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In 2018, an avalanche violently threw Dave Watson ski scooter off God’s Wall, a narrow 50-degree slide at Oregon’s Mount Hood Meadows winter resort. The avalanche swept him over rocks, swept him off a cliff, and dragged him through trees. Watson stood face down, unconscious, wrapped around a suitcase. A tiny corner of his airbag was visible through the debris, allowing his ski partners to quickly locate and dig him out. “The airbag saved my life 100 percent,” he says.
Last winter there was a record number of avalanche deaths in the US – 37 – in part due to the surge in winter sports in the hinterland. For journeys through dangerous terrain, the trifecta consisting of transceiver, shovel and probe were long considered non-negotiable avalanche protection equipment. However, research shows that airbags are likely to save more lives than transceivers. They greatly reduce the likelihood of burial, have the potential to reduce trauma, and potentially extend survival if someone is buried by creating an air bubble. Why weren’t they widely accepted?
How airbags work
Airbags were invented in 1985 by entrepreneurs and heliskiers Peter Aschauerwho recognized that they could use the principle of granular convection to prevent people from being buried deep: large-volume particles migrate upwards in a current. Initially, airbags became popular in Europe, but were slow to take hold in North America, where snowmobiles were early adopters. Two key Studies from the Alps and Canada support their effectiveness: 141 accidents were analyzed from 1994 to 2003 and it was found that airbags reduce the probability of death from 19 to 3 percent. The others analyzed accidents over almost two decades and found that airbags drastically reduce the likelihood of a critical burial (head under the snow with blocked airways) from 47 percent to 20 percent. This is critically important as 44 percent of people who die critically in a slide are buried (compared to just 3 percent of those who are partially buried).
In 2012, Researcher from the Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research triggered four avalanches using crash test dummies. Eighty percent of the dummies without airbags were completely buried, but 100 percent of the dummies with airbags wrapped themselves at least partially in the blanket of snow, eliminating the need to search for transceivers. (It is important to note that full burials with airbags are possible in the field still occur.)
Airbags are also likely to help prevent trauma, according to experts at the Wilderness Medical Society, although it is not known to what extent. Anecdotes like Watson’s are compelling; the 170-liter balloon on his back protected him from stones and trees, he says.
In addition to reducing the chance of spills and trauma, airbags can help prevent suffocation. We know that an air bubble is essential to survival in a funeral. An airbag that Black Diamond Jetforce Pro, automatically deflates three minutes after inflating to leave an air bubble. Utah Doctor Scott McIntosh buried a dozen volunteers to test this concept. Participants were buried under 1.5 meters of snow with an inflated airbag, which was then deflated. They were monitored for oxygen saturation, carbon dioxide, and other vital signs. Eleven stayed under the snow for an hour without becoming hypoxic. “In cases that result in a complete burial with a properly inflated airbag, the air bubble can mean the difference between life and death,” says McIntosh.
In comparison, transceivers only work when a person is buried, require a skilled partner, and are unlikely to save as many lives. Invented by a Cornell professor John Lawton In 1968 transceivers reduce buried mortality only by 15 percent, according to two studies. Transceivers do little to prevent the 24 percent of avalanche deaths from trauma. And while transceiver the burial time of two hours to 25 minutes, the chance of survival decreases after ten minutes of burial. Even with a successful transceiver search, it is often too late.
So if airbags save lives by reducing spillage, lessening trauma, and potentially creating an air bubble, why don’t we use them all the time?
Obstacles to widespread use
Two possible reasons: Airbags are heavy and expensive. They start at 4.5 pounds and $ 700 and march up. But avalanche expert Dale Atkins Believes that price is not necessarily a factor as consumers often turn to expensive new technology. (Salomon Shift bindings costs $ 600 and a jacket for example, Arc’teryx can cost you $ 750.)
However, weight does matter. Scott Schell, Managing Director of Northwest avalanche centersays professionals and guides alike often shy away from the additional burden. “Weight is a big deal when you backpack 150 days a year,” he says. Schell points out, however, that the guides carry first aid kits, repair kits and evacuation sleds with them regardless of weight.
This leads to a crucial problem: airbags are not consistently endorsed by experts. “The public accepted airbags before the professionals, which was not the case with the transceiver, shovel and probe,” says Schell.
Most North American avalanche rescue organizations have little to say about airbags. Ethan Green, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), considers airbags to be a “secondary equipment level”. the Canadian Avalanche Association requires a transceiver, shovel, and probe for its courses, but doesn’t mention airbags. Avalanche Canada lists transceiver, shovel and probe as “essential” and an airbag as “recommended”. And the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education lists airbags as “additional safety equipment”. Schell believes the industry needs to take the lead and make a recommendation to the public.
Some experts fear that airbags could create a false sense of security and that if they spread more widely, people would take more risks. But that argument could apply to any number of safety devices, including transceivers and helmets, and we still use them. Turn off your transceiver at the top of a steep hill and see how you feel, Atkins suggests. Your risk taking will likely decrease. (Just turn it back on before you dismount!)
No safety tool is a guarantee, and skill and maintenance have a huge impact on the success rates of transceivers and airbags. The failure rate of the airbag is 20 percent, according to two studies, partly due to user error – for example, when the ripcord is not pulled. But transceivers also have user errors: people forget to turn them on, batteries die, and sometimes people just can’t locate a buried partner successfully. Atkins is committed to realistic simulations with airbags. “Do somersaults down a slope and try to use them,” he says. Atkins tried this three times and only succeeded twice.
The introduction of security products is never immediate or universal. Think car seat belts in the 1970s. It takes time to build up new habits and norms. Watson says some are reluctant to introduce new devices because they have longstanding routines or are reluctant to add new tasks to their list, like filling canisters or charging batteries. Others just think, “This won’t happen to me.” But Watson, who has made a full recovery, is now campaigning for an airbag to be deployed when you are in the avalanche area.
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