Monday, November 5, 2012

New Avalanche Airbag Research 

I have just completed an Autumn tour which included the ISSW and many Snow and Avalanche Workshops including the Northern Rockies SAW in Whitefish Montana, CSAW in Leadville, and USAW in Salt Lake.

First of all, a big thank you to Dave Hamre, Ted Steiner, Ethan Green, and Craig Gordon (among others) for their tremendous efforts to put on these workshops. They are excellent opportunities to stay connected to your snow and avalanche community and sharpen your avalanche senses before the coming winter.

There were some presenters this season whose research reflected directly upon Mammut's snow and avalanche products. Notably, Pascal Haegeli presented his research into the survival statistics of airbags. His paper can be found here:

ABS, a manufacturer of avalanche airbags, has often stated that avalanche victims who employ an airbag have a "97% survival rate." Well, we all know that statistics can be read in many ways. Pascal wanted to have a look for himself. My take away, after seeing Pascal's presentation, is this:

Avalanche airbags work. While statistical outcomes change depending on the variables considered, Pascal repeatedly found that wearing an avalanche airbag increased your survival chances by about 25%. This 25% increase in statistical survivability, combined with the high rate of survival provided by Lady Luck, accounts for a very high survival rate with all airbag users. While no-one should ever consider the airbag to be a silver bullet, Pascals findings verify what we at Mammut have long believed: reducing burial rates directly increase survival rates.

Pascal's paper brings some other important considerations to light. For one, it is disturbing that he finds over 37% of users unable to deploy their airbags in real life events. For me, this highlights the need, before every run, to do a trigger check, as well as occasional test deployments of your airbag pack to ensure it is working properly and that you understand how to deploy it. It is my personal belief that a significant number  of "unable to deploy" instances probably include some users that failed to arm their device.

Again, Airbags are not silver-bullets. People die despite wearing and using airbags. In fact, some people have even been buried despite deploying an airbag. Last year, an avalanche in Telluride tragically demonstrated that airbags can be punctured in rugged terrain. Events last year in Norway and Chamonix demonstrated that even with a deployed airbag, you can be buried (watch out for terrain traps and exposure from above!) And of course, there is the "Faster and Farther" issue: once an airbag is deployed in an avalanche your increased surface area will reduce your chances or self-arrest--you are that much more likely to be pushed to the toe of the slide (or towards objective hazard!) It is not in our interest to ignore these points. Rather, we must be experts with our safety gear. To be experts we must understand, accept, and consider the limitation of the device. Perhaps, in considering these limitations, we will be less likely to allow our safety equipment to give us a false sense of security. Of course, the best way to survive an avalanche will always be to prevent getting in one.

Silver-bullet or not, airbags will save lives. This was brought home to us all at the Northern Rockies SAW event when pro-skier Elyse Saugstad gave a first person account of surviving a very large avalanche last season at Steven's Pass in Washington State that took the lives of three of her friends.

Thank you to everyone who supported the ISSW and SAW events this season. For now, Pray For Snow!

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