Rip-cord your way to safety Avalanche air bag pack could save your backcountry butt By Chris Woodall Cars have had them for years, now you can carry your very own airbag the next time you go into the backcountry. It could save your life if you collide with an avalanche. The size of a pair of shoes in a knapsack, the "Avalanche Airbag System" (ABS) is unique safety equipment from Europe that has just entered the North American market. Indeed, the European manufacturer of the combination backpack and airbag deployment device is looking for a Canadian or American backcountry equipment maker to produce the devices under licence. "It would bring down the per unit cost tremendously," sales Sean Sewell, sales & marketing manager for Mountain Safety Systems, the Whistler-based North American distributor for the ABS. What the bag does, should you get trapped in an avalanche, is keep you "floating" on top of the sliding snow. Unless you crash into rocks or trees, or plummet over a cliff, what will kill you is being buried under the slide. Prevent that, the theory goes, and you should survive an avalanche. Being buried in avalanche snow is like being buried in cement. There is suffocating weight to stop even the slightest movement to effect an escape. If there are friends nearby who are free, they'll have maybe 15 minutes to dig you out. Maybe. ABS backpacks come in two basic styles: a compact model with one air bag that springs out when deployed by pulling a ripcord — best suited for off-piste skiers who like to travel light. The larger model — for trips into the backcountry — has two bags that burst out on either side of the pack. There are varieties of both sizes, especially in the compact system that has a "ABS back up" model that attaches to your regular backpack. In both cases the bags fill to 150 litres of air from a nitrogen bottle in the backpack. The idea is that volume equals weight: if you weigh up to 150 kilograms, you'll be safe with 150 litres of filled airbag. Other than the bags and the bottled gas, the backpacks function much as any backpack would. One difference, however, is that these packs are designed to carry safety equipment, such as collapsible shovels, avalanche probes, first aid kits, and straps or loops to carry your skis or snowboard. There are additional compartments for personal clothing and other items. They are a bit pricey, Sewell admits, at $1,100 for the compact model and $1,400 for the dual bags. The systems are reusable. "But when you consider how much it costs to put together a set of skis, bindings, boots and ski clothing, the price compares more favourably," Sewell says. Just getting started in marketing the ABS products, Sewell says heli-ski, snowmobile tour and resort ski patrol companies and groups are the first ones he'll approach. Anyone going into the backcountry or working near an avalanche hazard should be interested. "We're working with insurance companies to see if they'd lower their rates if workers or tour guided guests use an ABS pack," Sewell says. "We're not saying this will ever take away from the transceiver and shovel, but whether or not a person receives an injury from an avalanche, they should be on the surface if they're going to survive," Sewell says.