Welcome to Elevation Outdoors’ rundown of the latest in snow safety to help you stay safe when you play the backcountry game.
It was the only time in my life, as I skied onto the slope, I felt reasonably sure there would be an avalanche. We’d talked about it at length and if it went—which it eventually did—we thought it would be small. I skied the pitch without incident, but the third skier, a close friend, triggered it and took a short ride, losing his skis and nearly tagging a tree.
It was a relatively shallow slide, but what if it had gone bigger? Had we cut it too close? What else could we have done, besides not skiing, to mitigate the danger?
Later, we discussed our choices and then we talked gear–specifically, airbags. It got me to thinking: There are various strategies and technologies available today that most of us don’t use. Why?
Since re-devoting myself to skiing 10 years ago, I’ve tried to educate myself through avy-awareness and guide courses, as well as skiing with a crew of smart, motivated guys. When it comes to gear, though, I have to ask… why am I not using an airbag? A fancier beacon? A helmet?
I don’t mean to suggest that gear will ever take the place of judgment, knowledge and experience, but technological advances have a place in the backcountry game, too.
For those of you who haven’t seen an airbag, it’s simply a backpack with an integrated, inflatable bladder (usually 150 liters) the wearer deploys in the event of an avalanche. By enlarging oneself, one stays atop debris, rather than being buried beneath it–where most fatalities occur due to asphyxiation. Tests show well over 90 percent of airbag wearers end a slide above the surface. Impressive.
Depending on the design, some packs also offer protection from trauma. The bladder, once inflated, acts as a buffer against trees and rocks impacting the wearer’s head, neck, and upper spine. In Colorado, where we ski below treeline much of the time, this can be critical: here, trauma kills a higher percentage than in Canada and Europe.
Drawbacks? First off, weight. These things add several pounds to your kit. Backcountry Access offers its Float 30 ($700; backcountryaccess.com) at 7.4 lbs., while the Euro-popular Snowpulse ($1050+; snowpulse.ch) tips the scales at 7-or-so pounds, depending on the model. “ABS” is another European producer ($1050+; abssystem.com; 7.1 lbs. for a 30L model), with an innovative design allowing the inflation system to be married to any of their 15, 30-liter, or larger packs. They also offer a carbon canister to save some weight. Mystery Ranch, out of Bozeman, is said to be designing a model for 2011–stay tuned.
Needless to say, the next big drawback is cost. I guess, though, when the time comes you’d be willing to drop ten-grand to not go under.
The Snowpulse offers the most head and neck protection because of its bladder configuration, but some prefer an airbag that surrounds less of the head. They believe maintaining peripheral vision and the ability to swim/fight trumps additional coverage. Debatable.
The bags all work similarly, using a “rip-cord” handle to activate the system, which inflates in less than two seconds. Tests verify all of the airbags work tremendously well at keeping victims above the surface. Anecdotal feedback suggests there is indeed something to the trauma-protection offered by the packs.
Asks BCA’s Bruce Edgerly, “If you had the opportunity to wear a piece of equipment that could both protect you from trauma and from asphyxiation, why wouldn’t you use it?”
Two trends in beacons have emerged within the market. One favors simplicity over full-gadgetry, while the other seeks to take as much guesswork out of beacon searches as possible.
Three-antennae beacons are now the standard. The addition of a third antenna makes close-in (fine) searching much easier, and handles deep burials better, too. The Ortovox 3+ ($335; 7 oz. plus a AA battery–superlight!) has created a buzz this season, not for its efficient searching and marking functions, but because it helps your buddies find you more quickly. How? Beacons transmit on one antenna, generally the longest of their three. Vertically oriented beacons can be tricky to find for inexperienced searchers. The 3+ senses when it’s buried vertically and shifts transmission to a perpendicular (and horizontal) antenna. Voila—instead of transmitting on its vertical antenna, it uses the horizontal, which offers longer range, and less-problematic retrieval.
I tested two different 3+ beacons in the field and the antenna-shifting worked as advertised. It mitigated a vertical burial without a hitch. Pretty cool. The marking function works flawlessly–the best of any beacon I’ve tried. User interface is simple and controls are easy to master and use. My only gripe–for some reason at the 10-15m range, the 3+ was occasionally (less than 20 percent of the time) confused by a vertical burial. Ten minutes of practice, though, and this was easily overcome.
As with any and all beacons, the trick is choosing the one that works for you and practicing; single-beacon searches, multiples, vertical burials, the works.
To turn away from safety and simply look at the best new goodies out there for a moment, think about racing. Ski mountaineering races, or randonnée races to get all Frenchy on you, have grown in popularity over the past decade. With all the interest, it’s only natural much of the gear has trickled into backcountry skiing.
Dynafit has led much of the way with its lightweight-but-functional ski bindings, boots, and skis. The brand’s “Low Tech Race” binding weighs 111g, as an example! Their products have trickled down to general backcountry skiers, incorporating the race-inspired weight savings, but offering four-buckle boots, wider freeride skis, and beefier (but still anorexic) bindings.
Most notably this season are Dynafit’s two TLT 5 boots (dynafit.us; 1,225 grams and $750 for the “Mountain,” or 1,050 grams and $1,000 for the “Performance”). The Mountain is an award-winning boot, with only two buckles, a thermo-moldable liner, and a supplementary tongue for the down. I’ve not skied them, but people are raving about these things. Skis well and they are crazy-ridiculous-stupid light! The walk function is amazing, too–tons of mobility and comfortable.
There are also several Dynafit-inspired bindings coming out of Europe this year. ATK, an Italian company, will import its version through LaSportiva. The “Ultra Light RT” weighs a mere 175 grams, costs $700, and offers release function in the toe and heel–up to DIN 10. Very cool. A French company, Plum (400 euros), also makes a version, but at present it’s unavailable in North America.
LaSportiva has also produced an all-carbon boot, the Stratos (lasportiva.com; $2,200; 1,068 grams or 2.35 pounds for the set!), with titanium buckles and Dyneema “cables.” The Stratos looks like a bombed-up version of a Pierre Gignoux, a one-off French boot from Grenoble.
Keep your eyes peeled for these and other crazy-light products at your local gear shop. I’m scheming to get a set of the TLTs and lighten my load this season … and do a rando race or two. See you there?
If you are not confident in your backcountry skills or just want the inside track on where to find the goods, consider hiring one of these snowcat and/or guide services to explore the Colorado backcountry.
Vail Powder Guides operates in the Vail Recreation Area, located at the top of Vail Pass. With 3500 acres to chose from, they have something for just about everyone. Expect about ten runs and almost 2000 feet of vertical. V.P.G’s snow cat can handle up to 12 people at $375 per skier. Use of K2’s powder skis, beacons and lunch is included. vailsnowcat.com
Peak Mountain Guides covers the southern part of the state with a variety of courses and trips offered through the San Juan Mountains. Classic hut to hut trips, level one and two avalanche courses and backcountry ski outings offer a range of opportunities. If you want learn to travel safely, or just enjoy some fun powder skiing P.M.G. can accommodate you. Every guide holds multiple certifications so you learn from qualified instructors. peakmountainguides.com
Colorado Mountain School is focused on educating backcountry travelers of all types. Avalanche certifications, introductory courses, steep skiing clinics, hut trips and ski mountaineering courses mean you can learn all aspects of skiing the backcountry. They also offer scheduled one-day outings on the weekends. Based out of Estes Park, C.M.S. uses the stunning terrain of Rocky Mountain National Park as it’s classroom. Clinics start at $150. totalclimbing.com
San Juan Ski Company takes advantage of 35,000 acres between Telluride, Durango and Silverton. The terrain varies from chutes and bowls to glades and ridges. A day trip will get you around 10,000 vertical feet during your 8 to 12 runs. For the 2010/2011 season prices have been reduced to $250 per person and include avalanche safety gear. Buy out all ten seats available and you’ll receive two free seats, bringing the price to $210 per person. sanjuanski.com
Steamboat Powdercats offers several trip options. Along with the standard all day powderfest, they offer moonlight descent trips, ladies only powder adventures, and even a day just for kids! The day includes a three course lunch catered by the Steamboat Meat and Seafood Company at their mid-mountain cabin. If weather permits, a photographer will come along and give you a disc featuring shots of your epic day. Depending on the time of year and trip seats range from $100 to $400 per person. steamboatpowdercats.com