The controversial and incredibly compelling Avalung is our piece du jour. For the newbies: Avalung is a simple breathing device to supply fresh air during an avalanche burial. It’s simply a tube with a one-way “non-rebreathing” valve that allows you to exhale into one area of the snowpack, and receive fresh air from another area. The tube is either carried as a stand-along device in a nylon sling, or it’s built into a backpack.
When I did my Week of Dynafit back last winter, I could feel the waves of envy washing off some of my other advertisers. Yeah I’ll admit, we do end up with a Dynafit bias here. The reasons are simple. Mainly, we’ve had a licit affair with the Dynafit binding for more than two decades, and when Dynafit became a gear brand and not just a binding, much of their kit continued the tradition of excellence and deserved extensive coverage. Nonetheless, companies such as Black Diamond have also excelled, we love ’em, so here we go.
We’ll get to the Avalung controversy in a moment. First, why is this thing so compelling?
Pretty obvious. Just as a small plane pilot might be interested in parachutes, when something came along that could quite possibly up our survival chances in an avalanche, we were all ears. Sure, airbags exist and are proven, but they’ll set you back all that gold you’ve been hording, weigh a ton, and stick you with one dedicated backpack. Avalung is relatively cheap, can be used as a stand-alone device with any backpack, and weighs little.
Presently, BD builds the Avalung into five backpacks, and also sells a stand-alone unit. Their range of sacks goes from the larger Anarchist to the diminutive Bandit. I’m a toploader fan, so I use their Alias, albeit with quite a bit of slicing and dicing to make it more minimal.
Since I like top loaders, my pick for a smaller pack is to use a small torso Alias. The shoulder straps on this are marginal in length for me (though they still work), and everything else functions perfectly. For bigger trips I’ve got a regular size Alias, and also keep a stand-alone unit in reserve in case I’m forced into using a non-Avalung pack.
Since this is actually a gear review and not intended as a puff, I should mention a few cons. First, I’d like the Alias to have a larger mesh pouch inside the top flap, and have a slightly larger pass-through to get the hydration tube into the shoulder strap. The Avalung is built in nicely, but once it’s deployed it’s quite difficult to stuff back into its zippered compartment. That could be easily improved. As with just about any backpack I use, BD could do well in providing a modular pouch system that attached via built-in hard points at strategic locations such as shoulder straps and hip belt. For carrying GPS, vid cams, point-and-shoots, etc. If BD made the pouches as one set that would work with any of their backpacks, that would be so excellent… Other than these minor gripes, I’m a happy camper.
Many of you’ve read my blogging about the limits of the Avalang. I question its efficacy in a large violent slide, and I even question the reliability of ALWAYS getting the mouthpiece in when a slide starts. Controversy rises because any safety device may support the user taking more risk, thus canceling out any benefit or even causing tragedy. Some scoff at this notion, others swear it exists and we should be on guard about it. I take the latter view. Comments?
Controversy aside, I carry an Avalung by choice. If nothing else, it could easily save my life in the type of smaller slides that frequently bury skiers with little or no physical injury, yet cause death because the victim isn’t dug out fast enough. At best, it’ll work no matter what. It’s also the perfect safety device for a tree well entrapment.
For some Avalung survival stories check this out.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.