How Effective Are Avalanche Airbags?

There are people in the world who spend as much time thinking about skiing, riding, and sledding as they spend… actually skiing, riding, and sledding. Believe it or not, some of these people get paid to do it, too. Keep that in mind when you’re applying to grad school.

Dr. Pascal Haegeli did just that, emigrating from Switzerland to Canada to get his doctorate at the University of British Columbia. Good school, epic turns, deep and stable snowpack? Good call, Dr. Haegeli!

Now on the faculty at Simon Fraser University, Haegeli completed two of the more compelling studies over the past several seasons, showing balloon packs (that’s Canadian for “avalanche airbag”) — like our BCA Float avalanche airbags  — to be highly effective at improving survival rates in avalanche accidents. By how much? Read on.

Canada versus Switzerland

Haegeli knew there were numerous European studies–mainly out of Switzerland–validating the effectiveness of airbag packs, but he was curious if there would be a difference with Canadian stats and practices. Keep in mind that Canada and the U.S. have far more tree skiing than the Euro Alps and far more mechanized access (think cats, sleds and ‘copters).

By compiling accident statistics for Worksafe BC (a Canadian workplace safety organization), Haegeli determined airbag packs improved survival rates in serious avalanches by 27%—on par with the Euro numbers. His work showed 56% of victims without a balloon pack survived, while 83% with a pack made it out alive. That’s the difference between repeating the tenth grade and keeping a 3.0, folks. Serious!

In his next phase of research, Haegeli collaborated with researchers from the U.S. and Europe to evaluate the stats worldwide. His conclusion was very similar: of every 100 people seriously involved in avalanches, 11 would die with an avalanche airbag and 22 would die without one.

In summary, he wrote, “This means that inflated airbags will save about half of the victims who would have otherwise died.” Pretty solid endorsement, eh?

Float, Don’t Sink

BCA Float packs work because of a phenomenon known as “inverse segregation.” This simply means larger “particles” (that’s you in an avalanche, with a Float pack’s 150L airbag inflated) tend to rise to the surface when a bunch of particles of different sizes are shaken together (that’s an avalanche with a ton of snow granulated and flowing down the mountain). Deploy your airbag pack, stay on top, don’t get buried. Pretty simple.

Asphyxia is the leading cause of death in avalanches, so if you stay on top of a slide, you’re psyched. Your buds don’t have to search for you, meaning no risk of asphyxia, and an 83% survival rate—right?  Yes, mostly.

Trauma

Because all of you senders have done your level 1 avalanche course, you recall staying on top doesn’t guarantee survival, right? Remember Haegeli’s observation that we ski more in the trees in Canada? Same applies down in the Lower 48: treeline in Colorado is at an astounding 11,500 feet, higher than many of the summits in the Selkirks. If we’re skiing in and around trees, taking a ride in an avalanche means a way higher chance of sliding into a tree at 50 mph. And the second leading cause of death in avalanches? That’s right, trauma.

Haegeli’s avalanche research showed that an airbag pack can double your chances of survival. But you can still die, nonetheless, mainly from trauma. If you don’t survive, Haegeli stressed, it’s most likely due to the presence of terrain traps: trees, rocks, cliffs, crevasses, and gullies. Float packs are no magic bullet. If you ski and ride in deadly terrain—that is, any place there are terrain traps present—then it won’t matter what you’re wearing.

Choosing Terrain and Hedging Your Bets

Like jump shots in basketball and putting in golf, it comes down to fundamentals. A Float avalanche airbag pack is no substitute for choosing the right terrain for the conditions in which you’re riding. Don’t fool yourself; you’ve got to make the right call with all your teammates involved and on the same page. Choosing safe, appropriate slopes to ski is key to a life spent in the mountains.

That said, we all make mistakes. We recently saw Freeride World Tour athlete, Julien Lopez, survive a ride in a comp in Austria. Patrol had bombed the slope, dug pits, and professional guides had given the green light. Luckily, Julien deployed his avalanche airbag, stayed on top, and came out unscathed. Good thing he hedged his bets. In fact, all FWT athletes are required to wear airbags this year.

Our Float avalanche airbag packs are lighter, better fitting, and more affordable than ever — and an effective insurance policy for the backcountry. You’re worth the investment.


 

Check out Dr. Haegeli’s work in Avalanche Review and his WorkSafeBC paper from 2012.