This post sponsored by our publishing partner Cripple Creek Backcountry. They won’t drill holes in your pack for you, but they’ll discuss it.
This winter is my first season skiing exclusively with an airbag backpack, the new Black Diamond JetForce Tour 26. While avalanche airbags have been in development since I was born, cost and weight have been the primary reasons for slow adoption by myself and many other skiers. Also, here in the United States, terrain type is another reason for limited use. Efficacy of a balloon bag is proven for long slide paths lacking trees and and terrain traps. Instead, much of our winter skiing on this side of the pond, and particularly in Colorado, is near or below treeline in rolling terrain, often terminating in creek beds where you might initially come to rest on the surface, but snow sliding above you can bury you deep — if you survive being “strainered” through the forest.
All that said, with diligent monitoring of snow stability, there are still many opportunities to ski long steep, sparsely timbered pitches throughout our ski season. That’s when the airbag comes in to play.
The past two winters, I occasionally skied with the Black Diamond JetForce Halo 28 airbag. The pack is well built, and carries well, but it is too heavy for everyday use. I would often switch back to my favorite ski rucksack of all time — BDs Cirque 45 for longer tours. Guessing when to sport an airbag, and when not to, is fine if you are a combination of Bruce Tremper and the Buddha. But for the rest of us, given conditions that are anything but full green-light, a daily commitment to wearing the airbag pack is the best way to ensure the intersection of missed stability assessment and powder fever happen with a balloon on your back.
This fall, Black Diamond received their eleventh-hour license to use the Alpride E1 system, making the JetForce Tour 26 about 2 lbs lighter than the Halo 28. I opted for the BD over the Scott version of the E1 due to easier main-cavity access, padded hip belts, and longtime personal success with the BD pack line.
(You can go lighter with the Mammut Ultralight backpack and a smuggled-from-Europe carbon cylinder. The Ultralight is too minimalist for my taste. It lacks back panel reinforcement and has a tight 20L capacity. My more weight conscious friends run this configuration and while impressively light, I have seen them struggle with jamming more than a basic amount of gear into the pack.)
I wear the Tour 26 medium/large for my 6 foot and 150 pound “hungry” build. The breaking point in height tends to be between 5’8” and 5’10” depending on torso length. The padded belt sections rest nicely on my boney hips and the belt cinches up well, clasping together with a small aluminum climbing-harness style buckle. The shoulder straps have an appropriate amount of dense foam and lock to the top of the pack with adjustable load lifters. Sternum strap is the same that BD uses for most of their packs: height adjustable, whistle buckle, and elastic segment to aid mobility. Back panel is plastic for structure with dense foam facing the wearer.
The only gripe I have with the feel of this pack is that the avy tools are in a separate compartment furthest from the wearer. Without any compression ability, this creates a sloppy swing weight when the pack is anything but completely loaded. If you look closely in the promo video for the pack, the tested one actually has two straps on either side. Waiting to hear back from BD about what happened with that!
Sitting largely unused in my garage was an old BD Slide 20L pack that was going to have to make a sacrifice to its descendant. I cut the buckled compression straps off the Slide and began drilling into the new Tour 26. Two suitable attachment points just below the balloon closure zipper were located, one in the back panel and other in the dense foam outer shell. Four screw rivets with copious red Loctite fastened the straps to the pack. Voila, the pack feels like one unit no matter how empty it is.
One of the biggest benefits of an electric airbag is cost-free and simple system testing. All the more important when drilling holes in it and modifying the shape (bring the comments). Furthermore, my BCA radio cable crosses over the airbag closure, which was mildly concerning. A quick cost-free inflation of the system showed that my mods had not hindered the pack and that the balloon easily pushed the radio cable out of the way.
The E1 system’s operating switch is internal (located on the inflation mechanism), compared to the trigger handle button on the Halo pack. The E1 switch knob must be pulled out, twisted 90 degrees, and held for 2 seconds. The deflate knob is also inside the bag, it functions similarly yet is purely mechanical. The inflation mechanism is housed in an awkwardly-tight zippered pouch. An externally visible indicator LED blinks green every 3 seconds when the pack is charged, on, and ready to inflate. I generally plug the E1 system in every night but have gone several days on end without needing a charge. As Lou discovered in his testing, it charges nicely with AA batteries as well. He says that’s all he uses.
The main compartment is accessible by a 270-degree two-way zipper, creating a book-like full opening or options to open from the top or side. I pack my bag in the fully open position, but access contents throughout the day via a side opening. Probe, shovel pieces, and snow saw fit in the tools compartment. Inside the top portion of that cavity is a zippered pocket that holds miscellaneous small items. The Halo had a clever white colored zipper pull on the avy tool closure to distinguish it from the main compartment. I have grabbed the wrong zipper many a time on the Tour 26 — white acrylic paint will remedy that. A small pouch on the right hip has enough space for some TP, a ski strap, and stability column isolation cord.
External gear attachment points include a diagonal ski carry setup, helmet carry, and single ice tool. Helmet and ski carries tuck into zippered closures when not in use and are not available at the same time. The lower ski carry loop is a fixed piece of webbing sewn into the center of the pack inside of the padded exterior panel. Seems to me that it could be better attached and larger or adjustable. The leg loop lacks a stowing place which seems like an oversight. I added a simple wire gate carabiner to the leg loop for easy on-off. When not in use, I simply attach that biner to the shoulder strap webbing at the hip. The Tour 26 is overall very clean and has been quite durable as one would expect from a BD pack.
I have carried a Black Diamond pack nearly exclusively during this season. Solid, simple, and utilitarian; BD packs carry essential gear well and have held up to many seasons of my best abuse. I am happy with the Jetforce Tour 26 and will to continue to carry it in any conditions other than full green-light. And I might even carry it then.
(Wildsnow guest blogger Gary Smith is an avid backcountry skier and ski mountaineer residing in Eagle County, Colorado. You can find him at Cripple Creek Backcountry in Vail when he is not in search of steep lines or face shots. Please visit @ghostrider.gary on Instagram for ski shots and snippets of mountain life.)
On March 22nd 2021, Gary Smith tragically died in an avalanche outside of Beaver Creek Resort in Colorado. Since 2018, Gary has been a frequent and insightful contributor to WildSnow. From Christmas Eve spent at the Wildsnow Field HQ cabin, to testing gear and sharing his love for steep skiing around the world, he was a pillar of the ski touring community and will be greatly missed.