Avalung As Celebrity — Danger of Over Exposure?

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | February 3, 2009      
Backcountry Skiing

Avalung (worn by this happy skier) is now a celebrity.

I wear a Black Diamond Avalung. Perhaps you should too.

But what are the chances your Avalung will save your life?

That minor detail is of course unknown at this time, because Avalungs have not been used for a long enough time by enough people to develop meaningful real-world statistics.

Nonetheless, as of today’s Denver Post article about the bizarre three-person avalanche burial and survival a few weeks ago, the Avalung has achieved celebrity status as THE life saving device for avalanche burial. Leave it up to a newspaper to over-hype the wrong part of the story. (Most importantly, getting three people buried at once was an inexcusable mistake that puts these guys at the level of the Three Stooges when it comes to avalanche safety.)

“The victim was (or was not) wearing a seat belt.” That’s of course a standard line in automobile accident reporting, ostensibly as a sort of PSA to promote seat belt use. Now, I’m thinking with avalanche accident reports we’re going to get something like “the victim was (was not) wearing an Avalung.”

That type of attention could of cut either way. If lots of survivors are wearing Avalungs during their accident, celebrity status will remain intact and positive. But what if the hype continues, combined with reports about people dying while wearing their Avalung?

A large percentage of people in snow slides die from trauma rather than suffocation, and even those who survive frequently receive serious (sometimes life changing) injuries. For example, I was just watching a first-person account by a survivor — he shared how strange it looked to have both feet up behind his head.

So, wear an Avalung if you choose to do so, they work well in certain situations. But beware the hype — especially if you don’t know much about avalanche safety and are looking for the technological solution. Celebrities have a way of falling off their pedestal.

Your comments?


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42 Responses to “Avalung As Celebrity — Danger of Over Exposure?”

  1. Mark Bishop February 3rd, 2009 11:09 am

    I heard a lot of talk go both ways about the Avalung. I’ve never understood the argument that it helps encourage people to go bigger and take more risk. The most basic avalanche training taught me that the best approach was to make decisions that never result in a burial. BUT, in the event that something freaky happens, why not have something with you that buys more time for your partners to dig you out. The equipment has the potential to give you more time and in the event of a rescue place you in better condition to function in the short term after the fact. I went with the Covert w/ Avalung and love it. I also love the fact that I’ve never had to test the Avalung in a real life scenario, but I’m glad I have it!

  2. Lou February 3rd, 2009 11:23 am

    My question to you Mark, and anyone else who bought and uses an Avalung: In my opinion Avy airbags are statistically proven to save lives. Why did you pick an Avalung over using an airbag, or do you use both?

  3. Clyde February 3rd, 2009 11:24 am

    Mark, read the CAIC report. These guys were supposedly climbing with the tube in their mouth. If that’s true, they were putting way, way too much faith in the AL and beacons. I own and use all the stuff too and even wear a helmet when it’s cold. But I know for certain that none of it really works. Stack the odds in your favor (releasable bindings too) but never trust it. Unfortunately, too many people believe the hype.

  4. Clyde February 3rd, 2009 11:30 am

    Lou, none of the airbag data appears to include areas with lots of trees so we’ll have to see about how the statistics hold up. Most of the Euro designs had other issues, such as extreme price and cartridge issues. Assuming BCA actually delivers on an affordable product, it probably will be a better choice than a Lung (though more pack options are needed). But we really need both in one pack, combined with spinal protection and a Saint Christopher medal.

  5. Lou February 3rd, 2009 11:50 am

    Clyde, good point. The tree trauma issue is huge here in the west. Just thinking back on avy deaths and injuries that stick in my mind, many (if not most) involved being strained through trees.

  6. powderjunky February 3rd, 2009 1:19 pm

    I think trauma is a huge deal that is often overlooked. Out of all the air bags out there, only the snowpulse air bag claims to protect against trauma.

  7. Randonnee February 3rd, 2009 2:33 pm

    If the gear has reduced avalanche deaths proportional to use and event, then it is significant. Until a study shows this it is all just sensationalism and anecdotes and hyperbole for marketing expensive gadgets.

    There are amazing accounts of parachutists with malfunctioning ‘chutes landing on a incline and surviving. My friend went off of the road on his motorcycle at 105 MPH, the motorcycle broke off a power pole, my friend was thrown out on a flat field with mature corn growing and sustained bruising only, not even a fracture. He was wearing a helmet, but I would not want to repeat that event even with the best helmet.

    My car has a lot of safety features, but that does not lessen my fear of a motor vehicle crash. And MVCs continue to cause considerable death, suffering, and disability. Likewise, my ABS, Avalung, transceiver, dog, partner have little significance compared to my decision to expose myself to avalanching. If one makes good decisions, there is no need for all of this gear for avalanche entrapment. Even when the gear is used well, the statistical support for everything except the ABS is not that strong. On the other hand, I would enjoy seeing a graph of the growing gross revenues generated by the sales of gear designed for slim-chance avalanche rescues.

    The important piece of reality is that those selling the gear….are in the business of selling gear, do not lose sight of that fact.

  8. Pat February 3rd, 2009 2:46 pm

    I don’t know that BD would or could approve, but I made my own avalung pack by attaching my avalung to my Cilogear Worksac with zip ties. I figure it doesn’t do me any good if it’s stuffed deep inside my pack.
    Non sequitor question:
    Lou, I’d like to add a sissy strip to my G3 expedition skins. Any suggestions for a tape that will keep ’em from being so difficult to rip apart, but is also water proof?

  9. Lou February 3rd, 2009 2:56 pm

    Pat, I used nylon sewing tape for that once. Can’t remember how well it worked. I think you have to wash it first otherwise it has stuff in it that keeps it from sticking well.

  10. Frank Konsella February 3rd, 2009 4:00 pm

    Lou, what are the chances of whether or not you would have had the avalung mouthpiece in your mouth at the end of your well-publicized slide in Maroon bowl all those years ago? I’ve been in one slide, a small one at that, and there is no way (OK, maybe one in a million) I would have had the mouthpiece in when the slide stopped.

  11. Lou February 3rd, 2009 4:09 pm

    Frank, in all honesty, I don’t think I would have been able to hold it in as just the forces pulling on the tube would have been too much. But you never know for sure of course. My skis were broken into pieces, my hat sunglasses and ski poles were all over the place (retrieved that summer), my left femur and right trochanter (spelling) were broken — but my pack was still on my back when I stopped.

  12. Frank Konsella February 3rd, 2009 5:41 pm

    Lou, that is what I would expect.

    As you already mentioned, the avalung won’t help for trauma. The point that I am making is that even without trees and cliffs, being in an avalanche is an incredibly turbulent ride, and those who rely on avalungs should consider the very real possibility that by the time they are buried, their magic bullet avalung won’t be in their mouth.

  13. Nickd February 3rd, 2009 6:13 pm

    Decision: “Here’s a slope that might be risky. I wouldn’t descend (or ascend) it by myself. I wouldn’t do it with well-trained partners, even with beacons, shovels and probes. But I will do it if I have an Avalung, because I read in somewhere that some guys caught in an avalanche claimed it saved them”.

    Translation: My reaction to increased risk is not to simply turn around to glisse another day, but to accept the possibility that I will get buried, hope that I won’t die from trauma, hope the Avalung works, hope my partners find me and hope they dig me out in time.

    Analysis: In english – insane. In avalanchegeekese – risk homeostasis

  14. kevin February 3rd, 2009 7:29 pm

    Lou, is there a chance these guys fabricated the story? When I read the story that was the first thought that hit my mind. Their story, however amazing doesnt add up.

  15. Lou February 3rd, 2009 7:47 pm

    Kevin, sure, it’s not like a CAIC report is a police investigation. But the fact that they even spoke the investigator says to me that they had nothing to hide. I think what’s more possible is some of the facts were exaggerated or got lost in the translation.

  16. John Gloor February 3rd, 2009 8:02 pm

    While it is easy to armchair quarter back on this story, I know from experience that it is easy to work oneself into a pickle in unfamiliar terrain. I have pulled my avalung mouthpiece closer when I felt somewhat exposed, but decided to cross sketchy slopes one at a time. Everyone who spends any time out there will eventually find themselves in such a situation. Don’t deny it. With my personal avalanche history, which has unfortunately been to learn the hard way, I try not to be too judgemental on other’s experiences. The real story here is about this relatively new equipment and how well it can work in ideal conditions (low or no trauma).
    On another note, on the only burial I hopefully will be involved with, my buddy was found by shouting in a shallow burial, with not transciever usage. I was taught in my first avy class that it was impossible to be heard when buried. Don’t believe it! An audible clue is almost as fast as seeing a hand.

  17. kevin February 3rd, 2009 9:32 pm

    Agreed, the facts as presented by the media may have led me down the path of doubt. But dare we question the accuracy of the media?

  18. Chris February 3rd, 2009 9:55 pm

    I am no backcountry skiing historian, but I have to imagine that in the beginning people did not go into the backcountry with beacons, shovels, and probes. Now, however, most winter backcountry enthusiasts consider these tools basic requirements. How that came to be, whether it be proven utility for saving lives or marketing hype, is, in some sense, irrelevant. As long as there is no significant weight or cost penalty, which the avalung will achieve sooner than later, and there is even the slightest chance it may save me in an avalanche, why not use an Avalung? That was the logic I used when I bought my avalung pack a couple years ago. At the same time, however, I had no illusions that it was some magic piece of equipment that would save my life in all situations.

    We’re at a point where newer technology is trying to become part of that fundamental backcountry toolkit, and it will be interesting to see how this pans out…

  19. Dongshow February 4th, 2009 1:14 am

    My roommates just returned from a snowmachine trip to one of their cabins. One of them was test driving a sled that hat just gotten out of the shop. It’s a 60 mile trip one way. On the way he was having problems with the sled, the shop had put the wrong jets in, and the sled was running extremely rich. Ran out of gas twice, finally, they are down to the gas in the second sled, but realize they don’t have a syphon tube. So they ripped apart an Avalung backpack, used the tubing on the inside, syphoned the gas and made it to the cabin for a warm night. It was -20 at the time, so keep in mind that the Avalung can save you in ways you haven’t imagined.

  20. Lou February 4th, 2009 7:15 am

    Gloor, good points, thanks.

  21. Mark February 4th, 2009 7:53 am

    Was not Lou’s big slide in Highlands Bowl? Anyway, I’ve dragged my feet a bit over the Avalung. I guess one question I have is this: Would I use the thing, and if I did and got caught in a slide, would the potentially violent slide rip the mouthpiece out?

  22. Mark February 4th, 2009 7:54 am

    Trochanter was correctly spelled, FYI.

  23. Paul February 4th, 2009 9:55 am

    There was a burial in Fernie last year that fortunately turned out as a successfull recovery but could have been very bad given the depth (2m). He had his Avalung ripped out as he was going through the spin cycle and only by having extremely profficient friends did he make it out alive.

    Read about it here: http://www.biglines.com/msgbrd/viewtopic.php?t=13987

    In my mind having an ABS pack is a no brainer. They carry you up and over the logs/rocks and essentially prevent burial. There is still the tree risk but until an airbag has a cocoon button that will always be an issue.

  24. Mark February 4th, 2009 11:31 am

    Lou, my real problem with airbags is that I can’t take the pack on an airplane (at least as far as I know). This may not sound like a deal breaker to most, but it is for me. I mostly ski here in Colorado, but travel to Utah annually and have trips planned into the PNW as well with dreams of snow in far reaching places.

    Clyde, I read the report and commented on my thoughts concerning my own decision making process. I think that is pretty evident.

  25. Alan Angelopulos February 4th, 2009 12:07 pm

    I think the Avalung is a good thing. Possibly one more piece of equipment to help when a bad decision has been made. But BD should advertise it that way. Something like, “this piece of equipment won’t save your life, competent and experienced partners will.” I’m sure selling millions of these things would be great for BD as a company, but they should look at advertising it ethically.
    I haven’t bought one myself, I try to make very conservative decisions in the winter months while touring. However, I will take a look at them the next time I buy a pack.

  26. Sean February 4th, 2009 12:47 pm

    I’m with Kevin. Here’s my wager:

    This story is a lie (politely called an “exaggeration” but made knowingly, thus a lie), made up by 3 bozos who triggered a slide and merely were next to it, but wanted some media acclaim. Their names would be insignificant if they merely saw a slide. If they were in it, and survived it, and did so via Avalung? Hmmmm.

    Not unlike people who call or turn themselves in to claim responsibility for things they didn’t actually do.

  27. Lou February 4th, 2009 1:04 pm

    Mark, the BCA effort uses compressed air and is thus much easier to carry empty during travel and then get filled (same as filling a SCUBA tank).

    Sean, I think it’s irresponsible of these guys to not just share their names and do more media contact. After all, they could probably get some good money to appear on a talk show or something, and I honestly wouldn’t see anything wrong with their doing so, especially if they could help with avy education by sharing their mistakes. Instead, their whole approach seems kind of mysterious and that can lead to valid suspicion and doubt such as yours. I give them the benefit of the doubt, but have to say that if someone can be wearing their uphill clothing on a warm day, then get buried 7 feet deep in avy deposition for over two hours and not be disabled by hypothermia, then they are one tough hombre.

  28. Randonnee February 4th, 2009 2:05 pm

    The amount of R & D for a new product, especially one designed to save your life is significant. When I read about the ABS, and the fact that I viewed a video of a live-person test of the ABS in 1994 tells me that it has been developed, tested and used extensively. Consider carefully and as I have said, remember that their goal is to sell gear, not necessarily to save your life.

    Similarly, there is an excellent article about shovels in the current Issue of “The Avalanche Review.” Most of the well- known shovels had problems. If our automobiles failed similarly while being used for the designed purpose, there would be huge recalls and endless lawsuits.

    Again, this recalls my fondness for the designed-for- digging-dirt military e-tools that we carried long ago. The Glock military shovel is fairly light with a plastic handle, I used it for years for ski touring until finally a metal avalanche shovel that I considered worthy and as light as my Glock shovel was available. At one time some Patrollers raced and proved that the smaller but stronger e-tool could move more snow over time compared to a larger avy shovel blade. Again, read about the 19th century shovel studies by management theorists- bigger is not necessarily better for a man moving quantity over time.

  29. Lee Lau February 4th, 2009 6:47 pm


    I have an ABS pack. I will be reviewing the SnowPulse. The BCA effort and another vest-style prototype airbag device will also be reviewed as they go more to production phase

  30. Donavon February 4th, 2009 8:34 pm

    To put a nail in the coffin. Back country skiing is dangerous, so is driving your car. There are so many variables there is no way to predict what will happen and what will help. Just avoid the situation. Having 4 wheel drive won’t keep you from sliding off the road. Best solution is prevention, but it doesn’t hurt to have a backup.

  31. Matt Kinney February 4th, 2009 8:44 pm

    Not many trees here. With that said, I have been skiing all this year with the Avalung out and ready. I think about chaos alot and escape scenarios alot since avalanche terrain is pretty much unavoidable around Valdez.

    If you can avoid terrain traps, then shallow or deep burial is most likely the issue around this place. If your partners are in a safe spot, they will be on you with shovels quickly. Say it takes a few extra minutes or even 15. It’s those extra valuable minutes that the Avalung gives you, that will save you. I sincerely believe that. I am not real happy about skiing around with a straw poking at my lip, but other than a conservative approach to traveling in avalanche terrain all day, its a pretty good thing to have.

    The issue I am combattng right now with the Avalaung is accepting a higher degree of risk in “considerable” conditions (even today!. I “feel” more likely to be found if buried, so may take more risk. I can feel it when I’m solo and am trying to recognize that “feel” and come up with some mental blockades, much like I have in dealing with the risk of complacency in familiar terrain. Its a mental process evolving and may take the awhile

    These recent experiences make me even more leery of the “butt balloon ” systems in that one may accept a higher level of risk and thus more likely they will be caught in an major avalanche. This is what concerns me about the Avalung and butt balloons, especially in the hands of those with little BC experience to understand avalanche basics to begin with (i.e 20-27yo males, etc….) Less concern with those with expereince.

  32. Jason February 5th, 2009 10:05 am

    My thoughts on all safety equipment pretty much comes down to math: “Greater feeling of safety” = “Greater tolerance for risk”. Anytime anyone, experienced or not, gets a new device that promises to keep them even marginally safer, their total level of fear is reduced a little, and their risk tolerance increases by the same amount.
    Even previous experience will do this. If you take the same risk over and over again and nothing bad happens, you feel safer taking the risk, and thus more tolerant of it, but it doesn’t actually reduce the risk. This is called complacency.
    The things that perceive, manage or mitigate the risks in the BC or any other environment is your head and your group. It’s the people, how they get along, perceive what’s going on around them, and the decisions they make based on that input that actually determines what happens.
    I would bet that the more “safety equipment” we have available, the more often we’ll have to use it, because we’ll rely on it more than our own knowledge. The “stuff” has its uses at the right times, but the complacency it engenders makes us less safe at all times.

  33. Lou February 5th, 2009 10:55 am

    I’m a pretty cautious backcountry skier, but to be perfectly honest the style of backcountry powder skiing I do now would be different if we were not carrying beacons and shovels. I’m constantly aware of the danger inherent in this attitude shift, and constantly guarding against going too far with it, but I’ll admit it nonetheless exists.

    How do I know this for sure? I started backcountry skiing before beacons were in common use, so I have a real-world basis of comparison.

  34. Sean February 5th, 2009 12:51 pm

    Lou, I am indeed a skeptic about their story. Of course, it could be true — sometimes the most implausible stories are indeed true. It just looks and smells funny to me. But that’s just my skeptic talking. I just hope the next time those 3 decide to go into the backcountry, they’re smarter than they were this time… and I hope people reading the story learn something as well.

  35. Randonnee February 5th, 2009 8:45 pm

    Here is an interesting document produced by European rescue and medical authorities:


    Within the text are statements that are affirmative for the use of the ABS and avalanche transceivers. It also states that Avalungs are not statistically proven and that a study showed similar poor results for a buried victim whether wearing Avalung or having an air pocket. You may read it yourself, the above is my interpretation.

  36. Jon Miller February 5th, 2009 9:08 pm

    Couple of notes on the Snowpulse airbag. I’ve been skiing with one for a month now and have something like 16 days with it. I have triggered it once for a test and hope to never do it for real! The Snowpulse uses compressed air and a mechanical trigger, thus can be carried on planes and helicopters. When the bag is inflated, my head is held in place solidly, as in it doesn’t move! Seems lide a good thing to me. The bag is ment to float you face up, also good. I have noted the tree factor, but at least with the airbag I would have to worry less about burial and mostly deal with the baseball bats. Better than nothing in my opinion!

  37. Jon February 5th, 2009 10:42 pm

    To Jon Miller:

    With the Snowpulse, how obtrusive is the deployed bag? For example, if there was a small slide that you thought you could outrun, might you deploy the bag as a precaution against a bigger secondary slide (and then still be able to try to ski to safety with the bag deployed)

    Regarding Avalung,
    From all I’ve read, I also can’t imagine keeping a tube held in my mouth during the spin cycle of an avy. If a high percentage of people in an avalanche have obstructed airways from snow being forced down their throats, this seems to say that they weren’t able to keep their mouths closed–why would it be any easier to grasp onto a tube?

  38. Lou February 6th, 2009 7:09 am

    Miller, in my opinion I’d rather my vision and head movement not be compromised. Once a slide seems to be triggered it can be very small at first then propogate to something huge that’s certain death even with an air bag. At the first stage, you still want to trigger the air bag but also should be trying to ski, roll, or swim out of it, you’d never want to give up immediately and just ride it, which is what the Snowpulse design seems to assume.

  39. Jon February 6th, 2009 8:37 am

    Lou: Can you clarify—is that to say that in order not to compromise your vision and head movement you wouldn’t deploy the bag until you sensed the slide was propogating (and no chance of getting out of it)?

  40. Lou February 6th, 2009 9:00 am

    Jon, what I’m saying is that’s a decision I don’t want to make but the Snow Pulse requires me to make. It seems to me that the only way an airbag will work reliably is if you trigger it at the first instant you think you’re in a slide, otherwise you might not get a chance. If you trigger the Snow Pulse, you are essentially giving up control at that moment, in my opinion. I think the Snow Pulse would be much better if it just had a cervical collar that inflated for protection, rather than that big huge thing around your head. But hey, I could be wrong, someday real world use of this stuff will develop enough data to give us the true story.

  41. Jon February 6th, 2009 9:24 am

    Great points.

    To me, the air bags offer such proven protection, that’s got to be the first choice (I’m personally waiting for the BCA system next year). So, then the question is whether the avalung adds anything significant. Seems like pulling the trigger on the air big is enough to worry about, IHMO.

  42. Fernando Pereira February 9th, 2009 8:46 pm

    @Jason: The risk homeostasis hypothesis is not math. Math is true by construction. When I did a pretty extensive literature search a couple of years ago, I found more experimental evidence against risk homeostasis than for it. If you do want to think about the math: a working homeostatic system (like a thermostat) requires a way of sensing the effect its actions on the environment. Some safety devices, like antilock brakes, do provide feedback in the sense that their use leads to a visible reduction of a risk-related variable (stopping distance for antilock breaks). For those safety devices, risk homeostasis may well happen. But for devices with no visible effect except in catastrophic failure (like avalungs, abs packs, transceivers), no mechanism has been postulated that could support the maintenance of some level of acceptable risk, since use of the device does not change some preceivable risk-related variable.

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