The ABS of Avalanche Safety
What makes you a backcountry enthusiast? Is it the awesome beauty of the natural setting…the heart-pumping adrenaline rush of the high mark on pristine mountain slope playing in fresh waist-deep powder? It’s all that and more. But we all know the flip side of the coin - the constant avalanche danger that lurks everywhere in this amazing wildness environment.
Avalanche specialists can predict the most dangerous conditions that are likely to trigger an avalanche. But Mother Nature doesn’t make it that easy: changing temperatures, snow compaction, vibration and a bunch of other factors can turn a perfect travel day into a heart-pounding race against a killer express train of snow in mere seconds.
Given that unpredictability, dedicated and creative inventors have put their skills to work on safety gear that would help protect sledders, skiers and boarders in the event that they get caught in an avalanche event. One such inventor is Peter Aschauer, CEO and Founder of ABS Avalanche Rescue Devices. Peter started developing his airbag system back in the Seventies based on some unique findings in the Austrian back country. We sat down with Steve Wagner, Marketing Director for ABS North America, to find out what the ABS product is all about.
“It was a German forester that reportedly survived several avalanches carrying a slain deer on his back”, Steve told us. The theory behind it all was that a larger object would stay on top and small objects would stay on the bottom, or float to the bottom. The theory is called the ‘Brazil nut’ in fact, if you were to take a bowl of mixed nuts and shake them, the larger nuts would actually come to the top and the smaller nuts would sink to the bottom. So the idea behind making an avalanche airbag was to make yourself one of the larger particles in an avalanche.
Peter Ashour came up with a patent in 1980 to 1985, the first inflatable bag was brought out and the people thought he was a little bit nutty. Now with a 97% survival rate of activated avalanche airbags, ABS airbags, he’s now considered somewhat of a visionary and a genius.
When asked for some hard numbers to back up that survival rate, Steve had details at hand. “At the beginning of this winter we had 262 actual incidents recorded of an ABS airbag being recorded in an actual avalanche. Of those 262, we had 255 survivors. This is a 97% survival rate. Of those 255, 90% had no head or neck trauma.”
Snow Goer Canada asked about acceptance of the ABS concept among sledders in mountain country. His reply was definite. “Absolutely, the snowmobile community tends to be one of early uptake. In the last few years through several high-profile events, they’ve become very aware of the cost of tragedy in the back country. Consequently you have snowmobile companies themselves and manufacturers taking the initiative to educate the end user.”
We asked Steve to talk about how the ABS has developed over the years. “In 1996 Peter Ashour moved away from a cable pull and went to a power technique candle. This actually carries a 9 ml. charge in it and reduces the reliance on a cable, which cables, when we introduce the humidity and cold weather, we can sometimes have the possibility of freeze up.
“There are two 85-litre bags and it increases total volume to 170 litres. The science shows that there be 140 litres added to an average large man in order to keep him on top of the snow. Industry standard is 150 litre. Peter Ashour moved to 170 litres to give us a redundancy: If one airbag is destroyed or does not inflate, then you will still have one airbag. The second reason for using two airbags is to provide greater surface area, by providing this we are trying to flatten the body out on the snow somewhat. We are not forcing it into a flat position but trying to influence that position. When you have an avalanche, one of the traps is the decelerating layer. You talk to anybody who’s been in one and they will talk about the clamp or the vice that forms around them. So the decelerating layer is that layer which is closest to the ground and as it starts to slow down it will slow down before any other layers, so if you are dangling from an airbag in that decelerating layer, subsequent layers will come down and eventually bury you. The idea of pushing you into a prone or a flatter position on the snow is that subsequent layers will still push you up and maintain that floating position.”
Wagner went on to describe some of the more recent changes to the ABS system. Just like everything else today, electronics have become an integral part of the ABS product. Steve explains: “The other very significant innovation with regards to our technology is our wireless technology that allows for remote activation of the system. You can appreciate in an avalanche that there may be times when the person in the avalanche may not be able to activate or may have difficulty activating. With a single pull you have a 30-second continuous signal that is sent off and when the person comes out of a debris field or if there is any blockage or anything the unit will be activated. You can set it up so it will activate the whole group or you can set it up as a slave system so that the guide can activate customer’s airbags as well. There is absolutely nothing in the industry like this, this is proprietary to ABS.
“Beyond that, we’ve now come out with a new airbag that are 70 grams a bag lighter than the previous one. They are 10 times more puncture resistant and way more rip resistant. You can appreciate that a puncture will be very detrimental to the bag, but a tear would be catastrophic.”
“They are a very durable product; we go through full testing. I can tell you from personal experience we’ve actually taken an airbag out in the parking lot and driven over it in an F-350 without it exploding”
Steve strongly advises all back country enthusiasts to be prepared before you venture out. “Take an avalanche course. Buy yourself the three main tools, which are a probe, beacon, and a shovel; learn how to use them with repeated use and repeated practice. The fourth level of tools and ability to survive an avalanche would be the Avi airbag. There is greater awareness in North America, there are several companies now producing avalanche airbags and all on the tails of what Peter Ashour has been doing with ABS.”
Steve Wagner acknowledges that innovation and precision engineering doesn’t come cheap, but as one enthusiastic ABS user said, “What’s your life worth?” That’s the question to ponder as you prep for your next mountain adventure.