The avalanche airbag that professional skier Elyse Saugstad was wearing at Stevens Pass on Sunday is difficult to find in Western Washington.
Very certain that is what saved my life, Saugstad said of the ABS Avalanche Airbag Backpack she activated as she was being swept away by the avalanche that killed three of her companions.
The ABS packs are common in Europe but most dealers here in the Northwest offer the U.S. version, Backcountry Access (BCA) airbag packs. Seattle BCA Technical Representative Chris Simmons demonstrated the pack. As he pulled a rip chord on the shoulder strap, an internal air canister immediately inflated the air bag to form a giant pillow behind his neck and back.
These airbag-float- packs, under tests, have doubled the victims chance of ending up on the surface, said Simmons who is also a back country guide and friends with the victims of Sunday's tragedy.
He explained how the bags are not designed to float, but to increase the size of the avalanche victim. In an avalanche, the smaller debris sifts through to the bottom and bigger pieces end up on top. Some back country skiers complain the packs are too heavy but Simmons points out the newer, smaller packs are much lighter and have room for other traditional gear like shovels, locators and beacons.
When I tried it, I found it very light and unrestrictive. It also provided a soft cushion and was bright enough to attract rescuers. The cost is much heavier, between $600 and $700, but Simmons points out, that is about the cost of a pair of good skis. He added the bags are no substitute for proper back country and avalanche training but are one more safety tool to consider.
Backcountry Access safety products