Above It All: Air bags work by giving a skier the mass to rise up to the surface in slide debris. Photo: Adam Clark/Adamclarkphoto.com

You’re skiing alone, near the British Columbia-Alaska border, in a 1,500-foot couloir, with a bit of fresh and blue skies above. Dream day or death wish? Could be either, depending on luck, your karma and whether the snowpack’s pissed off.

“I was so *&^@%$# glad to have that thing on,” says Brad Zeerip, 52, of Terrace, British Columbia. That “thing” was of course a Snowpulse airbag-pack, and as you can probably guess he was on the losing end of an avalanche. Zeerip took a 1,500-foot ride, with no one to help, and far from the road. He came to rest with his left arm and head above the snow, beaten but luckily unbroken.

“I felt like I was gonna be ripped in two,” he remembers. “My airbag saved my life for sure. As I came to a stop, near the front edge of the avalanche, I was on my back. As it slowed down, it was like waves crashing on a beach. Every time I started to go under, I could feel the bag pulling on me, kind of like a sail effect.”

That effect kept him high enough in the debris that he was able to dig himself out in ten minutes. The slide tore one toe binding from the ski, hammered his legs and torso and left him with a year of rehab—but at least he was alive.

How They Work

In a general sense, airbag-packs are deceptively simple. Pull a handle on your shoulder strap and an air cylinder inflates a 150- to 170-liter bladder housed in the top of your pack. The bladder increases your size and because you’re larger, you’ll tend to stay atop avalanche debris.

To “field-test” this for yourself, shake a bowl of mixed nuts and watch how the peanuts (smaller stuff) settle to the bottom while the cashews and Brazil nuts (larger stuff) end up on top. With an airbag-pack, you’re a Brazil nut. Way to go, dude.

Had Zeerip not been wearing an inflatable-airbag ski pack, he’d almost certainly be dead. Two decades of research by the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SFISAR) shows upwards of a 90-percent survival rate for avalanche victims wearing airbag-packs. Not surprisingly, if you’re not buried in the avalanche, you stand a very good chance of surviving. Airbag tests show most wearers stay up top, but just as important—burials are typically shallow with at least the bladder showing.

Translation: even if you don’t stay on top, your pack’s bladder will probably be visible, meaning your buddies will dig you out in just a few minutes. And as everyone knows, behind avoiding burial, a quick extraction is the strongest predictor of surviving an avalanche.

Trauma

Before you assume avalanche fatalities are a thing of the past, however, think again. Approximately one-third of all avalanche deaths are due to trauma—hitting rocks and trees, flying off cliffs or getting brained by your 1000cc sled. In Colorado, because we ski below treeline so much, our percentage is probably even higher. While airbags offer some protection during the spin cycle of an avalanche, sliding into thick trees at 60 mph isn’t going to end well, inflato-pack or not. Point is, avalanche avoidance is still the only true guarantee of survival.

Ditch the Beacon/Shovel/Probe?

Sorry, Bubba. The beacon-shovel-probe combo is still essential gear for the backcountry. What if your buddy can’t deploy his airbag? Chances are most of your group won’t have an airbag-pack, at least for the next few seasons. Cost is an issue (they range from $600 to $1,200) and many folks still refuse to carry the weight (between six and eight pounds, depending on the unit).

Airbags work extremely well-—in one Swiss study every single dummy was either on the surface or buried with its airbag above the surface—but we’re not at a point where they’re considered fail-safe, and probably never will be. Malfunctions occur and unless you deploy the bag immediately, you may not get the chance once you’re entrained in moving snow.

Don’t forget your brain

Before you go, make sure you have your avalanche info centers programmed into your phone. Listen to their forecasts and modify your behavior accordingly. These operations make us all safer in the backcountry, so join and/or donate at the beginning of each season.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center

Front Range forecast: 303-275-5360 or 970-498-5311

Vail/Summit County forecast: 970-668-0600 

Crested Butte/Gunnison area forecast: 970-349-4022, cbavalanchecenter.org

Avalanche.org will get you to other centers throughout the U.S. and organizations devoted to avalanche education.

The Packs

As we said before, the best way to survive an avalanche is to not be in one, if you are caught your chances rely almost solely on staying atop, or a shallow burial. Airbag packs are the most effective tool to get you to the top of a slide. They cost about what a new set of skis or snowboard does, so why isn’t everyone using them?

Just like regular ski packs, airbag-packs come in a variety of sizes, with diverse feature sets. What you’re really buying is a pack’s features. How large do you want it? Do you need more pockets for goggles, keys and what-nots, or do you prefer a simpler version? Can you live without an A-frame carry?  Are you a snowboarder? Shop around, because there are dozens of models.

Manufacturers like ABS and Mammut/Snowpulse offer removable inflation systems, which then marry to different (compatible) packs. This way you can use one inflation mechanism (an air cylinder or cartridge, tube, hardware and the trigger) with a variety of packs—a small one for day tours or a larger one for week-long outings. It’s a nice approach, as you probably won’t want to pay full price for more than one air bag pack.

One other consideration is how to get a pack’s cylinder refilled once you’ve deployed it. The oldest company, ABS, requires you to send the spent cylinder back to its facility in British Columbia for a refill, while BCA, Mammut/Snowpulse, AviVest and Mystery Ranch packs can all be refilled at a SCUBA shop, paintball store or even a fire station.

This is worth a thought because if you travel with the pack, the cartridge will have to be decompressed-—unless it’s an ABS pack, in which case the cartridge is sealed and therefore considered “safe” by TSA standards. Small point, but keep it in mind.

Weights have steadily come down in the airbag game. At present, the lightest, smallest models are under seven pounds, but these are relatively undersized and more suited to side/slackcountry than true touring.

Prices vary and I’ll give you the range of each brand’s models. Visit your local gear shop for more, or check out Lou Dawson’s WildSnow.com for constantly updated info and ongoing reviews (the best resource I’ve found online for airbags).

The bottom line is all of the following packs work well and they’re our second most important tool in surviving an avalanche. You all know what the most important tool is, right? Hint: you’re using it right now.

ABS ($900-$1,200)

The Mystery Ranch Blackjack deployed.

The Mystery Ranch Blackjack deployed.

The inventor of the airbag-pack, ABS (abs-airbag.com) created its first model in 1985. Almost all research performed with airbag-packs has been completed with ABS models. They offer more than a dozen varieties (from four to 50 liters), many of which can share the internal mechanism, giving you options and saving your dough. A carbon cylinder is available in Eurolandia (soon in the States, they say), which shaves nine ounces off the inflation mechanism. Rossignol, Dynstar, Arva and Millet also make packs that will accept the ABS inflation mechanism. These packs are tough to find in the States, but keep an eye peeled. When traveling you can leave your ABS cylinder pressurized, but it must be removed from the trigger and hose. Good for you fat cats going heli-skiing twice a winter.

The North Face/ABS ($999-$1,200)

Next year, TNF will partner with ABS to become the European brand’s sole partner in North America, selling a 24-liter pack and also a vest. ABS will still sell its bags, too. The system will be the same as in any ABS pack, the big selling point will be the double bag system, which is less likely to fail or pop.

Mammut/Snowpulse ($700-$1,250)

Mammut (mammut.ch) will now distribute Snowpulse (Snowpulse.com) in the U.S. They make a range of packs, some of which feature a removable air system (R.A.S.). The Mammut 35-liter “Ride R.A.S.” is around 6.5 pounds and costs $700—a pretty good option. Snowpulse’s “Lifebag” bladder inflates in more of a collar configuration, which some claim offers better protection. There’s also some research to suggest its wearer is more likely to come to a stop (post-avy) with his head uphill and face-up.

Mystery Ranch ($975)

Based in Bozeman, Montana, Mystery has one pack, the “Blackjack” (43 liters, 7.8 pounds) that is a top-loader built with the “snow professional” in mind. The Blackjack is one of the more traditional-looking packs. It uses the guts of the AviVest system (removable) and you can refill the cartridge yourself. A-frame or vertical carry for skis, and vertical for a snowboard. Spendy, but a high-quality unit.

Backcountry Access (BCA) ($685-$785)

Mammut's Ride R.A.S. with Snowpulse

Mammut’s Ride R.A.S. with Snowpulse

The gang at BCA developed the first American airbags, catering to snowmachiners. BCA packs did us all a favor by pressuring the Euros to get a bit more cost-effective and this has helped bring base models down to the $700 mark. BCA offers an 18-, 30-, and 36-liter models, all in clamshell designs. They’re still stripping them down and retooling them to be more ski-specific, but weights and prices are competitive. Refill the cylinder at retailers, or by yourself at a paintball store, dive shop or firehouse.

WARY Avi Vest ($625-$695)

At present, the Avi Vest is a good side/slackcountry tool, but doesn’t have much volume (less than 20L). Rumors of a 33-liter pack swirl on the Net—but our snooping yielded nada.