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Airbags, i-Probes, & Avalungs! what are we talking about???


Airbags, i-Probes, & Avalungs:
Believe it or not, we’re talking about backcountry ski gear. Specifically, avalanche safety gear. With 100’s of products on the market these days it’s hard to know what it all does, and just what it is that you really need when you’re skiing beyond the boundaries. A shovel, beacon, and probe are still the standard, but what about all this other innovative gear? I’d argue that a lot of the new gear is great, and could be just the ticket if you’re in a particular jam. (Although none of it compares with education, training, and years of backcountry experience). So the question still remains, what products do you buy?

First, decide how you ski in the backcountry. Your gear set-up will vary depending on your program (and how much weight you’re willing to carry!). Are you a resort skier who slips out of bounds on 5-10 occasions each season? A skins only backcountry purist? A heli-skier? A snowmobiler?
Second, check on the basics of what should be in your pack before you get into the fancy gadgets.

Side note: While guiding on Denali years ago there was a team camped 30 yards away from us that had a laptop with satellite link and up to the min weather reports. Yes! We were riding out a 4-day storm and were thankful for some weather info. The irony? As the storm died out, and the well worn trail in the snow was now long gone, they came to us and asked “Which way to the next camp?” They had no map, compass, or bearings to navigate with.

For a VERY detailed review of just about all of the legitimate avalanche safety equipment on the market, you should consult the WildSnow Blog. Check it out at:

As far as the airbag, i-Probe, & Avalung? Here are my 2 cents.

The Avalung has actually been on the market for quite awhile. It is made by Black Diamond and has been proven to save lives. Its primary function is to bring fresh O2 to a buried victim. Because, approximately one third of avalanche victims die from trauma and two thirds die from suffocation this piece of gear has become a popular choice among many BC skiers. These days the Avalung is frequently built right into your favorite BD pack. Here’s how it works. Once you are buried in an avalanche the debris will come to a halt and “set-up” like concrete around your body. Once the snow is packed around your face and you begin to exhale carbon dioxide, it is only a matter of time before an ice layer has formed and you can no longer get usable O2 from the snowpack. (Much like putting a plastic bag over your head). To alleviate this, a snorkel-like tube allows you to push your used O2 out of a vent located behind your back, thereby allowing you to continue drawing usable O2 from the snowpack. It’s a great invention.
A few drawbacks might include: The price: The Avalung adds about $100 to the cost of your BD backcountry ski pack. The weight: If you are trying to shave weight off of your pack this will not help. (Add at least a pound) Getting fully buried: Statistics don’t show an overwhelming amount of people getting fully buried each year. Keeping it in your mouth may be a challenge. Being caught in an avalanche is a very violent affair. Hard to say if you will be able to keep you pack on. (much less keep a snorkel in your mouth).
The i-Probe is made by Pieps and looks like a standard probe with a mini beacon built right into it. (Thicker and heavier) It is designed to work when you have gotten within 2 meters of the buried victim. The probe will give you an acoustic tone and LED lights when it picks up the transmitting beacon. If used with other beacons that “support the i-Probe function” it can “mark” or deactivate the transmitting beacon so you can move on to the next buried beacon without interference.
A few drawbacks might include: The price of an i-Probe is approximately $190; a quality probe is approximately $45. The weight. A standard probe might weigh 240 grams. The i-Probe weighs 390 grams. The (unrealistic) specific nature of the probe requires that your partners all ski with Pieps beacons that support the i-Probe function. Not to mention you need to find yourself in a situation that has two or more victims fully buried close enough to one another that marking a victim is warranted. Again, statistics don’t suggest that there are an overwhelming amount of accidents in which two or more people are fully buried and are located in close proximity.

Finally we have the airbag. An airbags is essentially a balloon that can be automatically inflated if you are caught in an avalanche. Compressed air (or gas) rapidly fills a “bag” as it emerges from the top of your pack allowing you a better chance of staying on the surface once the avalanche stops. Statistics show a much higher survival rate when a victim is only partially buried or not buried at all! (Think about shaking up that box of cereal as a kid. The toy almost always surfaced after a min or two!) Because the airbag can almost eliminate two thirds of avalanche victims (dying from suffocation) it is probably the hottest avy product on the market. Ski patrols and heli-ski operations are increasingly mandating their use, and snowmobilers are rapidly scooping them up. Because multiple companies are now selling them in the US, prices are dropping. Not to mention the media and advertising blitz that is in full swing. No question these will continue to drop in size, weight, price, and grow in popularity.
A few drawbacks might include: The price range is approximately $700-1200. The weight is approximately 7-8 lbs. (Versus 3-4 lbs for a non-airbag pack) Pack options are limited. Some are user friendly and have all the good stuff you have become accomstomed to, many don't. Trees, cliffs, crevasses, and other hazards can still get you, staying on the surface is just part of the battle.
Of the three items mentioned in this post. I’d recommend the airbag in conjunction with an easy to use beacon, shovel, and probe.
At the end of the day you have to decide just how much money you want to spend and how much gear you want to haul around with you. Ultimately I'd argue it is the decision making that occurs during your adventure that will probably keep you alive, not all the gear you purchased.

Reader poll. Which would you bring along on a multiday backcountry ski tour that might,or might not, have cell phone coverage? A “Spot” emergency beacon or a GPS?

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