  147. shoveler March 12th, 2012 8:16 am

    I’ve been following this discussion, and appreciate. This kind of stuff is why I keep coming back to wildsnow. Obvious that Rob’s writing skills could be better but so could mine. He needs to be careful about looking “mean” even though he obviously is just trying to make a strong point. As for his take on avalanche classes, I took one recently and thought it was pretty good and the teahers told us many times we’d better not get caught in the first place. I already knew that, but they did make the point.

  148. Lou March 12th, 2012 9:14 am

    Bar, we do “second guess” judgement here on occasion. I see nothing wrong with that if it’s done constructively and with sensitivity. But it’s optional. I’ve been taken to task for doing it, and for not doing. It’s one of those things where you’re danged if you do and danged if you don’t… With Steve Romeo, he made it so obvious what he was up to, I see little reason to do analysis of what happened. More, if you read the reports what happened is so obvious as to make any analysis seem like, yes, puffery. Also, I knew Steve well enough where I’m perhaps too close to the situation to be an objective commenter. Sometimes, one just has to shut up. Even me (grin). Though I do have a eulogy type of take coming… it’s not a “second guess” type of thing…

    Also, I’m of the opinion that if possible it is frequently better to “second guess” near misses. Just because of sensitivity issues.

  149. Phil March 12th, 2012 12:02 pm

    Perhaps we can get back to the topic of this thread – airbags.

    Rob’s comments are irrelevant when it comes to beacons/shovels/probes – it is obvious that [critical] recovery tools don’t keep you from getting into avalanches.
    However, what I take to be his main point IS relevant when it comes to airbags.

    Will people’s decision-making be influenced by using an airbag pack that may keep them a bit safer if they are caught in an avalanche?

    It is a good question. I think that is a significant risk.
    That’s why it is very important to learn more about how much safer airbags actually keep you and in what situations.

    Many of the early (quite preliminary at this point) studies are positive.
    However, posters above have noted questions about the euro-bias to the studies not taking tree-involvement into consideration. Trees are one of the reasons that trauma/survival stats are very different in North America vs. the Alps (e.g., a new study: Haegeli et al, CMAJ, 2012). Some preliminary studies also suggest that airbags don’t provide any additional protection if you are caught in a terrain trap or low on a slab (rather than at the crown) as there is not enough time for sorting [they don't make the situation worse though].

    From my perspective, the bottom line is that airbags are clearly a valuable tool – but not one that works perfectly in all situations. Therefore, it is still true that tools should not influence your decision making (and that experience and training remain the most important aspects of safety).

    Obvious I guess, but the airbags are the first tool that really pushes that question a little. I’d love to learn about new studies/info on airbag situational performance…

  150. Lou March 12th, 2012 2:45 pm

    Yeah, I’d agree there is some yawner above… but yes, the question of how well airbags actually work is in my opinion very open. Recent media hype was unfortunate, both here and in Europe. But the fact remains that we keep getting survivors with airbags alongside mortality without. At some point, the human mind has to start drawing obvious conclusions. What I think we need to watch for, to be intellectually honest, is for the time a _lot_ of people are using airbags, and how many of them live or die. Till then, hmmmm.

    This reminds me of the great helmet debate. When fewer people used to use helmets, it was easy to argue that they could save life. Now that we get fairly consistent reports of skiers dying while wearing helmets, it should be obvious to any thinking person that the issue is not that simple.

    If anyone needs any sobering up about airbags, you can look at photos of the tattered one from the unfortunate avalanche death near Telluride just weeks ago. The blatant fact that the person was skiing with both an airbag and an Avalung, but solo when there was danger, is definitely food for thought when we discuss the “risk acceptance” effect of this gear. No judgment can be made specific to that event, but nothing wrong with extrapolation and discussing. No link at my fingertips at the moment.

    Addendum: I do believe that airbags work, I only question to what degree…

  151. Rob Mullins March 12th, 2012 6:01 pm

    It is relevant, Phil, that there is scant improvement in survival statistics associated with good use of beacon, shovel, and probe. This is of primary importance because of the near beacon/ shovel/ probe worship by some. This supports the use of airbag packs, which I have owned and used for 8 years. I first saw a demonstration in 1994, now online are many videos of airbags saving lives. This is important because some folks think it reasonable to challenge large avalanche paths on Considerable to High hazard days when there are significant amounts of new snow or loose snow to come into play. I think that folks with the wrong idea or poor education are getting killed. I think that it is obvious from many reports that many of the deaths were in avalanches basically forecast the previous day.

    My lengthy discussion here resulted from my disagreement with someone (redacted)…

    Again, from above, I expect to see an article in a publication that I subscribe per the statistician comments. All very interesting.

    I hope to help people avoid getting caught in avalanches. I am an avid skitourer, and had a significant career in the avalanche world a while back now. I recall three times or more individuals get caught in avalanches when I advised against that particular slope, once in front of me. As well, I am aware of others I have helped, won’t belabor it, will try to help others. This is a significant and serious topic. I simply hope to contribute for the good. So apparently my comments per some are mean or boring, whatever. I will try to not offend, but I have a background with expertise from previous significant responsibility in these topics so I come across rather stridently.

  152. Vedder April 24th, 2012 5:30 am

    Interesting discussion. Especially Matt’s points on ABS statistics. I think all tools available to improve your chances of survival should be embraced. Having this said, I have not yet found any publicly available research on the effectiveness of ABS. The reports linked in this thread raise a lot of questions and prove little. Hopefully people don’t get tempted skiing stuff they otherwise wouldn’t.

    Briefly on residual risk, a principal concept in european avalanche eduction. The idea of being able to always predict avalanches by using science, digging snow pits etc. has been abonded in the last century. Of course these methods are all used but it is acknowledged that there will always remain a residual risk. As a result of this there has been a paradigm shift to risk reduction/risk management strategies, where avalanche incident statistics are used to improve the odds. Typically these take into account things like slope aspect, inclination which are then combined with local observations, avalanche reports etc. to make decisions.

    Several risk reduction frameworks have been developped (e.g. Werner Munter 3×3, Nivotest, Stop Go).
    Basically they all give you a rule based framework to decide whether to ski a slope or not, this way limiting the possibly dangerous consequences of human heuristics. Heuristics involve experience-based problem solving helping humans to make decisions when presented with a lot of information. In making avalanche decisions heuristics can be misleading. For example familiarity with the terrain and local knowledge (contradictious as it may sound) are well know heuristic traps. In France there’s a trend where avalanche victims are increasingly the old foxes (not sure if that’s an english expression :-) ), the very experienced older men who have been skiing their local mountains for decades.

    Of course I fully subscribe Rob in that preventing getting into an avalanche is your primary concern. However, if you are unfortunate (note i’m not using the word foolish or uneducated, because also the most experienced and skilled person is subject to residual risk) to get in a slide then i for sure would be happy to have a beacon and ABS to give me a better chance of making it out alive.

  153. Vedder April 24th, 2012 6:00 am

    Note that the risk reduction frameworks i mentioned are specifically developed in and targeted at Europe. I don’t know if they apply to american/canadian terrain and conditions.

  154. Michael Cartwright November 16th, 2012 1:47 am

    I gave a speech one time entitled “The A-R-T of Risk Management”, wherein “A” stood for AVOID, “R” stood for REDUCE and “T” stood for TRANSFER. This discussion keeps jumbling these groupings. AVOID comes first as its cheapest, simplest, most effective and most efficient. REDUCE comes second as one can exercise complete control and TRANSFER last as risk event amelioration lies in the hands/minds/skills/gear/resources/timing of others. The twin pillars, (pillar from PILR as in one pillar’s P=Pre and the second pillar’s P=Post, so P plus I=Injury, L=Loss & R=Reduction) may help define the differences. AVOID is pre-injury, REDUCE could be both pre-injury and post-injury, while TRANSFER is effected post-injury. AVOID requires applied, relevant knowledge (avy courses, time in field, etc.) so you do not venture onto the killer slope. REDUCE is an avy ballon bag, armour, swimming, etc. so when your mind (or luck) fails you, the loss will be minimized. TRANSFER needs a beacon to call to another beacon, summoning it, a probe and shovel to be applied by people not the victim/caller. That help? P.S. You ALL care, that is why you ALL wrote. I would go into the mountains with ANY of you, because I want to go with, and only with, those who care. TRANSFER works in the avalanche scenario only with those who care. TAKE CARE.

  155. Peter January 25th, 2013 2:05 pm

    Am a Californian who grew up snowboarding in Tahoe (resorts and backcountry), with trips out to Colorado, and Canada.

    I…as my friends will tell you, am an idiot. Over the past two decades I have put myself into too many situations that when I look back on now, realize I am quite lucky to be alive, and walking. Sure, there are crazier people, but there is a larger % that listen to mom.

    Worst injury came from a cornice slide taking me off a cliff 35-40ft cliff, landing flat and getting severe whiplash, and damaged vertebrae (No insurance, skipped the hospital). Have been in other slides: small slab, sluff (of course…who hasn’t if on steep terrain), and slush. Slides occurred in California in desolation wilderness, Whistler-Blackcomb, (Canada), and St. Anton am Arlberg, (Austria) a couple times, Ishgl, (Austria), among others.

    Was it the weather? Was it me pursuing pow and fresh tracks in areas I shouldn’t have been. Did I ignore the inner voice: you shouldn’t be here? (Sadly, yes) Was it me ignoring the signs? Yes, all of the above. Again… Idiot.

    All could have been avoided (had I like the comment above, listened to my mom and stayed in the car).

    But, you only live once. The motto I live by. And I want to look back and appreciate every moment, every storm, and every steep, hard, rocky line. Now having kids and getting older I want to enjoy those moments without breaking bones and dying, and risking the lives of others around me. I AM a risk taker. I LOVE adrenaline. I CANNOT change that. I think many of the people reading this thread probably have the same Type-A personality, or are those just wanting to be safe (good on ya for that). Yes, these packs COULD result in you being carried further. But they can ALSO enable you to swim on top and get out of the avalanche with more control than not having one on…in some cases. (I will not be a tool and give some %; will stick to some cases…works for me.)

    That is why I am investing into one of these packs, and an Avalung.

    I now live in Switzerland. I can say that while I haven’t used the packs, have learned a bit about them. A good friend owns an outdoor products store, and he and our friends are all certified Bergführers (mountain guides) who lead trips ice climbing, rock climbing, back country skiing (skitouren) and back country snowshoeing. These guys are scaling the Eiger Northface on a Saturday, and going ice climbing on sunday, skitours when the weather is prime. Always on the mountains. Using the best gear. Fit, knowledgeable, and each, preaches the benefit of these packs when back country. They say that ABS, and Mammut are the way to go… and in response to the original post, they are not complaining (too much) about a few extra grams. Live or die? Buy, or not? Easy decision, for me anyways.

    The backpacks that explode above your head can impair your vision to the rear, though they do have a great technology, that being keeping your head up; where as, ABS packs, opening as wings, are great for carrying a board and skis, and maintaining your ability to look behind you, as well as room for your arms to move while swimming or clawing through the snow to the sides. Looking to the rear may not be important to some while in a slide, but have heard first hand they enjoyed being able to look to the rear when one was barreling down onto them and when quickly deciding which way to head.

    Options and videos:
    Snowpulse: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=veW3XNt0SZY
    Float: http://www.dump.com/snowboarderairbag/
    Mammut’s R.A.S (Removable Airbag System) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HmrMR9ODeA

    RAS is popular here in Switzerland because users can remove the Airbag system when not needed, (good for summer hikes, day trips, etc).

    ABS: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25t-j7MGI2M

    ABS is ABS. Proven. Pick your poison. Your life, your decision.

    Having spoke with a couple guys here that have been caught, one using ABS and the other a Snowpulse, must say that both spoke highly of each brand and both liked their packs.

    Though I must conclude my post with this statement: First comment from non-ABS. “Woulda been good to see behind me. I think I am going to look into an ABS pack” (Translated from German).

    Boy scout motto: Anyone? … … …

    … … …Be Prepared. … … …So… Get one.

  156. Peter February 2nd, 2013 4:36 am

    Follow-up to above comment. After much research, reading and visiting shops to try on and compare, and speaking with my friends (guides/ outdoors products store owners) I opted for the Mammut Ride 30L with the snowpulse system. While I am still questioning my decision, I think I made a good decision. Can always buy an ABS later once more options are available like the new northface pack.

    There was a promotion across the border in Austria, selling the ABS at a great price, compared to what I have seen in the US (~$1100). If I wanted to think about resale value later in the US. would have got the ABS, but for me, the mammut construction, weight and system seemed great for what I will use it for.

    With ABS, I loved the ABS double airbags, as well as the Vario 0 usability. Thought it was great I could pack the base unit with my shovel, probe, and H2O and use it without a packsack installed. Easy to travel with ABS. Trusted. Proven. Great.

    Didn’t like the material used on the packs, compared to that of the mammut. Thinking longevity, wanted a pack that can withstand snowshoes and snowboards and ice axes and other gear attached. Also didn’t like that there was no easy way to attach ropes to the pack (25L option). Knowing I will be doing backcountry hikes/climbs/repelling, was important to be able to have an easy way to attach ropes to the pack, over the top, nearer to my body, as opposed to on the front. Liked how stable the ABS pack was when I mounted a snowboard to it, as well as snowshoes to it. Didn’t like there were no cinching straps, to flatten the pack down. Didn’t like how the upper straps, to cinch the upper pack closer to the shoulders, had to go over the zipper of the lower compartment. Not a huge deal, but, worth mentioning.

    Snowpulse Guide 30 seemed great. Considered it. Liked the shoulder strap, rear neck storage area of the airbag, leaving more of the pack to be used, as well as keeping the pack lower profile and the weight above your shoulders, instead of the upper back. Materials were great; good padding on shoulder straps and back. Functional for backcountry tours. Liked that it had a waist belt pocket, and a waist carabiner-hook to hang carabiners and quick draws. Pretty cool!

    Was in the store as a customer came in with his pack to test the system. He had the Mammut pack and was satisfied with it.

    Thanks for this article. Will share it with friends. Thanks for the useful discussion!! Seriously!!

  157. Chris February 25th, 2013 10:07 am

    I noticed in this write up that all of the airbags have a venturi valve. I have the Mammut Snowpulse pack and recently refilled my cartridge here at the local shop where they exhausted the air supply at nearly full. I was just curious how important it is to top off the cartridge with the venturi. Has anyone done any tests to verify inflation with a less than full cartridge?

  158. Nick February 25th, 2013 10:50 am

    I’ve fired off several airbags over the years with a less than full cylinder. At room temp, it’s not a problem and completely fills. The problem is in colder temps, the air in the cylinder contracts and may not be enough.

  159. Charlie February 25th, 2013 11:43 am

    I’d imagine that the manufacturer expects the venturi to supplement an already full cartridge. A venturi will let them use a smaller cartridge, so they’re going to exploit it almost as much as they can. Unless the manufacturer specs a minimum fill, I’d top it off.

    As for temperature, the relevant units are Kelvin. Room temperature is ~300 K. -40 degrees C/F is 233 K. At fixed pressure, the volume of a gas is proportional to absolute temperature. So, by volume, the cartridge will generate 22% less “air” at the coldest temperatures almost anyone might be interested in skiing. I’d be more worried about the bag material cracking at -40 degrees, or the valve assembly failing in some way, than any inflation issue.

  160. Charlie February 25th, 2013 11:44 am

    (and, to that end, if the manufacturer specs a minimum useable temperature, I’d pay attention to that too.)

  161. Lou Dawson February 25th, 2013 2:09 pm

    The last thing I’d do is mess around with guessing how full a cartridge should be. Just top it off. Lou

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