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Some thoughts

March 6 2012 at 11:33 AM
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Response to Avalanche Airbag?

I'd like to share the perspective on air bag packs from someone whose work is about keeping people from dying in avalanches.

First, the problem:
About 25% of avalanche fatalities are due to trauma. That rate's higher in the US & BC than in Europe because of the differences in terrain ( treeline, and thus, more s*&t to hit here).
Somewhere between 25% and 33% of fully buried avalanche victims are dug out alive.
Of those, about 25-30% are found using transceivers.
So....don't get caught, don't get fully buried if you're caught, and don't expect to get found with a transceiver if you're fully buried.

The best tool for staying alive is clearly good decision making - recognizing and avoiding dangerous places in dangerous conditions. But for various reasons - some physiological - that's not easy to do every time you're out. We all make mistakes. Despite years of professional training and experience, I've been caught and carried 2x, and am lucky to be in one piece. Let's leave the discussion of how mistakes like that happen for another time, so we can keep the focus on airbags.

Once a person's caught, survival is a question of chance. Anything we can do to stack the odds in our favor is worthwhile in my book. It's hard in our terrain - all those trees and burned snags and rocks - to improve our odds against trauma, except in deciding what to ski, ride or climb. Again, a topic for another time.

Burial...that's another story. For years we've focused on tools and techniques for recovering people before asphyxiation - avalanche cords, transceivers, improved transceivers, avalungs, strategic shoveling, etc. That effort helps...sometimes, for some people. But you could also look at those numbers above and make a good case that effort has failed. People that get fully buried aren't surviving very often.

Airbags are the first tool that reduces the number of people getting fully buried. People using airbags stay on or closer to the surface of moving debris. Only rarely are they fully buried. Because of that, survival rates in Europe are more than 90%. That's over roughly a decade (stats not at hand). That includes some large slab avalanches. That's convincing. Really convincing.

Limitations for airbags are cost and weight. That's partly why snowmachiners have embraced them and skiers haven't. But they are becoming cheaper and more practical every year, and this year there are a number of designs that work for skiers. Next year, there will be far more - Mammut alone has something like 6 more packs in the works (Dean, can you confirm?). I'll almost certainly be using one of the new designs next year.

I expect that over the next five years we'll see significant changes in burial and survival rates because of airbags. They will be hard to measure exactly, because non-fatal accidents are under-reported. Regardless, I don't expect the survival rate to be as high as in Europe, because of the terrain differences that make trauma more of a problem here.

Here's a thought experiment. If the survival rate in NA is about half that of Europe, it would still be 50%. That would be 2x higher than the present rate of fully buried victims found by transceivers that survive. Given a choice between an airbag pack and a transceiver, pick the airbag; it's clearly more effective at keeping you alive. Your friends, not so much.

Most of the arguments against airbags that I hear make little sense to me. Nope, they don't insure you against trauma - but neither does a transceiver or an avalung. And yep, you can't rely on technology over good decisions. But no one's suggesting that we substitute one for the other; it's not a zero sum game. And people that rely on good judgement - like, ahem, Ralph - also wear transceivers despite their relative ineffectiveness. Air bags don't have to be perfect to be useful tools.

I'm constantly assessing my decisions, adjusting the process I use to arrive at them, and learning new ideas about how the brain works. I also spend a lot of time and effort thinking about what information people need to make good decisions, and how to convey that. That focus isn't going to change wearing a pack with an airbag. But skiers, sledders and climbers aren't going to get every decision right, including me. If - or when - that happens an airbag pack will improve your chances of surviving an avalanche by dramatically reducing your chances of being fully buried.


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