Electronic avalanche rescue transceivers (aka beacons) began retailing around 1971. Nearly a half century ago. Since then they’ve saved lives, but were never the panacea we hoped they would be. Thing is, using a beacon to locate a buried victim is only a fraction of the battle. No matter how many fancy icons and perfectly tuned antennas your rig has, it won’t prevent trauma, and it won’t dig out your friend. And digging takes way more time than most people realize.
Enter the airbag backpack. “Balloon packs” have one purpose: to prevent burial in the event of a slide. They too have proven to work. Only as with transceivers, with less efficacy than we prefer (or some sellers and the media would imply). Airbags have not been definitively shown to protect against lethal trauma (though marketing spreech might allude otherwise), and they don’t prevent burial in odd situations such as being swept into a hole or crevasse. Most disconcerting, they often fail to inflate (due to mechanical or operator error).
Considering the above, a “best practice” in avalanche terrain might be to ski with both devices. But what if you planned on having both, the fates intervened, and your situation went binary? Would you abstain from skiing, or head out the door with your friends for a brilliant day of swiping turns with an airbag, or beacon, but not both? And in that case which device would you prefer? Yes folks, it is time: Alien vs. Predator, Kramer vs. Kramer, King Kong vs. Godzilla … Airbag vs. Beacon.
ALTERNATE REALITY ONE
You have saved your pennies. You are there. At the hut of your dreams. With the best friends of your entire life, and your betrothed. The snowpack is promising — thick — midwinter in the Kokanees. You hand your partner a steaming mug of coffee (“with lots of cream, please”), sit down on the edge of the bed, and discuss the day ahead.
“Bill was outside a few minutes ago, evaluating, he says the new 200 centimeters of snow from last night is not particularly well bonded, rated moderate with an asterisk. But he thinks we can use terrain management and get some pow turns. He said, ‘It could be amazing if we’re careful’.”
Your love sits up, does a feline stretch, “Last night was the best of our lives, with this window looking up at the mountain…the firelight…this day could be the same…”
You head to the gear room, grab your beacon, click the power switch. It’s a brick, cold as the hills. Must be the batteries, you think, I’ll get some out of my headlamp. No luck. The little beepity guy, such a fearless companion from the far tip of South America to the steeps of Chamonix, has given it up for the great beacon motel in the sky.
“Is there a spare beacon around here?” you ask the room.
Sitting at the dining table, you try for salvage. “I don’t have a beacon, it’s broken. You guys mind if I ski with only my airbag pack?”
“Up to you.”
You’re a numbers guy and you’ve been consuming statistics for years. Like this ditty you found on PubMed, and this one from The Avalanche Review. The former claims an “adjusted mortality rate” for buried victims is 44%, while for non buried victims it’s 3%.
You know some of this stuff is based on computer modeling, some on the study of real-life accidents. Whatever, it all validates your gut feelings: I’ll go for it. I’m airbagged. I won’t get buried — I’ve got a dang solid chance of surviving. Simple as that.
Then you remember a glitch. You’ve heard of a study that cites a “non-inflation” rate of 20%, meaning for some reason — user error or mechanical failure — the bag doesn’t inflate when it should.
I’ll eliminate the ‘non-inflation’ I’ll double check the plumbing, ski with my hand on the trigger, you think, that’ll get my odds way up there. Time for pow!
Then you remember another glitch. If my love gets buried, I’ll be unable to assist with the beacon search, I’ll just be in the way. Though I guess I could help with the digging…
ALTERNATE REALITY TWO
Everyone in the hut has an airbag, except you. Last time you looked, it was on the luggage rack of a fast disappearing bus — and your heli shuttle was loading in ten minutes. You hopped on the bird and joined your friends anyway, thinking I’ll just ski if conditions rate a ‘Low.’
But conditions are not “Low.” They’re moderate trending to worse.
Your group had agreed beforehand you would all ski with both airbags and beacons. Not as a rigid policy. Just a friendly cultural style. No one expected to be considering doing without one item or the other.
You walk into the common. Everyone is packing, “Would you guys mind if I ski today with only a beacon? I know conditions are more dangerous than we talked about at the helipad, so up to you all.”
Mary looks up from stuffing sandwiches in ziplocks, “You think that’s ethical? People get buried even with balloon packs. If that happens you’re making it a lot more likely we’ll be digging up your corpse — after maybe hours of probing. Also, everyone else is taking one for the team, hauling the extra weight of their airbag.”
You glance at Bill. “What do you think?”
“I’m willing to try finding you with a probe line and hopefully digging you up alive, if you want to tag along. But let’s vote, I don’t want any lingering grumpiness about this.”
Mary nods. “I’m reluctant, but it’s up to you.”
Everyone else agrees. It’s a landslide vote.
A friend told you he’d learned in Avy 2 that “one in two people will die if they’re completely buried. If wearing a beacon, it’s one in three.” You’d also read a study that was more pessimistic, citing about one in two. And you’d seen stuff on a website that wasn’t exactly complimentary as to the effectiveness of the avy transceiver. That’s exactly why you and your friends all use both balloons and beacons.
You’re feeling a little guilty, but the pow is calling you like gravity. You check your beacon’s battery level, and suit up. I won’t ski first down anything, and these guys can dig fast, you think. Besides, we used to do this stuff without airbags and we survived. If I’m careful today, I won’t be on the bad side of the one in three.
Okay readers, imagine you indeed have a choice between balloon or beacon — not both. And you’ve decided to make the Faustian bargain of skiing anyway. Which would you prefer to use, and why?
Don’t get left without either option. Shop for avy gear.
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.