The avalanche airbag pack may be the most effective piece of safety equipment developed in the last 25 years. In our AIARE 1 and AIARE Avalanche Rescue we focus on training students to use beacons, probe and shovels to execute a companion rescue. These are crucial skills but not everyone practices these skills often enough to stay proficient. If you are caught in a large slide your survival depends on the rescue skills of your companions to get you out fast and a bit of luck. Luck is essential because a quarter of the victims involved in a large slide will be killed by trauma–violent collisions with rocks and trees on the way down the slope.
The best current interpretation of data collected from victims caught in large slides is that an inflated airbag pack will cut your chance of being killed in half. Staying on top of the flowing snow may help to reduce deaths from trauma. This is a big margin of safety that you can give yourself which doesn’t depend on being rescued by someone else. Airbag packs are only expensive when compared to the cost of traditional packs. When you look at the total investment required to travel in the backcountry the extra cost is small.
It’s worth noting that wearing an airbag does nothing to increase your safety if it isn’t inflated. While that may seem obvious the data shows a clear trend of recreational users failing to deploy their airbags more often than professional skiers. A possible explanation is that recreational travelers see fewer slides that pros and may not realize the severity of a slide in time.
There is also a certain percentage of packs that fail to inflate properly due to maintenance problems. Backcountry Access recommends checking your Float airbag at the start of each season. Deploy the airbag to confirm that the trigger and venturi are working property and that there are no holes in the bag. Afterwards get your cylinder valve serviced. The trigger mechanism benefits from being lubricated and having the critical O-rings replaced. Have the cylinder refilled to a full charge. Now you are ready for the season.
I use my airbag on any single-day trip when there is a chance I may be travelling across avalanche terrain. Many guide services and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center require their employees to use airbags at all times in the backcountry as part of their risk management system. Jeff Ward, the AMGA 2017 Guide of the Year, says, if you always carry your airbag you soon get used to the extra weight and it just becomes part of your routine. If you only take your airbag when you anticipate extra exposure you may get caught not having it when a slide takes you by surprise.
Written by CMS Guide: Thomas White