Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Avalanche Awareness Airbag Deployment

A few weeks ago, a guide service in Crested Butte put on an Avalanche Awareness seminar.  Guide services all over the country do this regularly.

However, something interesting happened at this particular seminar.  The instructor decided to have four different types of avalanche airbag backpacks, deploy simultaneously.

The idea behind these backpacks is that if you're caught in an avalanche, you can deploy this emergency bag. The bag will theoretically keep you on top of the avalanche.  So as you can imagine, it is very important that the avalanche airbag deploys quickly.

In the following video, the systems are from left to right, BCA, Mammut, Wary and Snow Pulse.


UPDATE NOTE - It appears that this video has been taken down. But it showed a group of poeple on stage wearing avalanche airbag packs.  They all tried to simultaneously deploy their airbags. In the video, the Wary pack did not deploy at all...

It appears that the Wary pack deployed 15 minutes later.

Of course this isn't a scientific sampling. It was just four packs in a head-to-head with some proficient operators and some that were not. Each individual's reaction time has to be taken into account as well as how the packs actually deployed. So take this video for a grain of salt.

There are many aspects that must be taken into account prior to the purchase of one of these systems. First, of course, there's affordability. Second, there's the difficulty of refilling the cartridge. Third, there's the question of how easy it is to stow and retrieve the trigger. And lastly, one's perception of a given brand and indeed, even one's loyalty to it.

Before making any purchasing decisions, you must look at the advantages and disadvantages of three main aspects of this system.

  1. What type of gas is being used to inflate the balloon chamber?
  2. How many balloons are being inflated?
  3. What type of mechanism is being used to trigger the deployment of the balloon(s)?

To decide what kind of gas (compressed air or nitrogen) is the most appropriate for you, first and foremost, you must think about where you are going to use your pack. Air temperatures and altitude may have an effect on cartridge performance and in effect, the speed by which the gas moves from the cartridge to the balloon(s).  It appears that the compressed air  used in BCA packs works a little better at lower altitudes, while nitrogen works a little bit better up high.

One additional concern that should be mentioned is the difficulty that some have had taking these backpacks abroad.  For some reason the TSA doesn't like weird cartridges of gas stashed inside backpacks on their planes...

The terrain that you're skiing is another factor to take into account. If you are skiing in a place where there are lots of sharp trees and branches, or in a place where there are a lot of sharp rocks, there is the possibility that you are going to puncture a balloon.  Some systems employ a two balloon pack with two valves for two reasons -- first, in case one of the valves malfunctions; and second, in case one of the balloons is punctured after deployment.  Some brands have worked hard to develop a configuration that provides more "floatability" by playing with the volume and spatial adjustability of the balloons...

The triggering system should also be considered. In the previous video it's clear that there were multiple problems with the trigger for the Wary pack.

If you are going to be using the pack as a recreationalist you may have different needs than a ski patroller or a guide. Why? Because each group has different needs.  The recreationalist needs affordability and (hopefully) functionality with a simple pull.  Professionals often use packs with mini-explosives that (according to the respective marketing departments) will guarantee deployment above and beyond the minimum standards.  And lastly, a guide may want a remote control triggering mechanism in case one of his or her participants is in a slide, but fails to trigger the system.

Now the real trick of these packs is not that they might "save" you from an avalanche. Instead, it's that they might trick you into a false sense of security.  The pack will give you a better chance if you're in a slide, but it won't save your from drop-offs or trees or boulders or any number of other terrible things that could happen to you if you're involved in a slide. The best tool that you have to avoid an avalanche is your own brain and your own ability to use it.  If you haven't taken an avalanche course, then you're missing the key ingredient.

WildSnow has done a great job evaluating the packs shown in the video as well as a number of airbag backpacks.  Before purchasing any of these packs, you should definitely take a close look at their blog on the subject.  To read it, click here.

Our avalanche instructors have indicated that they believe these packs will be industry standard within five years.  So if you don't have one yet, you should start to look at them...

...I know I am...

Jason D. Martin and Richard Riquelme

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