Making a Case for Avalanche Airbags in the East

In almost every avalanche course I teach we have a discussion about the use of avalanche airbags. My opinions on this matter have changed over time in light of new information and advancements in technology. Earlier in my avalanche education days I would cite statistics such as 75% of avalanche fatalities on Mount Washington were caused by trauma, not asphyxiation, the mechanism of death that an avalanche air bag is supposed to reduce the chance of in certain situations. Therefore I would conclude, perhaps wrongly, that avalanche airbags did not seem as valuable in our unforgiving terrain. In this article I will present a new argument for the use of avalanche airbags in the East, specifically for the backcountry touring community. First, a bit of background information that may be useful to the uninitiated.

How They Work

Simply put an avalanche airbag backpack has a handle or “trigger” that gets pulled by the wearer when caught in an avalanche which then causes a deployment system, either compressed air or electronic, rapidly fill a large rugged “ballon” that was stored inside the backpack. This “ballon” basically works to keep the wearer closer to the surface of the snow in a moving avalanche via “granular convection“, often referred to as the “Brazilian nut effect”. This video shows the effectiveness quite well.

Here are a few other things I will note that are relevant to this video. First, backcountry snowboarders and split-boards should see the value in an avalanche airbag perhaps at a higher level than skiers. The reason for that is these travelers do not have release-able bindings and therefore are more likely to be pulled under the snow during the type of avalanche motion seen in this video, referred to as “wet flowing” in the snow science community. Second, this avalanche path is a good example of a path with a safe runout. An avalanche airbag deployment is less likely to result in a positive outcome if you have terrain traps below you i.e. rocks, trees, cliffs, gullies, crevasses, creeks, etc.

A Change in Demographic

Before 2019 the main demographic for avalanche fatalities on Mount Washington were either ice climbers or winter hikers (11) and only three skiers. There has been an obvious shift in how people are recreating in the terrain with a noticeable explosion of the backcountry touring population (AT skiers, Split-boarders, Tele). This change in usage increases the chance of a survivable avalanche in a few ways.

First, getting caught in an avalanche while on foot or while skinning low in an avalanche path is often more serious than triggering something from the top. While there’s obviously a fair amount of luck surviving any avalanche the first avalanche involvement of our season resulted in no injuries for the person who triggered the avalanche and was carried the full slide length while the victim who was hit mid-path suffered serious trauma. In January of 2016 while teaching an avalanche course in Tuckerman Ravine I watched 4 people get caught and carried in an avalanche right next to our class. The avalanche also hit a 5th person in the runout resulting in the most serious injuries of the incident. Last year’s well reported Wilson Glade quadruple fatality (Utah) also showed how getting caught in the up track while ascending can have more dire outcomes.

Second, while it is suggested that anyone recreating in avalanche terrain carry the appropriate safety gear (transceiver, probe, shovel, and perhaps an avalanche airbag) this author believes these items are still less likely to be carried by the eastern ice climber or mountaineer. The merits and justifications of this choice are for another topic but I will suggest the fact that the majority of backcountry touring parties are carrying basic avalanche safety gear this user group is more likely to survive an encounter with an avalanche than a group without these items.

A Increase in Acceptable Risk

In a recent survey of backcountry touring groups who travel in avalanche terrain I asked two questions. The first:

While not unexpected the majority responded they would consider touring in avalanche terrain under a “Moderate” danger level. The North American Avalanche Danger Scale describes the likelihood of a human triggered avalanche as “possible” under a Moderate level, and “likely”, under a Considerable level. Almost one in three respondents would consider traveling in avalanche terrain when both natural avalanches are “possible” and human triggered are “likely”.

While some research has shown that the most avalanche fatalities occur during a “Considerable” danger level:

Avalanche Airbags in the East
Graph courtesy of Colorado Information Center

Other research shows that “Moderate” is actually the danger level where most fatalities occur:

Avalanche Airbags in the East
Graph courtesy of Colorado Avalanche Information Center

Since these stats can be adjusted based on what data sets you are looking at I will just look at the fatalities and involvements I have personal experience with.

avalanche mount washington
The author buried to his waist in an avalanche in Oakes Gulf wondering why he wasn’t wearing his avalanche airbag on this Moderate level day, April 2019

At least four of the last 6 fatalities on Mount Washington occurred under a “Moderate” danger level. The majority of reported “near misses” and involvements occur under a “Moderate” danger level. As a region we also see a fair share of incidents when under a “General Advisory” early in the season before the Mount Washington Avalanche Center starts issued daily forecasts.

The second question I asked in the recent survey was:

Avalanche Airbags in the East

These results confirmed my suspicion that avalanche airbag usage in the East is still an exception and not common place. Based on the change in demographics, risk acceptance, and improvements in technology I believe we should see this change.

Improvements in Technology

Probably the biggest change an avalanche airbag technology is the growing availability, lower costs, and convenience of electronic airbag systems. Traditionally canister style avalanche airbags were the most common. Having to maintain a canister type system is likely a deterrent for many who might otherwise benefit from owning an avalanche airbag. Air travel with canister systems can be difficult, requiring you to discharge the system and find someplace at your destination that can refill your canister. You’d be less likely to practice deploying your airbag if the system only allowed one deployment. Now there are multiple electronic models that allow for multiple deployments, are easy to fly with, and can be charged anywhere you have an electric outlet. Some notable electronic models now available:

Scott Backcountry Patrol AP 30 Airbag Backpack + E1 Alpride Kit (SALE and my first pick)

Scott Patrol E1 40L Backpack Kit

Black Diamond Jetforce Tour 26L Backpack SALE

Black Diamond Jetforce Pro Split 25L Backpack SALE

Pieps Jetforce BT Booster 25L Avalanche Airbag Backpack SALE

Pieps Jetforce BT Booster 35L Avalanche Airbag Backpack SALE

Osprey Packs Sopris Pro Avy 30L Airbag Backpack- Women’s

The Paradigm Shift

The real reason for my change in opinion on the validity of avalanche airbags in the East is a bit personal. When looking at the last two avalanche fatalities on Mount Washington the case for more common airbag usage is clear to me. There is a very important similarity between the tragic deaths of Nicholas Benedix in 2019 and Ian Forgays in 2021. Both of these backcountry riders were caught and carried in their avalanches, likely with the “wet flowing” motion shown in the previous video, and both ended up buried under the snow without suffering any trauma. Certainly a nearby partner who was not caught in the avalanche and had the right rescue gear and training may have been able to make the “save”, but unfortunately both were alone and unwitnessed avalanches. Take home point for me here is riders who occasionally travel solo in avalanche terrain should certainly consider the added layer of protection an avalanche airbag might provide. On the same day as Nicholas’s avalanche I myself triggered a large avalanche a few drainages away and was lucky to only be buried up to my waist. One of my only thoughts as I saw the snow coming down from above me was I was not wearing my avalanche airbag. Even more recently was a miraculous save in the Adirondacks just a week ago after two skiers were caught, one fully buried and the other just enough to still get out and save his partner. They were the only two in the area and if but a few more inches of snow this would have been a double fatality.

Summary

Research shows avalanche airbags save lives, suggesting a deployed avalanche airbag will reduce mortality by 50% . While they should not be considered 100% protection against getting hurt or killed in an avalanche wearing one in avalanche terrain adds another layer of protection from the hazard. While the increase in backcountry travelers wearing avalanche transceivers has noticeably increased in the last 10 years I expect to see an increase in avalanche airbag use in the east over the next ten years, and for good reason. We just recently had our first avalanche transceiver full burial save in the eastern US, and I believe the first avalanche airbag save might not be that far in the future.

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6 thoughts on “Making a Case for Avalanche Airbags in the East

  1. A couple questions because I’m thinking if getting one (more for an Iceland trip that is postponed to next year)
    So do you have a break down on recommendations for when in the east coast to use them? Ex moderate or higher, when not in no-fall zones? I don’t use one in the east coast because of all the rocks, many no-fall zones, etc where I want the extra strength, dexterity, balance, and ease of movement to avoid slipping up near those dangers, which can come from not carrying that extra 5lbs of bulk.

    On that note, what’s your experience with how well they could potentially protect you (esp upperbody/head) from trauma and impact injuries? Will the balloon help lessen the impact or simply move/bounce out of the way of a rock causing your body to slam into it at full force?

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    • When to use them is a bit of a personal question but I will share how I am moving forward. I will be wearing my airbag anytime I am entering avalanche terrain with a non-isothermal snowpack. I have a partner who wears his 100% of the time and when I challenged his “always” type mindset he compared it to wearing a seatbelt in a vehicle… why spend effort deciding whether or not to wear it? He just does. And he argued the extra 5 lbs just makes him a stronger skier. I would ask if you really think that 5 extra pounds really effects your ski ability that much and if you can’t train to overcome any loss in technique? I have no hard evidence on how often the ballon may prevent trauma… I suspect the more import thing is how often they can prevent full burial.

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  2. I think the 2 biggest downfalls with them are price point and weight. Looking forward to advances in technology to make them both less expensive and lighter.

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    • I thought those were downsides awhile ago but I find it hard to feel that way when I look at how much many of us spend on the best clothing, touring setups, trips, etc. For me, the price is the least of an issue considering what the item might protect. There is a weight argument, though again the roughly 5 lb penalty seems pretty minimal considering the potential benefit. I’m sure with time they will continue to get lighter and less expensive, but I spend enough time in avalanche terrain now to not wait any longer to change my own personal behavior in hopes of protecting myself from the “unknown unknown’s”. I guess it comes down a bit to length of exposure (x) potential outcome.

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  3. I think calling a 2 question poll “research” is misleading. This is an opinion piece. While there is legimate research to back up some of your opinions, your article is not primary or secondary research on improving the survivability of avalanches in our specific terrain.

    With that said, current research shows a definite benefit toward having an airbag. Dr. Scott McIntosh out of the University of Utah has shown there is increased survivability in the event of a complete burial. This does not discuss partial burials.

    I am not aware of any specific research showing how likely you are to end up on top of an avalanche rather than being buried while wearing an airbag. This is likely difficult to study as partial burials are less likely to be reported. In the two instances of death due to avalanches you referenced in 2019 and 2021, it is unfortunately pure conjecture to say whether the presence of an airbag would have led to the victims survival. Both victims were buried for a prolonged time, and more importantly were traveling alone. It is impossible to say whether they would have survived or simply suffered for a longer time before succumbing to asphyxia. Specifically in the case of Ian Forgrays, he was buried under 13 feet of debris, making the likelihood of his survival exceedingly low regardless of his safety equipment.

    What I take from your article is that we absolutely should travel with a partner who has experience traveling in avalanche terrain and whom we trust with our lives. While an airbag is a tool that may increase our likelihood of survival, it is no substitute for education or experience.

    I also take away that there is a need for avalanche research in our specific terrain. This is especially true given the significant increase in backcountry travel over the past several years.

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    • I agree with most of everything your state. My “research” is definitely not as exhaustive as it could be. I do want to point out though that in the case of Ian it is assumed he was buried under a much smaller skier triggered avalanche prior to being buried deeper under a natural avalanche cycle in the next 24 hours… it is my belief knowing the terrain and snowpack during that initial burial that an airbag may have made a difference.

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