Avalanche accidents continue to kill. If you freeride without an airbag you are taking an unnecessary risk. When there is a high avalanche alert you are playing Russian roulette.
In February Prince Johan Friso, second son of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, hit the headlines when he was caught in an avalanche in [R212R, Lech] in Austria and buried. He was dug clear by his companion who was wearing an ABS airbag, stayed on the surface, and was able to help him. Sadly doctors say the Princes brain is damaged and he may never regain consciousness.
Avalanche rescue dogs at work in Washington state, USA.
At about the same time in the United States four top skiers were caught in an avalanche in Washington state. One survived - pro freerider Elyse Saugstad - she alone was wearing an airbag and stayed on the surface.
Elyse Saugstad told Bill Whitaker of CBS what it was like. The avalanche threw her 200 metres in 30 seconds. She said, "We didn't really hear anything and then my partner started screaming, 'Elyse, avalanche! Elyse, avalanche!' and at that time I was being swept in. It happened so quickly. As it started my first thought was it isn't that big. Within a second it immediately became much bigger. It feels like you're in a washing machine and you're being tossed and turned and it's all white and you don't know which way is up and down."
In 2008 Elyse was one of the four champions of the Freeride World Tour, winning first place for women skiers. Alongside her on the podium was another notable avalanche survivor, the top men's snowboarder, Frenchman Xavier de Le Rue. In March 2008, Xavier was filming in Switzerland and was caught in an avalanche that swept him an amazing two kilometres down the mountain. His ABS airbag kept him on the surface and his companions found him and got him to hospital with just a broken collar bone.
Xavier said, "I was caught in a huge avalanche in March 2008 and I definitely believe that it's only luck that allowed me to escape alive. Part of this luck was wearing my ABS avalanche airbag. I tried to ski out of it but I was caught in the snow and carried down the slope. My friends started looking at the top because they thought that if I was down in the gully I could not be alive. Fortunately the helicopter with us spotted something and Henrik skied down and found me on the surface."
Xavier Delerue talks about being caught in the avalanche:
Avalanche accidents are inevitable with the growing trend for the thrills of freeriding. Modern skis make it easy for a competent skier to handle deep powder. Sensational films of freeriders skiing and snowboarding down apparently impossible mountain routes have brought more skiers and boarders into high-risk areas. But airbags only reduce the risk. When 100,000 tons of snow sweeps you away among rocks and smashed trees, whatever safety equipment you take with you, your chances of survival are not good. Even so the figures speak for themselves. According to ABS over the last 12 years 95 percent of those caught in avalanches wearing ABS airbags survived because they stayed on the surface.
You can watch professional snowboarder Meeysh Hyntner inflate her ABC Float airbag and come through an avalanche apparently unruffled on this video. She was so unruffled that some internet cynics think it was just a very dangerous stunt. Either way her airbag kept her on the surface.
The development of airbags for avalanche survival has its roots in the experience of a forester in the 1970s. He was caught in an avalanche carrying a deer he had shot across his shoulders and stayed on the surface. When the same thing happened again he began to understand that increased bulk means you are more likely to stay on the surface. Even earlier famous French ski champion Emile Allais, then director of [R117R, Courchevel] kitted out his ‘pisteurs', working to dislodge unstable snow on dangerous slopes, with big bags of sawdust that had the same effect. When avalanche experts considered the phenomenon they soon realised it was an example of the rule in physics by which larger particles in movement rise to the surface and smaller ones sink to the bottom.
So the human body when bulked up tends to stay on the surface of an avalanche. The idea on which airbags are based were born from these early practical observations. At about the same time German engineer and skier Peter Aschauer was involved in a near fatal avalanche incident in Canada and developed an interest in the question of protection for skiers and boarders. He bought the first patents for an airbag and set up ABS. The ABS airbag has now evolved into twin bags that open in such a way as to keep the victim on the surface face up and facing in the direction of the avalanche. It is vital to keep the avalanche victim's face as clear of snow as possible and stop the human body acting as a drag anchor in the snow working against the floatation effect of the bags. ABS told OnThsnow that sales were increasing at around 20 percent a year.
With and without an airbag. Photo credit: ABS Airbags
Not everybody is convinced the airbag is a cure-all. In particular, the United States the mountains are more dangerous for freeriders than the relatively treeless Alps, with a greater risk of death by injury.
San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters from Colorado in the United States commented grimly on a recent case in the [R456R, Telluride] ski area on Feb. 13 where snowboarder Nate Soules equipped with Avalung and an airbag died in an avalanche. He said, "The important thing to realise here is, that thing [the airbag] was completely soaked in blood. It certainly deployed, but I don't think it would have made any difference."
Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center said, "They are great tools and they are saving people's lives, and we don't want to discount that. But they don't make you invulnerable. It's like thinking you can drive everywhere at 200 mph because you've got your seat belt on. It doesn't make any sense."
Here are top skier Mattias Mayr's rules for freeriders:
1. BRAIN: Use your brain at all times! Check the circumstances in general and the slope you want to ski down. The best way to survive an avalanche is not to start one.
2. FRIEND: If you trigger a slab or an avalanche, and even if you don´t get buried, just some broken bones because of the 100,000 tons of snow smashing you down the mountain, it´s always good to have a helping hand. Never freeride alone.
3. TRANSCEIVER: Your best friend, if he/she is not a dog, is useless if you lie buried under a thick blanket of snow in an area as big as a football pitch. Without a transceiver your chances of seeing each other again sink almost to zero. So always have your transceiver (Pieps/Arva) with you, turned on with batteries fully charged.
4. ABS: Fortunately, wearing an ABS Backpack is on the increase. It helps you to stay on the surface if you get caught in an avalanche. Sure, you have to remember to pull the ripcord to inflate the Airbags.
Avalanche safety and rescue gear. Note the plastic shovel should ideally be metal. Photo Credit: Nolispanmo/ABS Airbags
OnTheSnow talked to Frédéric Jarry, an accident expert at the Association nationale pour l'étude de la neige et des avalanches ANENA at Grenoble. He said every year in France alone there are 30-plus deaths from avalanches. Airbags are important but the RECCO system of reflectors attached to the skiers clothing and equipment also makes finding them easier. Frédéric added that the option of quick release bindings to avoid skis and particularly snowboards anchoring the victim and pulling against the airbag in the snow was in its infancy.
OnTheSnow also asked Frédéric about the use of airbags together with Avalungs that allow you to breathe when buried. He said, "The Avalung has the same problem as the airbag in that it requires the freerider to pull the rip cord to inflate the bags or set in motion the breathing gear when the avalanche hits. It requires considerable presence of mind in the few seconds available to trigger two systems at once. By staying on the surface the odds of survival are greatly increased so the airbag should have priority."
The chances of survival for a skier buried in an avalanche are approximately:
91 percent between 0 and 18 minutes; 34 percent between 18 and 35 minutes; 20 percent between 35 and 120 minutes; and 7 percent after 140 minutes.
Frédéric Jarry thinks that it is unrealistic to count on outside organised help that normally cannot get there within the critical 18 minutes. He said, "The search needs to be done by the companions of the victims. In 18 minutes even the people on the spot barely have time to find the victims and dig them out." He insists on the necessity of proper avalanche training first to recognise dangerous conditions and second to rescue the victims without fatal delay.
If you want to know how it feels to be trapped below the surface in an avalanche grit your teeth and watch this video.
The skier had a camera fixed to his helmet that went on running when he was buried. Then ask yourself whether an airbag is still too expensive at around £800. Concern about the cost is the main reason this lifesaving device is not used by more freeriders.
There are currently three airbags on the market, German ABS, Swiss Snowpulse now owned by Mammut and the U.S. BCA Float bag. More models are expected on the market for next season in particular concentrating on incorporating the airbag in a backpack.