Whether snowboarding, hiking or skiing, avalanches are a serious danger. In the United States alone, between 20 and 30 people have lost their lives to avalanches every year since the early 1990s. Often the cause of death is due to the weight of the snow, which can cause massive internal injuries, crush a person or suffocate.
Last night at an event for sports equipment retail vendors, outdoor gear company, North Face, debuted a new avalanche survival technology based on the car air bag concept. Called the Avalanche Airbag Safety System (ABS), the equipment will be included in the company's ABS Patrol 24 line of backpacks and vests that are both scheduled to be available next year in high-end, specialty stores geared to serious climbers.
The backpack has a small pull-cord on the strap, which uses nitrogen to inflate two bags that look something like wings. (Nitrogen has fewer restrictions for travel in airplanes than other gases, though in the United States, it still requires Transportation Security Administration approval). The idea is to help the hiker, skier or snowboarder stay close to the top of the snow when an avalanche hits. Minimizing the depth of burial or avoiding it altogether, as survival rates drop dramatically with time buried. The pack is also re-usable, as the air bags can be folded back into their housings and a new nitrogen canister added.
Xavier de le Rue, who represented France in snowboarding at the 2010 Winter Olympics, pushed for The North Face to include the technology in the backpacks after nearly being killed in an avalanche in 2008. As he demonstrated the backpack for the crowd, le Rue said he won't go snowboarding without it. "This saved my life a couple of years ago," le Rue said. "It allowed me to stay on top of 20 feet of snow."
The pull cord means it is always ready to go, an important point in an avalanche. I asked if one would see an avalanche coming, or hear it. The answer: not always. "It almost looks like there's just all this snow around you," he said.
The air bag system would be used in combination with other safety equipment. The U.S. Forest Service's National Avalanche Center recommends having a probe, a sturdy shovel and a beacon, as well as an avalung (a kind of emergency breathing device). But the air bags will make it safer for snowboarders and skiers who want to tackle those backcountry slopes.
Image: Jesse Emspak