We submit ourselves to some sort of risk on a daily basis. Some risks are low probability but high consequence, others are high risk but low consequence. We accept these risks as part of everyday life. Most of us wouldn’t think twice about the built-in safety systems around us such as the airbags or seatbelts in our cars.< br clear="all">
Backcountry safety is something that is always in the fore front of the media and particularly with accidents that are sometimes very preventable. Most backcountry enthusiasts accept that carrying a beacon, probe and shovel are essential pieces of gear. But what about avalanche Air Bags? Should these now included in the mandatory backcountry gear?
The statistics point toward the value of using an airbag. In one study, the Austrian Association for Alpine and High Altitude Medicine showed that there was a 96.9% survival rate when the airbag was deployed and of those, 77.5% were not buried or only partially buried. (Brugger & Falk, 2002). While these statistics are almost ten years old, they point to the fact that there is value in airbags and survival in avalanche events. We must understand that the airbag itself will not ensure that you will survive any avalanche. However, using an airbag in combination with other safety systems and techniques it is another survival tool.
So what prevents people from using this tool? Some say that the weight of the airbag is a deterrent (but at 4 pounds, an avalanche bag isn’t onerous – You should see the things people forget in their packs). Price is probably a bigger factor. Backcountry skiing has a large barrier to entry as it is almost $2500 for a new setup so this can be understandable to a certain extent. The adoption of airbags by the snowmobile industry has been much more swift then backcountry skiing. What is another $1,200 when you have already spent $15,000 on a sled? Most of us would never drive without insurance or leave our families vulnerable without life insurance. Spending $1200 for an airbag seems like a small investment to make for the extra piece of mind.
With more competition the prices will start to come down and one hopes that it will become standard equipment. More may also be required, first of all education showing that the initial cost is secondary to safety. Legislation is another option but as backcountry skiers we have always prided ourselves in self policing. The voluntary assumptions of the risks involved in the sport are understood by most of the people involved. Perhaps the best way to make airbags standard equipment is peer pressure.
Influential backcountry travelers, such as trip leaders, ski guides, heli ski operators and professionals in the industry are the keys to making a change in the mentality of backcountry travelers. It is the responsibility of the people who have already made the investment to educate others on the value of an airbag. This is a change in backcountry safety very reminiscent of the times when avalanche beacons were thought of as expensive and weren’t widely used. That has since changed and most people would never leave home without it. One day these survival tools may save your life or the life of someone you love.
Get out there have fun be safe and remember that you can be an agent of change.
Great links on Avalanche Airbags