Is Backcountry Skiing Gear Safe?

Post by blogger | February 7, 2006      

Backcountry skiing equipment is undergoing rapid and welcome improvements these days. It’s lighter, easier to use, and more durable — but not much safer in 2006 than it was 10 years ago. Blasphemy? Read on.

Randonnee Bindings
Indeed today’s rando binders are lighter, function well and break less, but do they protect your legs any better? In most (if not all) cases, no. Dynafit’s release mechanism is exactly the same as ten years ago, and they do not release easily in tour mode. The Fritschi release has not changed in ten years. Naxos have the room for just about any release machinery out there, but don’t include any sort of innovative knee protection. Silvretta Pure has an unusual release mechanism that is only active at the heel, and requires the boot to slide against a fixed toe piece — one doubts this includes anything new and better for ligament preservation. Meanwhile, alpine bindings have numerous design innovations intended to prevent blown knees.

Telemark Bindings
As telemark bindings have grown to silly weight and proportions, only a few offer safety release. New innovative tele binding systems are coming, but it appears little effort is being made to include safety release. I suspect a cruel irony is at work. If you sell a binding with no release, you don’t have any liability in terms of providing a safety release. Sell a binding with release, and you’re opening up a legal can of worms. Homebrew tele engineers have enjoyed this situation for years, as have larger binding makers who can basically sell a few springs and some cable for hundreds of dollars.

Avalanche Rescue Shovels
You may need to throw a couple thousand pounds of snow to dig out a buried friend. The ideal shovel for this probably varies according to your body type and strength. Many are too small for a real-life deep burial. Conversely, a smaller person doesn’t need a huge shovel that they can’t handle or that tires them quickly. What we need to see with shovels is more testing, and products based on real-world published tests, photos, and video. Only one test is valid: trigger an avalanche, then shovel down through the fresh debris. Shoveling old avalanche debris is unrealistic. Shoveling a snowplow bank is unrealistic. Shoveling snow that hasn’t been disturbed is unrealistic. My guess is that shovel material is not critical (aluminum vs plastic) but that design and size are the keys. Yet we need hard data. After several decades of endless shovel designs, the information about performance is not out there — I believe I could dig up a person just as fast with a shovel from 10 years ago as with one I bought today.

Avalanche Beacons
Sure, they’re easier to use for a novice, but are they really much better? Today’s digital beacons have less battery life than the analog beacons of a decade ago, may have less range, are heavy and bulky, and in the hands of a practiced user will find a victim only a smidge faster than that same user could with an analog unit. Indeed, if you take the long view you have to ask what all the recent hype is about! Sure, a digital works better for handling multiple burials, and perhaps requires less practice — but that’s about it. This reminds me of cell phones. Buy the latest phone from Cingular, and you’ll still encounter drop-outs and dead areas. Not to worry, however, as your phone has a camera, plays any ring tone you want, gets email and includes video games. Yipee — who needs to talk? What we need is a beacon that digs faster.

Ski helmets offer little protection — much less than most people think. In the words of respected gear writer Clyde Soles “they offer little more protection than a cardboard box.” Even so, helmets may be worth using if you ski fast or take excessive risks, but they have room for VAST improvement. No doubt it’s a challenge to keep a helmet light and streamlined, yet still offering effective protection. But I believe that modern materials and engineering can rise to the challenge. Only consumer demand or regulation will make that happen. Presently, I believe we’re being duped into thinking helmets offer more protection than they do in real life, and helmets do not appear to be improving. Okay, we now have helmets with music. Time to move on to making ones that are safer.

Avalungs, airbags, etc.
Devices that help you after you’re caught or buried are a welcome development (they barely existed a decade ago), but again have vast room for improvement. Airbag systems are not allowed on airplanes, should include a neck collar, and are too heavy and expensive. They also lack an automatic trigger (not doubt a difficult engineering challenge, but I believe possible). The Avalung concept is revolutionary, as data shows that digging an avalanche victim out quickly enough to prevent suffocation may at times be impossible without them having breathing assistance. Yet the Avalung requires user intervention (you have to get it in your mouth and keep it there). We need a more passive device. Something that turns on automatically once you’re buried and provides fresh air to your facial area. Again, I have no doubt that modern engineering could rise to the challenge. Perhaps a CO2 sensor could turn on a small battery powered blower. Whatever the case, bring on the improvements!

Rant done. Let’s be clear that gear is only part of the safety equation. How we use our brains is more important than any equipment issues.

And back to gear — is it much safer than it was 10 years ago? Comments enabled, use link at bottom of post.


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2 Responses to “Is Backcountry Skiing Gear Safe?”

  1. Summit February 11th, 2006 9:21 am

    I agree with pretty much all of the rant except:

    I think Naxo bindings offer a leap forward in AT binding safety based on my own testing. Fritchi changed their AFD design last year to a design that is less effective (from moving AFD to essentially nonmoving teflon AFD).

    Shovels: Too bad avalanche rescue isn’t keeping up with the rapid innovation of garden shovels (rolling eyes). Shovels are one of mans oldest tools I don’t think there is much room for technological leaps other than making them ever so slightly lighter, stronger, and more compact for triple the price.

    With beacons, the only true innovation out there *might* be the Ortovox S1 (time will tell the truth in the hype). Maybe it’s glitter, maybe not. The stupidity of DSP for multiple signals is that the 457 pulse rate was slowed to allow audio determination of multiple burials. If 457 pulse rate was fast like the old 2.2s and if they put a decent processing chips in the beacons, then digital would have a definate leg up on analog for multiple burials. A true digital beacon should utilize not just a single antenna array featuring 2 or 3 antennas on multiple axis, it should have two of these arrays, then the user rotates, like a real radio direction finder. That would give the engineers some real work. Maybe that is how the S1 works… maybe it simulates multiple arrays…

  2. Lutz November 28th, 2006 6:14 am

    I agree with most points, except:

    … Airbag systems are not allowed on airplanes

    My information is that airbag systems are allowed on airplanes.
    In 2003 i traveled with my personal airbag system from Germany to Canada without any problems.

    … Airbag system are expensive ?

    ok, 700 EURO (850 USD) for a brand new sytem or 400 for a used but proofed system are expensive. Think: what ist your life worth ?

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