Five Days of Black Diamond — Day 1 — Avalung

Post by blogger | March 16, 2009      
Lou with his Lung.

Lou with his 'Lung.

The controversial and incredibly compelling Avalung is our piece du jour. For the newbies: Avalung is a simple breathing device to supply fresh air during an avalanche burial. It’s simply a tube with a one-way “non-rebreathing” valve that allows you to exhale into one area of the snowpack, and receive fresh air from another area. The tube is either carried as a stand-along device in a nylon sling, or it’s built into a backpack.

When I did my Week of Dynafit back last winter, I could feel the waves of envy washing off some of my other advertisers. Yeah I’ll admit, we do end up with a Dynafit bias here. The reasons are simple. Mainly, we’ve had a licit affair with the Dynafit binding for more than two decades, and when Dynafit became a gear brand and not just a binding, much of their kit continued the tradition of excellence and deserved extensive coverage. Nonetheless, companies such as Black Diamond have also excelled, we love ’em, so here we go.

We’ll get to the Avalung controversy in a moment. First, why is this thing so compelling?

Backcountry Skiing

Your friendly neighborhood blogger with his Avalung deployed, in this case it's one integrated with my BD Alias backpack. Mount Sopris this past Saturday. (John Gloor photo)

Pretty obvious. Just as a small plane pilot might be interested in parachutes, when something came along that could quite possibly up our survival chances in an avalanche, we were all ears. Sure, airbags exist and are proven, but they’ll set you back all that gold you’ve been hording, weigh a ton, and stick you with one dedicated backpack. Avalung is relatively cheap, can be used as a stand-alone device with any backpack, and weighs little.

Backcountry Skiing

In Germany with my small torso Alias top loader.

Presently, BD builds the Avalung into five backpacks, and also sells a stand-alone unit. Their range of sacks goes from the larger Anarchist to the diminutive Bandit. I’m a toploader fan, so I use their Alias, albeit with quite a bit of slicing and dicing to make it more minimal.

Since I like top loaders, my pick for a smaller pack is to use a small torso Alias. The shoulder straps on this are marginal in length for me (though they still work), and everything else functions perfectly. For bigger trips I’ve got a regular size Alias, and also keep a stand-alone unit in reserve in case I’m forced into using a non-Avalung pack.

Since this is actually a gear review and not intended as a puff, I should mention a few cons. First, I’d like the Alias to have a larger mesh pouch inside the top flap, and have a slightly larger pass-through to get the hydration tube into the shoulder strap. The Avalung is built in nicely, but once it’s deployed it’s quite difficult to stuff back into its zippered compartment. That could be easily improved. As with just about any backpack I use, BD could do well in providing a modular pouch system that attached via built-in hard points at strategic locations such as shoulder straps and hip belt. For carrying GPS, vid cams, point-and-shoots, etc. If BD made the pouches as one set that would work with any of their backpacks, that would be so excellent… Other than these minor gripes, I’m a happy camper.

Many of you’ve read my blogging about the limits of the Avalang. I question its efficacy in a large violent slide, and I even question the reliability of ALWAYS getting the mouthpiece in when a slide starts. Controversy rises because any safety device may support the user taking more risk, thus canceling out any benefit or even causing tragedy. Some scoff at this notion, others swear it exists and we should be on guard about it. I take the latter view. Comments?

Controversy aside, I carry an Avalung by choice. If nothing else, it could easily save my life in the type of smaller slides that frequently bury skiers with little or no physical injury, yet cause death because the victim isn’t dug out fast enough. At best, it’ll work no matter what. It’s also the perfect safety device for a tree well entrapment.

For some Avalung survival stories check this out.

Shop for Avalung.


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20 Responses to “Five Days of Black Diamond — Day 1 — Avalung”

  1. Njord March 16th, 2009 6:28 pm

    ….they don’t work unless you put the snorkel in your mouth!

  2. Stewart March 16th, 2009 8:29 pm

    In the momentary window of opportunity after you trigger an avalanche, you should be entirely focused on the exit strategy you’d considered beforehand. Pausing to stuff a snorkel into your mouth could be a suicidal delay, and would in my estimation do little to increase your survivability regardless (trauma kills). Sure I’d stuff an Avalung in my mouth if I was watching an unavoidable wall of snow cascading down onto me from above, but fortunately such situations are usually only the stuff of nightmares rather than the reality of back-country skiing. It seems incongruous to me that one who goes the extent of cutting straps off an already basic backpack in the spirit of simplicity (which I don’t have a problem with), would then extol the benefits of hauling around a superfluous gimmick like an Avalung.

  3. dave downing March 16th, 2009 9:26 pm

    not to change the subject…but Lou, is that a leopard print hat you stole from Lisa? 🙂

  4. Tim M. March 16th, 2009 11:27 pm

    Yo Dave, Are you still skiing the Methods and what is your latest opinion? Found a review of yore of yours on some deep background research and would be curious for a re-briefing. The grail search continues (unfortunately)… thanks, tim.

  5. Benn Molund March 17th, 2009 2:06 am

    Can someone please tell how to use it? Do you ski with this inside your mouth?

  6. Lou March 17th, 2009 5:49 am

    Benn, if you’re really scared you can ski with it in your mouth, but doing so for any length of time can fill it with condensation, which may then freeze and brick the device. Most of the time, the idea is to keep it close to your mouth then insert at the first hint of an avalanche being triggered. Pretty iffy, if you ask me. But it’s better than the alternative, which at this point is nothing (when it comes to avy breathing devices).

    For what it’s worth, my fantasy is a passive device that squirts oxygen in your face in the event of a burial, and is turned on by a microprocessor that senses avalanche burial through various means. You’d wear something like a balaclava over our nose and mouth to prevent snow inhalation, and the device would squirt oxygen into the balaclava. It wouldn’t take much oxygen, just enough to keep the ratio of 02/CO2 at breathable level for, say, 20 minutes. Another idea is for the device to work in a somewhat similar fashion to the Avalung, only without the necessity of mouthpiece, but instead have a small system of tubing and electric fans that move air to/from your face, again turned on by a microprocessor in the event of an avy.

  7. Randonnee March 17th, 2009 6:20 am

    My avalung mouthpiece is in my mouth if I am concerned, it also acts as a snorkel.

    On the other hand, I put a lot into understanding the avalanche potential. The only real safety is avalanche avoidance!

    Lou, medical technology already exists to the level that you describe- that would be very expensive and sorting out the bugs would be a large task for a sizeable company…

  8. dave downing March 17th, 2009 9:42 am

    @Tim: Still on the Methods, still really happy with them. I’m putting together a full Method/Dynafit FT12 review as we speak. Look for something in the next couple weeks (Lou-permitting:)

  9. Steve March 17th, 2009 9:57 am

    1. Like Randonee said: put it in your mouth if you think you’ll need to use it. This is also a good time to consider turning around since you may be thinking “I’m going to put the Avalung in my mouth in case this slope rips…”

    2. When you put the Avalung in your mouth, it’s silly to think it will simply hold between your front teeth biting down on it, even in a small avalanche, You need to stick it way back in your mouth and bite on it with your molars to keep it in your mouth reliably.

    3. I like the modular (bayonet) Avalung the best because then you don’t have to carry it all the time in your pack.

  10. Nick March 17th, 2009 10:41 am

    Lou – I would agree with all of your points and some that Stewart mentioned. For its price and the 1% chance that (i) you get it in your mouth, (ii) you keep it in your mouth and (iii) there is not other trama, I think it is a good investment. Basically, I am willing to pay for that 1% (arbitrary number, I know) chance that my odds are improved.

    I seriously doubt the effectiveness of having it stay in your mouth in a slide. With that said, to respond to Stewart, I do not understand your perception of difficulty to initially put it in. When I get to the trailhead, I depoly my avalung mouthpeice in a way that it is literally right below my mouth. I keep it in that position the ENTIRE day. Regardless if I am in the parking lot, or on in steep terrain. Overkill? Probably. But, if I bought the thing, I feel it would be stupid to have it in a lowered position should something happen.

    Without digressing, my point is that I am able to literally bite down on it in this position without the use of my hands and without really much lower head movement. Therefore, I have practiced and think I can put it in my mouth in about 1/2 a second. I do not believe this will take time that I would otherwise be using to get to my predetermined safe-zone or take other survival measures.

    Basically, my point is that I am comfortable that I have it in a position where I can almost instinctly bite it immediately while otherwise attempting to get out of harms way or start swiming for my life.

    Will this work in actual practice? Who knows, and I will use my best effort everyday to ever have to attempt to actually engage this device.

  11. Sam Reese March 17th, 2009 11:50 am

    >It wouldn’t take much oxygen, just enough to keep the ratio of 02/CO2 at breathable level for, say, 20 minutes.

    An interisting bit of trivia about the human body is that the whole exhale system of your lungs is based around carbon dioxide being more acidic than the rest of air, and your desire to inhale or exhale reflects the amount of acidity in your lungs. If you are in an oxygen and carbon dioxide rich environment, you begin to hallucinate wildly and experience intense time dilation, because your body thinks it is dieing. It’s called Meduna’s Mixture or Carbogen.

    i highly don’t suggest trying this, by the way. On top of being dangerous and deadly, it’s also very unpleasant.

  12. Lou March 17th, 2009 2:09 pm

    My theory would have to be tested of course!

  13. Ryan March 18th, 2009 10:24 am

    I was in a minor slide a week or so back and was wearing an avalung.

    I felt a brief vertigo sensation as I was moving but it didn’t look like I was moving since the slope was moving as well.

    I popped the mouthpiece in and bit down. I protected my head and quickly gave up on swimming as it didn’t seem too effective.

    Oddly enough, I think the avalung at the very least had a nice placebo effect. I remember biting down and thinking to myself, “Ok. Relax and calm your breathing. There’s nothing you can do but relax and wait.”

    I got tossed around quite a bit and came to a stop upright and unburied as most of the debris deposited below me.

    I narrrowly missed a tree which has sped up my search for a helmet but the avalung definitely didn’t hurt. They seem like cheap, light insurance. I know I don’t drive like an ass simply because I have a seatbelt and airbags and car insurance. I don’t ski foolishly because I have the avalung, particularly when you account for all the other things that can go wrong in even a minor slide.

    That does lead me into another thought regarding avy airbag packs. It seems most of the data for these is from Europe where much of the skiing is above tree line. In Utah and Colorado this may be comparable but in the Pacific North Wet we get quite intimate with our trees. Most of our skiing is in and around trees. I wonder if floating atop the debris through the trees is a good thing or if you’re actually better off partially buried as the snow may provide some protection.

    I do like the idea of the bag inflating and then deflating after a set time to potentially provide a bit of an air pocket but other than that I think the jury is still out on these for me.


  14. Lou March 18th, 2009 11:16 am

    Good testimony Ryan, thanks.

  15. Randonnee March 18th, 2009 11:51 am

    Hi Ryan,

    You said- “in the Pacific North Wet we get quite intimate with our trees. Most of our skiing is in and around trees. I wonder if floating atop the debris through the trees is a good thing or if you’re actually better off partially buried as the snow may provide some protection.”

    Ryan this is a self-dialogue that I have had for the five years that I have owned my ABS. My conclusion is that it is better to use the ABS and bounce off or through trees.

    I have ski toured WA since the ’70s mostly around Stevens Pass and the in the Wenatchee Mountains. I was caught twice before ABS within a mile of Stevens Pass, one time buried to my chest. My conclusion is that it is better to use the ABS and bounce off or through trees than to wrap a tree and die as occurred on the PCT above Yodelin in 1979. Neither scenario sounds good, but I continue to lug around my ABS (it makes me stronger?) during days of serious avalanche potential. I also keep that Avalung handy, as I have said in dog burial practice I wore the Avalung and felt it helped.

    As I like to say, the only safety is avalanche avoidance, and avalanches are avoidable nearly all of the time with proper decisions and disciplined behavior.

  16. Rob March 18th, 2009 1:44 pm

    When I saw the whistle (nice, cheap insurance) on the chest buckle of the BD Covert Avalung pack I briefly wondered if BD considered placing a whistle in the snorkel tube itself. That whistling sound would keep you company when buried, although it would probably suck if you had to listen to that during avy dog practice burials.

  17. justin March 18th, 2009 10:39 pm

    Lou, your idea is interesting, but if you’re going to have all that tech you might as well have some heat coils built in so it helps melt the snow around you to give you more wiggle room

    As far as the standalone, what’s your secret to getting comfy with it on? Between my beacon, the avalung, and occasionally my camera harness I feel like there’s a lot of overlap. Even just beacon + standalone I’m having issues finding a comfortable bit between the two plus having a pack on. Tips?

  18. Lou March 19th, 2009 6:12 am

    Justin, I never liked the standalone Avalung for those exact reasons, and was excited when they started building them into backpacks. Only secret I have is that I I frequently don no use a beacon harness, I just carry my beacon in the chest pocket of my lightweight softshell, which I wear almost all the time, though sometimes I carry the beacon and softshell in my pack. I know, that’s against convention, but I figure if the Avalung is part of my pack, then I’m expecting it to stay with me in an avy, right? In that case, once in a while I’ll take the risk of having my beacon in the backpack as well. Only thing missing is the Avalung pack really should have a crotch strap if one really expects it to stay located on your back in a bigger avalanche.

  19. justin March 19th, 2009 9:47 pm

    Yeah, I was originally of that mindset as well, but never look a gift Avalung in the mouth right?

    Good point on the pack/beacon in the pack. I wonder how many of the ‘beacon should never be in the pack’ people fall in the ‘praise the Avalung pack God’ category?

  20. ffelix May 14th, 2009 4:28 pm

    The Avalung buys you time. That’s all. It’s not hard to bite it & those who have been buried so far had no trouble holding on to it. How often do your buddies practice with their beacons? Thought so.

    The built in pack Avalung is really a mess. BD completely screwed up an elegant design. Rather than just stitching the nifty Avalung II into a neat, tidy pack/chest strap so you don’t have to fiddle with it all day, they inverted it, added about 9 feet of tubing, a bulky, sharp filter box right on your shoulder, an unnecessarily big outlet & yards of fabric & zipper tunnels inside the pack.

    Why, why, why? Just make it a simple pack/chest strap already & be done with it.

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