New Safety Equipment Addresses Avalanche Danger

New Safety Equipment Addresses Avalanche Danger

Best Practices by Lou Dzierzak, Lkdcom@visi.comlou_dzierzak_90x110

According to, avalanches have claimed the lives of 30 people in the United States through March 30, 2012. Headlines announcing tragic losses of backcountry skiers seem to come far too regularly.

Despite tenuous snow conditions across the mountain west and almost daily warnings about dangerous avalanche conditions, the appeal of untracked powder continues to attract skiers to the backcountry. “The lure of the powder is all consuming,” says Marcus Petersen CEO of Ortovox USA, The panache of the sport is definitely in side country powder skiing.”

backcountry_1Dave Wray, western sales and marketing manager, SIA, notes, “Once you’ve had a taste of the backcountry, you are hooked. There is some boundary pushing and pushing the envelope. People want to go further, higher and deeper. The core audience is growing every year.”

Jeff Blakely, general manager, Brooks-Range notes, “There are more and more people heading into the backcountry. New equipment and easier access is creating more demand.”

As more skiers are venturing into sidecountry and backcountry areas to pursue powder, carrying the proper safety equipment is becoming even more important. “Shovels and poles are the skier’s pack all the time. Now you are adding beacons and air bags,” says Blakely of Brooks-Range.

Nathan Kuder, softgoods category director at Black Diamond Equipment notes,” The understanding that there is a need for something additional to the previous standard of beacon, shovel and probe is absolutely changing. Backcountry and sidecountry travelers are increasingly convinced of the advantages of AvaLungs and airbags and are planning accordingly.”

Snow safety experts like Dean Cummings, founder and owner of H20 Guides, member of National Ski Patrol Snow Safety Team and author of “Be Snow Smart” education backcountry_2program, caution that while safety-oriented equipment is very important, education about snow conditions should be the primary focus of backcountry enthusiasts. At the 2012 SIA Snow Show, Cummings presented Be Snow Smart in the exclusive exhibit Backcountry Experience that educated buyers and attendees on practical tips for avalanche safety. “All the tools are great for when an avalanches strike but there’s no better tool than the one that sits on top your head. Avalanches happen. Snow science just isn’t precise enough to offer any guarantees. The best avalanche science and forecasting can’t help people who make bad decisions, don’t follow good backcountry protocols and are simply at the wrong place on the mountain at the wrong time.”

This winter, air bags that use inflatable bladders to help an avalanche victim float at the top of a snow slide are attracting attention. After an avalanche in Stevens Pass, WA on February 19, 2012 that claimed the lives of 3 skiers, a survivor credited her air bag with saving her life.

Used extensively in Europe, backcountry skiers in North America are starting to incorporate air bags into their backcountry skiing adventures. “I think we are reaching a tipping point in North American that they reached in Europe maybe ten years ago with avalanche air bags,” explains Bruce Edgerly, vice president, Backcountry Access, Inc.

Another factor slowing faster sales of avalanche air bags is the reluctance of people who only ski backcountry a few times a year to spend the money. “People who go out once or twice a year may not want to invest in beacon and packs,” notes Blakely. Don Rezicka, manager, Hoback Sports in Jackson, WY agrees. “People who travel to ski areas to ski in backcountry aren’t buying air bags as much as people who live in mountain areas.”bca_airbag

This season’s media coverage of tragic deaths in avalanche accidents appears to motivating more backcountry ski enthusiasts to put these obstacles aside. “Air bags tend to be seen as an expensive add-on right now but I think that may change depending on how many successful deployments of the airbags happen,” notes Petersen of Ortovox.

Cummings believes the two limiting factors to getting backcountry enthusiasts properly equipped are education and money. “Airbag packs start at around $700, avalung pack around $180, a beacon costs another $250, probes $35, shovels $25 on top the thousands they spent for skis, boots, poles and skins and hopefully an avalanche safety class. Some people forego it due to price. Others think it’s a small price to pay for some gear that could definitely help save your life,” says Cummings.

Education First

At the 2012 Show, Wray helped organize the SIA Backcountry Experience exhibit to promote brands involved in this segment. Safety and education was a key element in the exhibit. “The equipment, for the most part, is what you use when you are involved in an avalanche situation. Knowledge, experience and common sense is what you need to minimize the risk and make good decisions that keep you out of potentially deadly and dangerous avalanche terrain and situations,” says Wray.


Improved skis, boots and bindings have made it easier than ever to ski in backcountry conditions. Avalanche safety equipment has also become more accessible, affordable, easy to use and effective. Still many snow sports industry executives call for skiers to first pay attention to understanding snow conditions.

“Technological advancements in avalanche related personal safety gear is to be applauded. I am a huge fan of having options particularly options that can be employed to save lives. Whether recent improvements in avalanche transceivers, the AvaLung, the airbag, shovels, probes. It is all good,” says Ted Steiner, avalanche safety consultant at Chugach Adventure Guides. “The problem I see is that all the improvements and technological advancements are on the back end.  Advancements are for gear to be utilized in the event of a rescue and/or recovery. Not that this is bad in and of itself, but it takes focus away from the from the front end or preemptive actions and decision making that would avert having to utilize this type of equipment.”

Steiner continues, “That focus it is minimizing the consequences of being caught in an avalanche. So, backcountry travelers, particularly those that are not professionals in the field, are focusing on how to “get out” of an avalanche rather than how to “avoid” getting caught in an avalanche preemptively. Approximately 66 percent of backcountry travelers are dying of asphyxia and 33 percent of trauma-type injuries. It has not been shown that any of the recent technological advancements- including air bags have changed this statistic.”

backcountry_4As the winter of 2011-12, avalanche equipment brands and retailers expect backcountry skiers to pay more attention to safety. “When transceivers became mainstream, people would no longer ski with someone who didn’t have an avalanche beacon,” reports Rezicka of Hoback Sports. “Now, if you don’t have a beacon you don’t even feel welcome asking the question can I go touring with you. In a short time that’s will be the case with avalanche air bags.”

Hoback Sports started carrying avalanche bags this year and sold out. “There’s more demand that we anticipated. We re-ordered mid-season and still sold out of inventory,” reports Rezicka. “My prediction in 5 years most people will have an air bag instead of a avalanche transceiver.”

Peterson of Ortovox expresses concern about an either/or decision concerning beacons and avalanche air bags. He explains, “There’s a significant price differential between beacons and air bags. I hope people don’t say I’m not sure what I’m going to buy either a beacon or an air bag. That would be foolish. It has to be beacon first. I hope this equipment doesn’t give people a false sense of security and I believe that sometimes it does. By carrying a beacon and air bag there’s a chance they will take a slightly riskier position than if you didn’t have that equipment.”

Ute Mountaineer makes a strong effort to provide safety training. “Our staff is very educated in the area of avalanche safety through clinics, and most employees are backcountry enthusiasts. We have very little problems in selling people beacons, probes, and shovels. Avalanche pack sales are catching on and I think are going to grow exponentially in the next couple of years. We also sell our fair share of snow study kits too,” says Sam Barg, hardgoods buyer, Ute Mountaineer, Aspen, CO.

“Three years ago there weren’t enough air bags here to tell any success stories. Now, with social media, any time there is a success story people hear about it,” reports Edgerly of Backcountry Access, Inc. “Now we’ve seen a huge year of inventory turn. We’re also seeing big preseason orders from specialty retailers who didn’t carry avalanche air bags this year.”

After the intense media coverage of avalanche injuries and fatalities during the 2011-12 winter season, safety education will certainly take on a more important role for backcountry enthusiasts. Snow sports equipment brands and specialty retailers remain committed to educating backcountry skiers about reducing risks of being caught in an avalanche.  The resource links that follow offer information about avalanche science, forecasting and safety training programs.


National Ski Patrol Avalanche Program

American Avalanche Association

Utah Avalanche Center

North American Outdoor Institute ‘Be Snow Smart”
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