The ski gear that could save lives

As prime avalanche season approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, experts are pointing to the benefits of avalanche airbag systems – but the FAA prohibits them.

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.

According to ski lore, the airbags were first invented in the 1970s by a German forester who noticed a peculiar phenomenon. After an avalanche hit, the big trees stayed on top of debris, while little trees were buried. This is also known as the “Brazil nut” theory, which holds that the best way to get a large nut out of a bowl of mixed nuts isn’t to root around for it, but to shake the whole bowl. Since avalanches are comprised of many particles of snow, being one of the “larger particles” helps keep airbag-wearers closer to the surface. The first airbag system was patented, and the company ABS founded, in 1980.

Even in the US, there are ways around the airbag prohibition. Some types of empty canisters are allowed, so skiers may be able to travel with their canisters and then refill them at dedicated stations. Skiers also can ship the canister ahead, or rent them at a resort. But not every ski destination has an easily accessible refilling station or rental point, particularly for those heli-skiing in remote locations. “It definitely limits where I take my airbag. And it limits how you’re going to get there,” said Dale Atkins, former president of the American Avalanche Association and a current educator in avalanche safety technology.

A new device entering the market in August, pioneered by Utah-based Black Diamond, provides another workaround. Instead of a pressurised gas container, the backpack uses a lithium-ion battery to power the airbag with a fan. The system also pumps in more air every 30 seconds for three minutes, just in case debris or a branch punctures a hole in the bag. And at the end of the three minutes – the point by which most avalanches finish – the fan sucks the air back out, leaving a pocket and, potentially, room to move.

The system’s mid-sized version, spokesperson John DiCuollo said, will retail for $1,100.

That cost, some said, might be an even bigger deterrent to skiers than FAA restrictions. The classic canister-powered packs can be equally expensive, ranging from about $400 to more than $1,000 (although serious skiers, who can spend $800 for skis and bindings alone, are no strangers to large expenses). But the biggest deterrent, according to Atkins, is even simpler: most people think they’ll never need the technology. “The reason accidents happen is that we don’t think we’re going to have accidents,” he said.

Avalanche experts caution that an airbag is no panacea. Skiers caught in avalanches with airbags still get killed. If a skier is pushed off a cliff, gets stuck in a divot or suffers trauma from hitting rocks or trees, an airbag deployment may be useless. Others warn that wearing an airbag can give users a feeling of invincibility, encouraging them to take risks they normally would not. “If people are using the airbags, thinking it’s going to be like Superman’s cape, and they’re pushing the boundaries, they’re an accident just waiting for a place to happen,” Atkins said.

Of course, the easiest way to avoid injury is to avoid the avalanche itself. For that, experts counsel backcountry skiers to get properly trained in threat detection and rescue, and to travel with people who are both skilled and capable of turning around – even from perfect, untouched powder. “Surviving an avalanche is all about luck, and all of these devices put us in a place to be lucky,” Atkins said. “But we need to travel as if we left them at home, because the avalanche does not care how much technology we have on us when we’re buried.”