Mountain Skills: Should I Stay or Should I Blow?

Relatively speaking, airbags are a new tool in North American avalanche safety. Yet they’re proving to be a great tool in any backcountry kit. It’s important, however, to keep them classified as just that—a tool; something that may improve your chances of surviving an avalanche, depending on the circumstances.

In the past few years I’ve seen multiple instances of inexperienced riders complacently blowing their airbag upon triggering a small slide, instead of actively trying to ride off the slab onto safe snow. The resulting rides—potentially ending in trauma hazards lurking in the runout—could have been avoided.

It’s imperative that we keep in mind that airbags are the absolute last line of defense in an avalanche, and that actively trying to escape moving snow is still our best option after triggering a slab. Here’s why.

Interpreting the Statistics

The first statistics on airbag effectiveness came from Europe, as the technology was adapted there first. The issue with this is that the majority of ski terrain in the Alps is above tree line where the major avalanche hazard is burial. This is where airbags prove most effective.

Bruce Tremper’s 2013 article on airbag effectiveness broke the stats down quite clearly. First, the 97-percent survival rate that marketing departments love to latch onto does not take into account that somewhere 80-to-90-percent of victims would have survived anyway (via actively escaping the slab/digging into the bed surface/staying on top due to runout/etc.). Secondly, it’s really a matter of terrain. An airbag has a significantly smaller chance of promoting survival if there are hazards in the runout such as terrain traps (deep burials) or trees and rocks (trauma).

Statistics in North America may eventually paint a different picture than that of Europe. The majority of winter backcountry skiing where dry-snow avalanches are a problem happens at or below tree line. The issue here is that trauma hazards are a bigger issue than burials, in most cases, and airbags aren’t nearly as effective in this terrain.

Freeskier Aymar Navarro, in an ABS promo video, puts his airbag to the test in the Spanish Pyrenees. But could he have done more to actively escape this avalanche?

Develop A Plan

Before dropping in, always have a plan for escape routes, safe zones and communication points. The main goal here is to quickly put this plan into action to actively escape any moving snow. In this plan, include a discussion of the terrain—specifically the runout, its trauma hazards and terrain traps and how those pertain to using an airbag. This thought process will help you evaluate the possibility of taking a ride and will also keep you situationally aware of roughly where on the slope you are at all times.

Plot Your Escape – Fight!

Actively trying to escape an avalanche is still the most productive thing to do when getting caught. This is terrain dependent, but your plan should include the following:

  • Attempt to ski off the slab onto non-moving snow.
  • Dig into the bed surface, allowing the snow to rush past you (dig in with skis/poles/arms/etc.).
  • Hug a tree. (Note: Stop above trees for safe zones, making it easier to hug one if the slope fails.)
  • Fight like hell to stay on top and backstroke to get above the moving snow or to get higher upslope.

BLOW!

So you’ve fought like hell to get off the slide, but now feel wrapped up in the flow with little opportunity for escape. Don’t give up—continue fighting and looking for any way to get off the moving snow or let it rush past you. The critical part of the whole scene is the plan you made before dropping in. This will help with the situational awareness necessary to fight your way out of the slide instead of pulling the trigger in a panic.

Most manufacturers recommend test deploying your bag once a year, and I’d suggest loading up your pack for a day of skiing, throwing on your helmet and goggles and giving’er. You’d be surprised how your field of vision is hampered, and that the pack may even try to reorient your helmet upon deployment. Get familiar with the feeling, and make yourself acquainted with where your trigger sits without looking at it. Note how blowing your bag immediately may affect your ability to escape a slide.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use your airbag. But I do believe that the stats are a bit misleading and relying on an airbag to bring you to safety may be inappropriate. Airbags will do little to provide safety when the terrain doesn’t provide you a clean runout. Therefore, incorporate the airbag discussion into an escape plan to help prioritize trying to actively escape, giving you the awareness to wait for a few moments before pulling the trigger.

Zach Berman is a lead guide for Alaska Heliskiing in Haines, Alaska, and teaches avalanche courses for the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center & American Avalanche Institute. When he’s not teaching or guiding, Zach searches for pow stashes around Southwest Montana.

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Comments

  1. GREAT ARTICLE!

  2. Yeah Zach! Nice article.

  3. Yeah glad you said that about Mr. Navarro’s ride. It sure looks like he would have had a decent chance to fight his way to the right after his first air, or maybe he was just going too fast and had all his weight too far back to turn. Easy to say after the moment. Trying to hit the brakes, let more snow get ahead of you and steer off sure makes more sense than trying to go in front of all that weight.
    But this one http://www.businessinsider.com/skier-hit-by-avalanche-video-2013-9
    are you kidding me?

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