When a nearly 200ft-long slab of snow cut loose from the side of Cowboy Mountain in Washington State’s Cascades on 19 February 2012, 16 of the industry’s most talented skiers and snowboarders were there for the fresh powder.
One was professional skier Elyse Saugstad, who was caught in a crush of snow that, by the time it stopped moving, weighed an estimated 11m pounds, comprised 13,000 cubic metres and had travelled as quickly as 70mph.
“Four of us were caught in the avalanche. And I’m the only one who survived,” she said. “I was the only one wearing that backpack.”
“That backpack” was no mere knapsack. Instead, it was an avalanche airbag system. If an avalanche begins, the wearer pulls a handle and the system’s airbags inflate (the system made by ABS, which Saugstad was using, adds a hefty 170 litres of air). The principle behind the design is simple: the bigger and lighter an object is, the more likely it is to wind up on, or close to, the avalanche’s surface.
As spring approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, warmer weather, sunnier skies and often still-significant snowfall continue to draw skiers and boarders to the slopes. But it is also prime avalanche season. Even though these slides tend to be composed of looser, and therefore less deadly, snow than the “slab” avalanches of winter, they still can kill. In the US alone, the 2012 to 2013 ski season saw 24 recorded fatalities from avalanches. Two occurred in February. Six were in March. Nine more occurred in April, including one slide, on 20 April at Colorado’s Loveland Pass, that claimed the lives of five snowboarders. This March, meanwhile, already has seen one recorded fatality: a backcountry skier who was caught in an avalanche at Conejos Peak, Colorado.
In a 2010 study conducted by the Swiss Avalanche Institute – the only study of its kind ever undertaken – of 262 avalanche victims who deployed ABS-brand airbag systems, 97% survived. Of the 67 victims caught in the same avalanches who didn’t have airbags, only 75% survived. The study covered all fatal avalanche accidents from 1991 to 2010.
But for travellers, there is a catch. As the cartridges that inflate the bags are pressurised, they are not allowed onto aeroplanes flying within the US, even as checked luggage.
Requests for interviews with the US’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Transportation Security Administration for this story were not granted. Self-inflating avalanche rescue backpacks, however, are specifically listed on the FAA’s list of prohibited materials, due to their compressed gas and small detonator that some systems use as a “trigger”. While the International Air Transport Administration also considers compressed gas cylinders hazardous in general, the body approves of the avalanche-specific canisters for either checked or carry-on luggage, thereby making the US the only country in the world to prohibit them. (Passengers outside the US are, however, required to inform the airline before their flight that they will be transporting the system).
“It’s so unfortunate, because it’s a life-saving device,” Saugstad said. Unlike the other victims in the 2012 Cowboy Mountain avalanche who were found buried under four to six feet of snow, Saugstad’s inflated airbags kept her close enough to the surface to allow her an air passageway. As some 75% of avalanche victims die of suffocation, not trauma, this saved her life. “I think we had a very similar experience of being in the avalanche, but the difference was that I was on top of the avalanche, due to my airbag,” she said. “And they were pulled below.”
Another skier, Daniel Buss, was in an avalanche with a friend in Kitzbuehl, Austria, in February 2010. They were caught at the same point on the hill. Buss had an airbag on him. She did not. “At the end of the slide, I was on top, buried up to the chest, and she was gone,” he said. Though his companion was buried 4.5m beneath the snow’s surface, her ski was pressed against Buss’s leg, allowing him to dig her out relatively quickly; while initially unconscious, she recovered. After the incident, Buss applied for a job at ABS, where he now is head of international sales.