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Snow enthusiasts split on use of avalanche survival aids

Jason Blevins

Snowboarder Nate Soules had it all. The Avalung backpack. The avalanche transceiver, probe pole and shovel. He even had the latest in avalanche-safety technology: a backpack air-bag system that inflates behind the head and keeps avalanche victims buoyed on top of sliding snow.

Somewhere up high in the Bear Creek, Colo., area Feb. 13,, just outside the Telluride ski area boundary, the longtime Telluride local and father was swept off his feet and down a ragged, narrow gully. He pulled his rip cord, and the air bag inflated around his head.

Two other skiers, using their avalanche beacons, found Soules' body buried under 4 feet of snow, deep in dense trees. It appeared his helmet had been ripped from his head. The shredded air bag was around his shoulders.

San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters estimates Soules tumbled several hundred yards through trees and over rocks at a high rate of speed.

"The important thing to realize here is, that thing was completely soaked in blood," he said of the air bag. "It certainly deployed, but I didn't think it would have made any difference."

Soules, 38, was one of two backcountry skiers killed last week in Colorado avalanches, pushing the state's tally of avalanche fatalities this season to six. Also last week, five backcountry travelers were caught in two other slides, with a pair suffering serious injuries.

TRAUMA IS THE KILLER

On Friday, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued a statewide "special statement" urging caution as avalanche conditions remain dangerous and skier-triggered avalanches likely.

Masters on Tuesday issued a warning to skiers who venture into the steep and deep avalanche paths just beyond the ski area boundary, noting that more people have died in the Bear Creek area over the past three decades than inside the ski area.

Since becoming sheriff in 1980, Masters has pulled eight bodies out of the Bear Creek area. Some were buried 15 feet deep. Some looked like pretzels, he said. Every death was caused by "extreme and immediate trauma, not suffocation," Masters said.

"Emergency breathing systems, floatation devices, locating beacons, shovels and probe poles would not have, in all probability, saved any of them," Masters wrote in his warning to backcountry travelers.

But if you've been following avalanche reports over the past few years in North America, the avalanche air bag has been a savior. From a professional snowboarder last week above Montezuma to a snowmobiler swept from Jones Pass two years ago, the air bag has been heralded as a lifesaver.

AIR BAGS NO CURE-ALL

Soules' death is the first in the U.S. for someone wearing an avalanche air-bag system. But worldwide, air bags have a less-than-perfect record.

"Air bags improve your chance of survival, but not nearly at the level most people think," said Dale Atkins, president of the American Avalanche Association, who worked 20 years as a forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and serves as a training chief for avalanche-safety company RECCO.

With only a handful of North American incidents involving air bags that resulted in nary an injury, Atkins said "the perception of air bags is misshapen."

Using European -- mostly Swiss -- data of avalanche accidents involving air bags, which have been used across the pond for more than 25 years, Atkins paints a much less rosy picture of the inflatable tools.

Based on those statistics, about three in 100 people equipped with air bags survive an avalanche.

While most air-bag stats show survival rates of people who deployed their air bags, those numbers do not reflect the people who could not or forgot to pull the ripcord; forgot to fill the cartridge in the pack; did not install the cartridge correctly; or suffered a technical malfunction with the system.

Or, as in Soules' case, the air bags didn't make a difference.

'A PLACE TO BE LUCKY'

"We can use technology to help reduce risk, but we can't eliminate risk -- and I think a lot of people see technology as a sort of shield," said Atkins, noting that half of U.S. avalanche deaths involve people wearing avalanche transceivers.

"The user has to be very careful about not perceiving these pieces of personal protection equipment as shields. What they do is put you in a place to be lucky. We shouldn't use these tools thinking we can go out and expose ourselves to more danger."

Avalanche air bags work best in the treeless alpine environments where victims won't be tumbled through dense timber. Soules now ranks among the 25 percent of U.S. avalanche victims who die of trauma, not burial and suffocation.

"They are great tools and they are saving people's lives, and we don't want to discount that," said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. "But they don't make you invulnerable. It's like thinking you can drive everywhere at 200 mph because you've got your seat belt on. It doesn't make any sense."

EACH SLIDE DIFFERENT

Avalanche researchers have to go back about 30 years to find a sketchier snowpack in Colorado. The close calls are abundant -- five people survived avalanches last week alone -- and Greene's team of forecasters is working long hours researching reports about each of the state's six avalanche fatalities so far this season.

Each situation was different. A 13-year-old was killed in an inbounds slide in Vail. A man was buried inbounds at Mary Jane. A Snowmass bartender was buried in a slide a mere 13 feet wide, just beyond the ski area boundary. A snowmobiler died up Buffalo Pass.

The six deaths this season match the state's annual average for avalanche fatalities with more than two months left.

It's the kind of year that spikes sales for avalanche air bags, which could soon be considered among the essential tools for backcountry travel, alongside shovel, probe pole and beacon.

Next fall, there will be six different companies offering avalanche air-bag backpacks, up from one a few years ago.

Boulder's Backcountry Access, which sells leading avalanche-safety equipment, is the first North American manufacturer of an air-bag backpack. The company's 3-year-old Float series of air-bag packs are credited with saving a professional snowboarder's life last month in the backcountry above Montezuma.

PACK YOUR BRAIN FIRST

Company co-founder Bruce Edgerly is no stranger to the speculation that his equipment could be leading backcountry travelers to up their risk. The same talk followed avalanche beacons to market 20 years ago.

The safety gear, he says, is just another set of complementary tools.

"The biggest tool is the one inside your cranium," he said, "and it's the only tool you should completely depend on."

The transceivers, Avalungs and air bags have improved avalanche survival rates over the past decade, but Edgerly also credits revamped and aggressive avalanche training programs developed by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education in raising both avalanche awareness and backcountry skills.

"I think that has done as much to increase the survival rate and minimize the number of incidents as avalanche equipment has," he said.


By JASON BLEVINS
The Denver Post