Avalanche safety has become more than a guiding principle for mountain travelers, it has become a business where, for a price, technology and education merge to save lives…
Three examples illustrate this: Avalanche safety classes which have become a veritable rite of passage for backcountry skiers, avalanche transceivers, and airbag packs. Transceivers are considered an essential form of rescue insurance. Knowledge of the factors that cause avalanches are important to buffer reliance on luck for avoiding them, and airbag packs are the best way to survive them if caught. Each one has become a reliable source of revenue for those who offer them, and a budgetary requirement for those in need.
While retailers are not generally in the business of providing avalanche education, it has become a form of soft marketing and a way to build rapport with customers to offer introductory, one-night avalanche awareness seminars. I’ll suggest there is one more step retailers should consider if they don’t already, and that is to make sure that their sales staff take an AIARE Level I Course. This could be considered a benefit to working at a shop, and will improve credibility when talking about the technology that drives avalanche beacon and airbag pack performance.
With that in mind, here’s a list of new avalanche safety related products for the 2016/17 ski season.
Avalanche transceivers have always been a form of last resort insurance, allowing the wearer to be found if they should be caught in an avalanche and buried. Whether or not they are found alive depends on many factors, including how easy they are to use. Until Backcountry Access developed the Tracker DTS with dual-antennas to provide distance and direction info, the key to a successful rescue was dependent on users knowing, via practice, how to search and dig. With multiple antenna technology the need to practice searching was reduced, but not eliminated. For the next ten years beacon manufacturers leap-frogged each other with improvements in that technology, adding the ability to find more than one victim quickly.
In the end, the Peter Principle took effect, because the improvements in multiple victim search technology were still dependent on practice and education, the original hallmarks of successful avalanche rescues. Thus, dramatic advances in beacon technology have effectively ceased. But that doesn’t mean there are no changes, but the shift in focus is now for the beacon to be part of an overall mix of products to deal with the consequences of being caught.
To that end, Arva will unveil a new beacon with new functionality but at press time were unwilling to provide any details.
BCA is refining their Tracker 3 for next season with new firmware (version 3.3) that changes the audio cues to mimick the tried and true sounds of the Tracker 2. In addition the “big picture” mode is improved and v3.3 allows the comprehensive self-check to be exported so fleets can keep records of a beacons functional history.
Pieps will introduce the Micro for next season, a smaller, three-antenna avalanche transceiver. Being smaller it won’t have record-breaking range, but it will carry on with Pieps intuitive visual clues courtesy of a large display and big fonts. It’s light too, only five ounces (150 g). New light and motion sensor technology switches it to receive automatically when removed from its harness.
While beacon technology was limiting out, the decades old concept of airbags had an undeniable track record of saves by keeping victims on or near the surface. When it was realized that ABS’s proprietary use of Nitrogen wasn’t required to get the same results the race began to develop alternate airbag packs.
Voltair, Arc’teryx’ long anticipated Airbag Pack, will be available to a closely controlled group of beta testers this season, and the anxious consumer come Fall 2016. Like Black Diamond’s battery powered, fan fed airbag, Arc’teryx relies on electricity to power, not a fan, but a centrifugal blower to inflate an airbag that wraps on three sides of the users head. This system allows a user to practice inflating and the subsequent repacking several times for a fraction of the cost of systems using compressed gases. The benefit to users is their ability to build familiarity with a system that has the potential to save their life. Gordon Rose, Senior Design Engineer at Arc’teryx said, “In a high consequence situation, you don’t rise to the occasion, you fall back on your training.”
While the Voltair doesn’t use cartridges of compressed gas that are restricted for air travel by the common man, the 22.2-volt lithium ion battery powering the blower, lithium ion batteries have a bad reputation with the TSA. To prevent their ire, the Voltair has a quick disconnect harness so the battery can be accessible, on-board and thus extinguishable in the unlikely yet possible event that it bursts into flame.
Black Diamond was the first to introduce this fan-based airbag technology to consumers last year. They’ve already had their first recall to force upgrading the software that controls the process from trigger to inflation. Satisfied that potential problems have been solved they have no plans for any further revisions to the pack or its components for next season. As a new concept in the airbag arena seeing verifiable results before changing anything more sounds prudent. The prime advantage of Black Diamond’s fan powered JetForce system is the ability to deploy the bag multiple times with a single charge, plus the ability to easily recharge it.
Overall Mammut’s airbag pack line, from a pack layout perspective will remain largely unchanged. However, the heart of the airbag system will undergo its first significant revision since being acquired from SnowPulse. Everything but the actual cartridge is refined to improve functionality and reduce weight. The same refillable cartridge of compressed air will work with the original and updated P.A.S. and R.A.S. Bags, but other parts are not interchangeable. The most dramatic change is a synthesis of the venturi valve and cable triggers into a single molded unit to reduce potential errors when connecting the cartridge, increase strength, and save weight.
The trigger will be easier to pull, due to more adjustability in the trigger position, and a more defined trigger point. The ability to do a dry-run trigger pull so users can mentally calibrate the pull strength required will remain.
The airbag itself will be lighter, yet stronger making it more resistant to tears or punctures, and lower volume when packed. Colorwise the bag will be a brighter orange for better visibility in low light conditions with some slight 3D sculpting changes to the shape; which will make the shoulder straps of the PAS version less bulky and more comfortable to wear.
The details are still unfolding at press time but Ortovox will be delivering airbag packs next season with new plumbing that uses a single airbag behind the head instead of ABS’s classic two-bag system running extending on either side of the pack. This will make configuring the pack easier for carrying skis or a snowboard without interfering with the bag’s functionality. It also means a simpler, lighter design for overall pack construction and organization.
Perhaps the biggest news regarding product updates from Backcountry Access is the addition of K2’s avalanche safety-related products under the Backcountry Access umbrella and the cessation of K2 branded Airbag Packs. That makes more cents than projecting out how many of the same product will sell with different logos.
Next season K2’s Backside products, like the Shaxe and Rescue Shovels will now be marketed under the Backcountry Access brand. The only obvious change to the Rescue shovels are new colors, and the Extendable Rescue shovel includes four bolts with wing nuts that fit inside the shaft for building a rescue sled from a pair of skis and the shovel parts. New for this year is a Shaxe that pairs with a straight, or curved ice axe shaft.
The Float packs undergo an obligatory revision to steadily refine their functionality. Backcountry Access Revised Float 42 with a molded foam back panel reinforced with a central aluminum stay in the plastic frame sheet allowing for better load carrying. Besides improving the frame, the waist belt can now be moved up or down to provide a better fit for small, medium and large sized torsos.
Scott entered the fray two years ago by adapting the technology used to inflate life vests in water to inflate an airbag on a pack. As with other systems, it uses compressed gases with a venturi valve to inflate the airbag. Called the Alp Air System, it uses two small cartridges of compressed gases – one inert Argon the other carbon dioxide. The beauty of this system is that the cartridges are small, cheaper than the competition, and approved for air travel by IATA. The inference is that the TSA will let them on an airplane too, but we all know how fickle they can be. Nothing new from Scott on the airbag fronts other than a few revisions to pack layouts.
Now comes the irony of airbag packs. Statistically we know that users of airbag packs are more likely than not to survive if caught in an avalanche. This of course presumes the user triggers the airbag quickly and the airbag inflates correctly. Survival is still not guaranteed because the operating principle is not the ability to float on top of the avalanche flow but rather the probability in a turbulent flow of material for larger bodies to rise to the top while smaller ones sift their way to the bottom. The airbag increases the size of the snow rider so that they tend to end up, if not on top, at least close to it making a subsequent rescue more likely.
So while the use of airbag packs for backcountry skiers improves their chances of survival, does this knowledge cause users to tempt fate more often? If you’re likely to win a gamble, does that mean you’re more likely to gamble? With your life?
From personal experience, I can assure you the temptation to rely on an airbag’s increased survival chances will most definitely cause you to take chances you might otherwise have not. No other avalanche rescue technology ever tickled that sense of invincibility because the probability of being buried was unchanged by an avalanche transceiver or AvaLung pack. Those tools simply increased the likelihood you could be rescued after the fact. My response to the temptation of airbag packs might not be a universal result, but it is certainly bound to affect those who are naturally inclined to take greater risks and the proliferation of videos showing snow riders surviving avalanches reinforce that view.
Dale Atkins, avalanche pro and former president of the American Avalanche Association reflected on the shift in attitude that has resulted from airbag packs. “We carried technology as a backup in case we messed up. Today’s riders are using technology to justify going into dangerous places, ‘cuz that’s the fun stuff, and they’re doing it during periods of high instability. They’re thinking technology will save them.”
Dave Furman, Hardgoods Manager for Mammut USA thinks this is a temporary phenomenon and that over time backcountry snow travelers will realize getting caught still exposes them to death by trauma and survival chances are only increased when there are no trees or cliffs in the path of the avalanche. Over time he expects the increased survival odds of Airbag Packs to be replaced by the time- honored practice of avoidance.
Let’s hope he’s right. Otherwise, the chances of surviving an avalanche could be cancelled out by taking more chances.
— Craig Dostie was bit by the backcountry bug more than 30 years ago.Afterlearning the secrets of earning turns with locked and free heels heturnedrabid and started publishing Couloir, the first magazine devotedexclusively to backcountry skiing in all its forms. Telemark has infected hispreference for hunting powder. He’s a senior editor with BackcountryMagazine and publishes EarnYourTurns.com.