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:
Other research shows that “Moderate” is actually the danger level where most fatalities occur:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
Affiliate links above support the content created at Northeast Alpine Start. Thank you!
This past Saturday around 1 pm history was being made on Angel Slides in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York. Two skiers triggered a large avalanche that partially buried one and completely buried the other. As luck would have it one of the skiers was able to free himself from the snow in about 5 minutes. Using their avalanche transceiver they located their partner, buried nearby under 4 to 5 feet of snow. Unconscious and faintly breathing he regained consciousness while his rescuer continued to extract him from the snow. Ultimately they were both uninjured and they made their way back to the trailhead under their own power and reported the incident to a park employee.
And with that the first ever avalanche accident “save” was made in the Eastern US.
I use the word “save” to describe an incident where an avalanche victim is completly buried by an avalanche and recovered alive (and survives). This has never happened in the East, but I knew it was coming. Before 2019 I would often point out to my avalanche course students the interesting fact that no one had ever been buried in an avalanche in the East while wearing an avalanche transceiver. I would suggest that trend would change as more backcountry travelers were carrying the right equipment and it would only be some time before one of us found ourselves in the dark under the snow. Would we have a partner nearby who would be able to get to us in time?
The first person to be fully buried in the East with a transceiver on was Nicholas Benedix on April 11th, 2019. Nicholas survived for over two hours buried in Raymond Cataract on Mount Washington, but ultimately succumbed to hypothermia, a tragic and unique part of the history of avalanche accidents in the East. It would take less than two years before we would have a second person fully buried in an avalanche with a transceiver on. On February 1st, 2021 Ian Forgays was buried by a wind slab he triggered in Ammonoosuc Ravine, also on Mount Washington. Neither of these victims suffered trauma in their avalanches, but like Nicholas, Ian was traveling alone and therefore had no one near him to make the “save”.
With these two recent full burial accidents I’ve been suggesting to my students it is only a matter of time before we have a save. I would have put my money on the first East Coast save occurring on Mount Washington given the terrain and amount of visitation, but this moment in avalanche education goes to Wright Peak, in the Adirondacks.
Angel Slides, Wright Peak, Adirondack Mountains, New York
The Angel Slides are a series of three slides on the eastern flanks of Wright Peak, elevation 4,587 feet. According to The Adirondack Slide Guide: An Aerial View of The High Peaks Region, 2nd Edition by Drew Hass, Tropical Storm Irene (2011) created the far looker’s right slide path which was the path triggered during this accident. According to CalTopo.com the path is about 1,100 feet long, 170 wide, drops 608 feet with an average angle of 31 degrees and a max angle of 43 degrees, and is a North East aspect.
It should be noted that the only avalanche fatality known in the Adirondacks occurred on these slides, specifically the widest of the three, during February 2000, when Toma Vracarich and three friends were caught and carried. According to the Adirondack Almanac, all three of his friends were injured in the slide. He died beneath the snow and the slides were subsequently named the “Angel” slides. He was 27 years old.
Unlike the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire the High Peaks of the Adirondacks do not have an avalanche forecasting center. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation sometimes issues an early season “avalanche warning” but it is basically just an awareness statement with some links to learning about avalanches. Occasionally the National Weather Service issues an avalanche warning for the White Mountains Region. These warnings usually occur during obvious signs of danger like huge storms that dump two to three feet of snow in a short period of time but I haven’t heard if the NWS has ever done that for the Adirondack Region. Regardless these warnings don’t take the place of mid-season monitoring of the snowpack that occurs in a forecasted area like the one covered by the Mount Washington Avalanche Center.
To help with this information gap a couple community minded backcountry enthusiast’s have created the Adirondack Community Avalanche Observations website where backcountry travelers can submit observations made while out recreating. This is a great resource for the Adirondack community and it was just started about a month ago!
Another contributing factor to this accident is the type of avalanche they were dealing with. The followup investigation conducted by members of the Adirondack Community Avalanche Observations Team indicate that this was a Persistent Slab avalanche problem. This type of avalanche problem is not as common in our Maritime climate as it is in our Transitional (Utah) or Continental (Colorado) climates. When you have early season snow that is exposed to prolonged cold temperatures it can become very loose, “faceted”, and basically weak in structure. Then, as winter really arrives and subsequent snow storms bury that “rotten” layer of snow it can lie in waiting for weeks, sometimes months, for a trigger (us) to come and collapse that weak layer. We’ve been hearing this happen in this season’s snowpack in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. It’s the awe inspiring “whumpf” heard when the layer collapses. In a flat field it’s a cool part of snow science to observe. On a slope approaching 30 degrees in steepness it’s a dreaded warning, like the shrill rattle produced by a threatened rattlesnake, it is the mountain telling us it’s about to bite.
History has been made in the East in regards to avalanche incidents. With no one else in the area two skiers survived a near death experience. The second hand account I received of the first skier, Bryan, regaining consciousness while choking on snow and partially, or fully buried just under the surface of the snow, conjured up an image in my head of an angel reaching down and brushing just enough snow away from his face for him to regain awareness, rescue himself, and then go on to rescue his partner. Remarkably and with out injury, these two survived an experience that could have easily gone south. Angel Slides was given its name after the passing of Toma Vracarich there in 2000. Maybe Toma was the one who brushed the snow away from Bryan and gave him a second chance? Or maybe it was just luck. Either way this is a story that could not have had a better ending, and I’m grateful it’s being told.
Disclaimer: All information above was gathered from reports the victims submitted themselves and the report linked below. I have not spoken with either of the victims so there could be errors in my reporting. If I’m able to talk with with them I will update this post with more information.
Today Ortovox officially added two new avalanche transceivers to the market, the Diract and the Diract Voice. While a few preproduction samples have been checked out by other avalanche professionals I received a post production model about a week ago and want to share some preliminary opinions and thoughts at this revolutionary avalanche transceiver. A more in-depth review will be published after I’ve had some considerable real world field time with this model. I know a lot of people may be looking for a new avalanche transceiver before the snow really starts to fly and I hope this “first look” report will help you decide if you should consider the Ortovox Diract or Ortovox Diract Voice avalanche transceiver!
After unboxing the initial set up was straight forward. As soon as you open the box instruction on the lid include a QR code directing you to download the Ortovox app for either iOS or Android. I selected English from the nine available languages and register the device through the app while synced to my smartphone via Bluetooth. Registration is a great idea since not only will up be sure to receive any important software update notifications it automatically extends the two year warranty by an additional 3 years giving you 5 years of total protection on your investment! More information and links to the apps along with some video tutorials can be found here: https://ortovox.com/us-en/service/information-user-manuals/avalanche-transceivers/diract-start
After registering the device I was instructed to calibrate the internal electronic compass used to ensure the device is held level in SEARCH mode and to analyze orientation when buried for the “Smart Antenna” technology (more on that later). I chose to do this outside in the yard away from the house and my cell phone to ensure no interference.
Let’s start with the obvious biggest feature of the Ortovox Diract Voice. This is the first ever avalanche transceiver that gives the user verbal feedback during the stressful times of an avalanche rescue. Like others, I wasn’t exactly sure about the name Ortovox chose for this new model, but a quick Google Translation search revealed that “diract” is the Hindi word for “direct”. And that is what this avalanche transceiver attempts to do… direct your actions during the course of an avalanche rescue with important voice prompts. I demonstrate this in this video with some initial hands on practice in a nearby field:
POST PRODUCTION NOTES:
While filming the first couple test runs with my iPhone in AIRPLANE mode the transceiver experienced electronic interference which caused a false signal while outside the range of the transmitting transceiver and caused the transceiver to instruct me to start a fine search while still 18 meters from a second transceiver. Both of these errors were user-error, not software error! Any electronic with a GPS chip, Bluetooth, WiFi, radio transmitter, or microchip, should be more than half a meter away from a transceiver in search mode, or better yet powered off completely! I’ve left these first test runs in the final video as they demonstrate how the voice commands work and I believe that is useful. Twelve more test runs were conducted (6 filmed by the drone) and no other errors were observed.
My overall impression of this novel idea is positive. As an avalanche course instructor with over 100 avalanche courses taught I really do believe voice prompts can help rescuers react appropriately. Reminders like the initial “Run in 50 meter search strips and look out” encourage both urgency and situational awareness. Directional corrections like “run to the left/right” can help keep the searcher on the “flux line” while they are constantly conducting a quality visual search (often a part of rescue new rescuers struggle with). Getting outside of the fine search area the transceiver clearly tells you “You were closer!” When I publish my updated full review (ETA mid-winter) I will cover every voice command that’s possible and how best it fits into the rescue strategy.
There is one voice command I would have liked to have seen integrated. If the transceiver registers a number less than 1 meter during the search I would have loved for it to tell me to “Start probing here!” I have observed for years students will spend too much time on the fine search trying to get the lowest possible number when in reality if they are actually searching for a human sized target (and not a small stuff sack) and have a number under 1 meter they should halt the fine search and start probing. A probe strike is imminent. In that same line of thought it would be great if the transceiver could tell a quality fine search was carried out and if 1.6 meters in the lowest number after the fine search it could also direct the user to start probing.
That said a practiced rescuer should be able to make these transitions without the voice command, so the omission of this one command is no deal breaker!
Internal Lithium Ion Rechargeable Battery
The next biggest innovation in both the Diract and Diract Voice is the use of an internal lithium ion rechargeable battery. I think this is a great choice from a design point and I’m confident other manufacturers may follow suit as there are few disadvantages and many advantages. First of all having an internal rechargeable battery means no more pulling half used alkaline batteries out when they reach 60% and adding them to the draw of “not full batteries” I have in my gear room. This is better for the environment. The next advantage is you do not need to remember to remove your batteries at the end of the winter season. I’ve seen quite a few transceivers ruined with corroded batteries when owners left their batteries in them over the course of a humid summer. With this style battery it is best to not constantly “short charge” they battery, i.e. plugging it in every night to get it back to 100%. The user manual states to not charge until under 80%, and even states “once the battery charge falls below 40%, the device should be charged as soon as possible”.
The technical specifications claim that a full battery will provide a minimum of 200 hours in SEND followed by 1 hour of SEARCH. I will do some extensive testing of this battery over the next month and update this post accordingly by for now I’ll say I’m quite confident in this performance. After 2 hours of SEND and about 30 minutes of SEARCH my battery is still reporting 100%. Depending on how often you tour I imagine you’ll only need to recharge once or twice a season. I will be teaching rescue skills weekly from December through March and will report back detailed battery performance.
As for concerns about not being able to access or self-replace the lithium-ion battery Ortovox has had a third-party verify that this battery is good for at least 450 “cycles” and will still produce enough power to meet the 200 hours of SEND followed by 1 hour of SEARCH performance. A “cycle” is basically each time you charge the battery, which is why “short charging” is discouraged. Ortovox is working on a consumer focused solution for when it does become time to replace the battery, which based on my estimates of heavy use, won’t be needed for 5-7 years, if even then. The truth is with these numbers and proper charging habits the battery may last as long as the widely recommended “upgrade/replace your transceiver” suggestion of ten years. If that holds true that equals about 30-60 AA alkaline batteries from my own use staying out of a landfill!
The software is designed to self test the battery at every start up and will display a percentage, along with a alert if 30% or less, or “empty”. It also checks the health of the battery so if you ever do reach the end of the life of the battery it will display “Battery service necessary” and direct you to the Ortovox website for service/repair.
Finally it should be noted that you can not charge the battery when it is under 0 degrees Celsius. This may concern some users but I feel with proper planning this should never be an issue. My plan is to let my battery deplete for during day trips to within 40-50% capacity then recharge to full (one cycle). If I am heading out on a week long trip somewhere (Iceland this April?) I’ll recharge it to 100% for the trip. If you are spending two months on some amazing expedition I’m sure you can get the transceiver above 0 degrees Celsius in your sleeping bag if you need to recharge it.
Standby Mode and Auto-Revert
The next unique feature of the Ortovox Diract and Diract Voice is the addition of a “Standby” mode. Typically avalanche transceivers have only two modes, SEND/TRANSMIT or SEARCH. In a rescue scenario we teach everyone in the group not caught in the avalanche to switch their transceivers to SEARCH so that rescuers don’t waste time by “finding” people who are not buried in the snow. The issue is in a group rescue scenario you often do not need 5 people searching for a signal on a debris pile. For example if one person is missing and there are 5 rescuers you might only have 1 or 2 people actually searching with their transceivers while the rest of the group spots from a safe location and starts assembling probes and shovels to be ready for the extraction part of the rescue. These rescuers can utilize the standby mode to get their transceiver to stop transmitting, and, especially in the case of the Diract Voice, quiet the scene. We don’t need all the beeping and voice commands confusing the overall scenario. While in Standby mode the transceiver does have a motion sensor that is monitoring your movement. If no movement is detected in 90 seconds a loud alarm and display warning will indicate the unit will revert back to SEND in 30 seconds if 1) no movement is detected (i.e. you were caught and buried by a secondary avalanche), or 2) You press the FLAG button to cancel the revert.
The next thing I’d like to talk about is the shape and layout of the unit. Applicable to both models these transceivers are a slim design that fits comfortably in my hand and in my dedicated transceiver pocket on my ski pants. While I traditionally prefer to pocket carry my transceiver I believe I’ll start using the harness carry more often due to some innovative choices by Ortovox. The first is the decision to move the Recco technology from the transceiver to the carrying system. The second is the harness pocket holds the transceiver perfectly and adjusts with ease.
The layout of the controls is simple but well thought out. I am able to operate all functions on the transceiver with one hand regardless.of using my dominant (right) hand or not. With only two buttons and the SEND/SEARCH switch operation is really intuitive. To test the intuitiveness for a non-trained user I asked my 10 year old son to turn the transceiver on, put the unit into SEARCH mode, return to SEND mode, and power off the device. He accomplished all four tasks in less than two minutes with no further instruction.
Smart Antenna Technology
A feature of all Ortovox transceivers I have long been a fan of is the patented “SMART-ANTENNA-TECHNOLOGY ™. This basically makes locating your signal faster regardless of what orientation the transceiver is buried in by using intelligent position recognition and automatically switching to the best transmission antenna. Ortovox transceivers are the only transceivers that use this technology and I believe it’s an excellent feature.
The LCD display is quite visible in bright daylight and the brightness is adjustable via the free Ortovox app. I’ll be leaving it on the brightest setting while testing the battery performance this winter. The screen has a smart light sensor so when the transceiver is stowed in either a pocket or the carrying case it will shut off. After removing it from the harness a quick press of either of the two buttons will waken it.
Range and “smart” Search Strip Width while in SEARCH
I tested the Ortovox Diract Voice in an open field with a measured distance with the following results. I will update these this winter with other models buried 1.5 meters down in the snowpack. While in SEARCH for an Ortovox 3+ transceiver a signal was always acquired around on average between 30-40 meters with on result of 28 meters when the transmitting transceiver was in a poor coupling orientation. These results support Ortovox’s suggestion of a 50 meter search strip width in this open terrain with no interference. Yet another innovation feature of both the Ortovox Diract and Diract Voice is the unit somehow analyses the surrounding area for interference and adjusts the recommended Search Strip Width to be optimized. For example, in the open field (and even with my cell phone interference) the Search Strip Width was displayed as 50 meters. In my house while testing the Auto Revert function and surrounded by Wifi, electronics, etc the displayed Search Strip Width was reduced to 20 meters.
The Ortovox Diract and Diract Voice transceivers have an intuitive system for helping the user manage the incredibly complex scenario of a multiple burial. The first is the display with indicate multiple signals with little “person” icons on the bottom of the display (up to three). This is another moment where I would have loved if the voice command could have verbally alerted me with something like “Multiple signals detected”. This addition would really help a searcher understand the bigger picture faster and manage their resources appropriately. Once you have finished your fine search and achieved a positive probe strike you can press and hold the flag button to have that signal suppressed, at which time the transceiver will direct you to the next closest burial. From my limited testing and reading of the manual there is not an option to “un-flag” a flagged victim. Should that be needed (and it shouldn’t if you use this feature with the caution taught in rescue courses) you will need to place the transceiver back into SEND then revert to SEARCH to remove all “flagged” targets. <insert info on any verbal instructions during FLAGGING>
This is a big moment in the history of avalanche transceivers. While there are a few great transceiver manufacturers out there I’m not surprised that Ortovox was the first to produce a transceiver that is so different from everything else out there. The benefits of a talking transceiver might vary by the user. Those who consider themselves “experts” in avalanche rescue will likely feel the effects of the voice commands less important as they are used to “listening” to the visual and audio clues of the various transceivers they have used over the years. In my opinion those advanced users might decide to upgrade to the Ortovox Diract (without voice) simply for the solid performance and benefit of the internal battery over transceivers that burn through alkaline batteries. Those who are new to avalanche rescue, or (gasp) rusty on their rescue skills (take an Avalanche Rescue course!), will likely find the voice commands from the Ortovox Diract Voice to be quite beneficial at guiding actions during the stressful moments of an avalanche rescue.
As mentioned this is an initial “first look” type review as I’ve only had this transceiver in my hands for about a week. I will test it throughly this winter while instructing over a dozen avalanche courses and will update my findings and opinions likely by late January. If you were planning on upgrading or buying you first avalanche transceiver this Fall in preparation of the winter I hope this information has helped you decide if the Ortovox Diract or Ortovox Diract Voice is the right transceiver for you, and if it is you can purchase one from these online retailers:
At the end of the day as an avalanche educator I’d be remiss if I didn’t end this review with the classic avalanche educator’s disclaimer. The BEST transceiver in the world is the one you practice with most! When was the last time you practiced avalanche rescue? How about taken an avalanche rescue course? Make avalanche rescue practice part of your seasonal preparation! There are SO many courses out there, if you are looking for one here’s some links to get you started:
Yet another way you could up your Avy Savvy brain is taking IMFGA Guide Mark Smiley’s newest online course “Beyond Level One*”. This is a massive online course designed to be taken over the course of a whole season with 120 episodes and contributions from some of the best avalanche professionals in the industry! I have taken other online courses from Mark and the quality is top-notch! I will be enrolling in this course myself to see what Mark has created and am especially excited about how much of the content I will be able to absorb à la podcast style!
Disclaimer: Traveling in avalanche terrain is dangerous and nothing in this review is intended to be “instruction” or assumed to be accurate. The author is a member of the Ortovox Athlete Team and received this transceiver at no cost as part of that partnership.
*Affiliate links above help support Northeast Alpine Start at no additional cost to you. Purchasing a transceiver or online course through those links earn the author a commission. Thank you.
Until recently I would rarely wear a helmet while skinning uphill. I run hot and would usually carry my ultralight climbing helmet inside my touring backpack until it was time to rip skins and descend. After over a week of touring both up and down with the new Backcountry Access BC Air Helmet that’s changing, and I feel better protected for it! After reading some statements from Bruce Edgerly, co-founder of BCA, I feel like this helmet was designed specifically for me!
“Our goal is to save lives,” says Bruce Edgerly, BCA Vice President and co-founder. “Asphyxiation is only part of the equation in an avalanche: about 30 percent of fatalities are caused by trauma, mainly through head and chest injuries. We think skiing and snowboarding helmets are an essential piece of backcountry safety equipment, but they need to be lighter and better ventilated.”
The BC Air’s minimal weight of 340 grams/11.9 oz (in size S/M), paired with an abundance of ventilation in the form of passive channel venting, provides direct airflow between head and helmet. This venting system moves moisture and heat to avoid clamminess on long days. The balance of lightweight breathability is intended to allow wearers to forego removing the helmet on the ‘skin track’ portion of the day, thus increasing safety in avalanche terrain while maintaining comfort. For sweaty ascents, earpads can be removed when maximum airflow is needed.
The goal, as Edgerly notes, is “to be able to leave your helmet on all the time: whether you’re going up or coming down the mountain. Do you turn your transceiver off on the uphill? Do you put away your airbag trigger? Of course not. And you also shouldn’t be taking off your helmet.”
Integrated headlamp clips allow users to maintain visibility during non-daylight hours to aid in safety during dawn and dusk backcountry missions. Also included: a Boa® fit system allows for a snug fit across a range of head sizes so that the BC Air can offer maximum protection without slippage.
A full ASTM snow sports certification of the BC Air touring helmet provides proper safety in the event of a crash or impact. This further discourages those looking for a lighter option to choose a climbing helmet that’s not correctly rated for skiing and riding-related head impacts.
“We’re always excited to address the ‘bigger picture’ regarding safety,” Edgerly explains about BCA’s new venture into headwear. “By addressing the trauma side of backcountry safety, we’re broadening our scope and increasing our ability to save more lives.”
How I Tested
This past March I wore this helmet on three Spring tours to the Gulf of Slides, two tours on the west side of Mount Washington, and one quick mission out and back on Hillman’s Highway. One the westside tours saw temperatures in the mid-fifties with almost no wind and strong solar gain. A week later the same tour was made in more winter like conditions with temps in the mid-20s. During all 6 tours I but the helmet on at the trailhead and left it on for the entirety of the tour. I wanted to see if BCA’s claims of superior ventilation would hold up. I learned some other nice advantages of having a helmet like this that I will get into below.
The best attribute of this helmet is the level of protection it offers. With a full ASTM snow sports certification this helmet can actually protect me from a serious crash. The ultralight mountaineering helmet I usually tour with is not rated for the types of impacts possible when riding avalanche terrain. And that’s not the only extra level of protection I started to think about while touring with this helmet. Now, any time I am in avalanche terrain, I can have this important piece of PPE on regardless of whether I’m in uphill mode or not.
Another realization I made was how wearing my helmet throughout my tour led to some improvements in efficiency. First, since I wasn’t storing my helmet inside my touring pack like I usually do I opened up storage room in my 32 liter touring backpack. It was definitely easier for me to fit my full guiding kit in my backpack with the helmet on my head, and for quick recreational missions with a partner or two I could see me reaching for a smaller/lighter touring pack than what I would usually carry.
Anyone that rides in the backcountry with me knows I like to work on my efficiency at transitions (going from skinning hill to ready to descend). In my avalanche classes it is clear this is a skill most backcountry travelers could improve upon. In a group of seven riders I often time the gap between the first person clipped in and ready to ride and the last person, and it’s usually between 10-15 minutes! I realized while transitioning at the top of our run already having my helmet on was one less step needed to be finished with my transition.
I have a large head and often struggle finding helmets that fit my dome well. The L/XL size of this lid fits perfect! The Boa system makes it feel custom molded and I found it easily adjustable for when I was wearing it over my bare (and bald) head or over a medium weight wool hat during a colder tour. A soft plush sleeve over the chin strap might be good for some but I removed it as it felt almost to warm and fuzzy on my neck and I don’t mind a bare nylon chin strap. The breathability of the helmet really is the stand out feature in comfort though… air just moves through this helmet freely and even after skinning uphill for 2.5 miles and gaining 2k of vertical in mid-fifty degree low wind temps I felt zero discomfort. Seriously I am very impressed with how breathable this design is! I didn’t even realize that the ear pads are removable if you need even more breathability until I started writing this review so I admit I haven’t tested it with the ear pads removed, but will update this when I have.
The BC Air helmet that we offer in North America has been tested by an accredited 3rd Party laboratory that validates that it meets the specifications and requirements of ASTM-2040-2018 (Snow Helmets) and CPSC 16 CFR1203 (Bike). There are no certification documents for these standards.
The product sold in Europe is certified to CE EN1077 (Ski Helmets) and CE EN1078 (Bike and Skate).
The BC Air does not have MIPS.
It really feels like BCA was targeting me when they designed this helmet. For years I’ve justified touring with an ultralight climbing helmet not rated for full ski protection. Even though that climbing helmet had great ventilation I still opted for carrying it in my pack on the uphill portions of my tour regardless if I was in avalanche terrain or not. For just a few ounces more I can now tour with a proper ski helmet and still be comfortable. This is a solid addition to BCA’s long line of safety orientated products meant to reduce risk and injury in the case of an accident. Bulky warm helmets are fine for lift serviced skiing, but backcountry riders need to count ounces and value breathability comfort over the long skin track… the Backcountry Access BC Air Helmet can save you weight while still providing true protection in the event of an accident. 10/10
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start
A media sample was provided for purpose of review. Affiliate links above help support the content created on Northeast Alpine Start at no additional cost to you. Thank you.
This season I’ve been backcountry skiing with the updated Dueter Freerider Pro 34+ Backpack and I’ve put in enough miles in the skin track to now share some opinions on the pack. Bottom line is this is an excellent pack for extended days in the backcountry with innovative organizational features, plenty of room for a full guiding kit, and a comfortable carry system.
With 34 liters of standard internal space this already is a roomy bag for a day tour. This newest incarnation of this pack now has a roll-top closure that can give you another 10 liters of storage which helps this pack cross over into a multi-day adventure or a semi-technical tour where you might need to carry a harness, a few screws, a rope, etc. When the skin track ends and the boot ladder begins you can carry via A-Frame or Diagonal (I tend to always opt for A-Frame). The system will also carry a snowboard or snowshoes, and includes an external helmet carry option as well. There’s an easy ice axe attachment for my Black Diamond Raven Ultra Axe when I’m heading into steep terrain. Here’s a look at what I can easily pack in this bag:
The pack fits my 5′ 9″ 17 inch torso frame quite well. Snow resistant fabric in the back panel and closed cell foam padding on the shoulder straps and waist belt don’t hold snow which keeps me dryer during a long tour. The sternum strap height can be optimally adjusted. I found the pack carried my full 25 pound kit quite well on both the skin up and the ride down, with my only issue being remembering to re-buckle the “load lifting” straps which must be un-buckled when getting full access through the back panel. My other full back panel access touring pack doesn’t require that step, and if I forgot to re-attach one of the straps I would quickly notice the load shifting around when I started skiing. Not a big issue, just a small step I need to pay attention to.
This is a fantastic touring pack built by a well known company with a lot of thought put into the design. Despite an impressive amount of organizational capability it doesn’t feel like a pack that has “too many bells & whistles”. It rides and carries well and feels like it will handle hundreds of days in the backcountry with ease. If you are shopping for your first dedicated backcountry touring backpack or looking to upgrade your existing pack this would be a great model to consider!
You can find both men’s and women’s versions of this pack here on Backcountry.com in a few different capacity options. Moosejaw, for the most part, only has stock of the women’s models viewable here. REI does have the 20L and 30L versions found here.
I now have two full winters with over 70 days of back-country touring with this pack and it is my over-all favorite. I find it to be the perfect size for day trips in the White Mountains and last April’s ski trip to Iceland. The dedicated avalanche safety pocket fits my shovel and probe perfectly, and outer vertical pocket holds some of my oft used tools in an easy to get to spot; I stick my snow card, compass, Rutchsblock cord, and snow thermometer in there. The “goggle pocket” is where I stash all my food for the day, and I’m able to carry a bivy sack, large puffy, and usually fit my goggles, buff, facemask, and ski gloves inside my helmet inside the pack, though there is an external helmet carry option. Finally the back panel full access to the main compartment is super convenient!
This pack is also available in a 30 and 38 liter short torso size, and a 40 liter size here.
I reviewed this pack back in 2016 and having tested quite a few packs since this one has stayed in my memory of being one of the best designed ski packs on the market. It shares a lot of the same features as my first pick like a well designed avalanche gear pocket and back-panel access. Unfortunately it is either discontinued or simply out of stock at almost every retailer. There are a few left on sale here.
This is actually my first pick if the ski mission is technical, i.e. I’ll be carrying rope, harness, a couple screws, a technical ice axe, crampons, etc. I got the ski modification on this pack and while it is the priciest of the three the materials used in construction made this a pack that will survive a decade or three of heavy use in the mountains, where as I would expect to wear our my first two picks after 5-7 seasons of heavy use. While this pack gives up some convenience features like the dedicated avalanche gear pocket it gains pure rugged simplicity. As I said in my detailed review back in 2016 this is the pack I would choose for a ski focused trip to Katahdin or a ski mountaineering day in Huntington Ravine (up Pinnacle down South or the like).
Did your favorite make my list? Let me know in the comments if it did or didn’t! I will be looking to review 2019/20 back-country ski packs early next season!
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start
Disclaimer: The author is an Ortovox Athlete and all packs were provided for review. Affiliate links help support this blog.
The first avalanche course of the season with Northeast Mountaineering wrapped up yesterday late afternoon after 3 solid days of mixed classroom and field sessions. We have an awesome new classroom venue just minutes from The Bunkhouse and we were stoked to have so much snow on the ground for the first course of our season.
After a morning of classroom on Friday we spent the afternoon outside learning and practicing avalanche rescue skills. On Saturday we spent a little time learning how to PLAN a tour in avalanche terrain before heading up to Hermit Lake on Mount Washington for some practice monitoring conditions along our tour.
On Sunday we started with a student led trip planning session at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.
We then skinned up the Gulf of Slides Ski Trail.
All in all it was a fantastic start to the avalanche course season with Northeast Mountaineering. The new curriculum rolled out pretty smoothly and I am digging the new “AIARE Framework” that creates a slightly smoother “flow” of decision making then the classic “Decision Making Framework” some of you may be familiar with. The new organization of the Avalanche and Observation Reference Tool is pretty sweet, and I really like the new 2-3 hour pre-course online learning component! If you have been waiting to take an avalanche course I’d say you should wait no longer! Most providers in the area are seeing courses sell out quite regularly! You can see what dates we have left here!
Nutrition: Left over pizza from Flatbread Company is hands down my favorite food to carry in the mountains but can strain the food dollars a bit. GrandyOats is the best granola I’ve ever tried and is almost always in my pack. I’m currently reviewing some tasty offerings from Patagonia Provisions and will share that experience soon! I also occasionally carry some soup or homemade chili in a Hydroflask Food Flask.
First Aid Kit: I start with an Adventure Medical Ultralight .7 First Aid Kit and supplement with with a few extra pairs of Nitrile gloves, extra medications, iodine tablets, and a sam splint. I also stuff my backup headlamp and knife in my first aid kit so if I have my kit the next two items are definitely with me!
This will be my third winter skiing and climbing in my Arcteryx Procline Carbon Lite Boots and I should have shared this review much sooner! The good news is since they are not new-this-season you can score a pair at amazing savings (like 45% off!). That’s basically pro-deal price available for everyone! But you still probably want to know if it’s a good boot for you right? So let me share my experience with them to help you decide!
I got these at the start of the 2016/17 winter as part of a back-country setup optimized for uphill efficiency but that could still slay on the downhill.
How I tested
I’ve since skied over 50 days in them including two week long ski trips to Iceland. This includes skinning at least twice a week while teaching avalanche courses every weekend from mid-December until April. I ice climbed in them a half dozen times up to leading grade 4 waterfall ice. I’ve skied them on powder days and more typical east coast crud days. I’ve worn them all over Mount Washington and on groomers at local ski mountains. Suffice it to say I’ve put enough time, miles, and elevation on them to form some opinions!
Let’s start with…
I went with a Mondo size 27.5 for my US Men’s size 9 feet (slight Morton’s toe, medium arch/width). I wear my favorite Darn Tough ski socks with them. They fit like comfy cozy slippers for walking and skinning. They are comfortable “enough” for vertical ice climbing… but I’ll get into that more under climbing performance. When cranked tight for downhill performance they are as comfy as any ski boot I’ve ever worn, but I’ll go into a little more detail on that under ski performance.
When I say they are the most comfortable ski boots I have ever ice climbed in you must take it with a grain of salt. Why would someone climb vertical ice in ski boots? Well if it involves a ski approach/descent having a one boot system is a pretty sweet option. With out a doubt I’d say these climb better than any dedicated climbing boot skis. Simply put climbing boots do not ski well as they have virtually no “forward lean”. I learned this lesson the hard way skiing out of Chimney Pond in Koflach Vertical mountaineering boots many years ago. Long story short dedicated mountaineering boots might be great at hiking & climbing, but they will always come up short for real downhill skiing.
Enter the Arcteryx Procline. In touring mode this boot is definitely comfortable enough for a 12 mile approach even if it includes quite a bit of walking. However it is to stiff laterally for classic “French Technique”. You will find yourself switching to front pointing as soon as the angle is too steep for simple heel to toe walking. While leading waterfall ice up to grade 3 it performs quite well and I even led Grade 4 in them.
A modern dedicated ice climbing boots like my Arcteryx Acrux AR are noticeably more comfortable (and warmer) for real technical rock and ice climbing… they also are terrible for downhill skiing. Perhaps the best way to explain it is route and condition dependent. While everyone reading this might not be familiar with my local terrain I think these examples should work.
Early season or low snow years ascent of Pinnacle Gully on Mount Washington (Grade 3) which involves a 2000 foot 2.5 mile approach. I’d stick with a comfy mountaineering boot and leave the skis at home.
Mid-late season or great skiing conditions ascent of Pinnacle Gully, this would be a perfect boot!
My next Katahdin trip.
Finally you should know these are not the warmest boot out there. I have some freakishly warm feet so I tend to get by with less insulation than some of my climbing partners but there was one sub-zero day in Tuckerman Ravine where I got pretty cold toes while teaching an avalanche course. Standing around in them in arctic conditions is not the best idea. I still think they are plenty warm for fast & light adventures or summer trips to the Cascades.
The Arc’teryx Procline boots are only compatible with tech bindings like the Dynafit Speed Radical Bindings (my setup) or the G3 Ion 12 Bindings. I’ve been using them to drive the DPS Wailer 99 Tour 1 Skis (168cm). I assembled this set up to focus on uphill efficiency. Total weight for skis, boots, bindings is only 6.5 pounds per ski! Thanks to the 360 degree rotating cuff these are incredibly comfortable to walk and skin in. The carbon plate to switch from walk to ski mode has an easy to operate lever. In practice if you are not leaning forward enough while switching to ski mode the plate might not align perfectly with some raised nubs that really lock the plate in place. It’s quite easy to lean forward during this process and after a little practice you’ll get the plate to lock completely with little fuss.
Once switched into ski mode you can crank the two buckles down and the “power-strap” adds even more control. The boots definitely feel laterally stiff enough to ski fairly aggressively. Edge to edge control is sufficient enough for any black diamond in-bounds runs and I find the boots supportive enough to drive the skis in spring corn and mid-winter powder. When conditions are icy New England crud you’ll find me skiing these in a fairly conservative manner.
The Arcteryx Procline Carbon Lite Boots are the most comfortable boot I have ever skinned uphill in. They also are the only ski boot I’ve climbed technical ice in. They perform so well on the downhill that I ski them on in-bound groomers but really appreciate the all day comfort during long back-country days. They are not the warmest boots out there, but I have others for days when it’s really really cold out there. If you are in the market for a boot that is as efficient for uphill travel as it is for downhill travel you should take a close look at these! I’m really excited for my third winter season in these!
So what’s changed with the new model this season? Check out this video from ISPO 2018 to learn about the upgrades the new version of this boot has! (Thanks to Ron B. for sharing this with me through Facebook!
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start
Affiliate links above help support Northeast Alpine Start to bring in-depth reviews and how-to articles to you! Purchasing through these links sends a small commission to Northeast Alpine Start to keep this content coming. Thank you!
Ultra light crampon with LEVERLOCK FIL binding, for ski touring and snow travel
Extremely light due to their aluminum construction, LEOPARD LLF crampons are perfect for ski touring and snow travel. The CORD-TEC flexible linking system minimizes bulk for ease of carrying.
– crampons made entirely of aluminum, optimized for snow travel
– very lightweight (only 330 grams per pair)
– CORD-TEC flexible linking system optimizes volume of crampons when packed in their bag (included)
– tool-free length adjustment
Binding system especially adapted to the usage of these crampons:
– self-adjusting elastic strap around the ankle
– strap for good handling and easy removal
– compact heel lever facilitates crampon installation/removal
Alright, that’s out of the way so let’s breakdown the good & bad starting with…
This was the biggest reason I chose these for my ski mountaineering kit. When your crampons only weigh 11 ounces it is hard to justify not packing them “just in case”. The CORD-TEC adjustment system lets them pack up into the smallest stuff sack I’ve ever used for crampons measuring about 7 by 4 inches.
First make sure you select the right model! For ski boots you want the “LeverLock Universal” (LLF). The regular “FlexLock” (FL) model is suitable for hiking boots with or with out front and toe welts.
I’ll admit I was skeptical about sizing a crampon that joins the heel piece to the front piece with string! Ok, maybe “string” is not the right word. The “CORD-TEC” is actually a woven 100% Dyneema cord. I measure it just shy of 5 mm (3/16 inches). That would give it a breaking strength around 6000 pounds… so not “string”. Dyneema is also highly resistant to abrasion.
Petzl does sell a replacement for it if you ever wear it out somehow. I have a hard time imagining how much use it would take to requirement, but the option is there.
I found the CORD-TEC system to be very easy to adjust for both of my ski boots. No tools required an quite intuitive. Do not be intimidated by the instructions, once in hand you could pretty much size them without looking at the instructions, but if you are having any issues give them a look!
These have been tested over a few thousand feet of snow climbing in on neve, spring corn, and classic NH “windboard”. For an ultra-light aluminum crampon they perform great! They have not, and will not, be tested on waterfall ice or mixed rock routes. They are not designed for that and I’m sure such uses will shorten their life-span. So far they have only been in contact with snow but I’m not too worried about walking over short sections of granite to get to the next patch of snow this Spring. It’s gear. It should get beat on from time to time! These will be my choice model for my next trip to climb in the Cascades.
These are for ski mountaineers, back-country skiers, and riders who have found themselves on a steep slope wishing they hadn’t left their crampons in the car. These could also be a nice step up for many winter hikers who sometimes rely on Kahtoola MICROspikes in terrain where more aggressive traction would be more appropriate. Just make sure you get the Flexlock model. Skiers should get the LevelLock model. Finally these are for anyone who is looking to shave ounces off their total kit while still having the tools they need to reach the places they want to play. If that’s you then you should consider checking these out!
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start
These crampons were purchased with my own money. Affiliate links above support the content created at Northeast Alpine Start.