The rush of tearing through the backcountry on a snowmobile is akin to catching your first wave on a surfboard, carving the slopes on a pair of skis, or ascending a mountain summit. But the joys of playing in the mountains are as real as the risks you take and command an absolute respect for nature — failing to understand this could easily get you into trouble or, even worse, killed.
Even well-trained and expertly-equipped mountain-goers can see a climb turn deadly in a matter of seconds.
Getting caught in an avalanche is a downright terrifying situation for anyone venturing into the snowy backcountry, no matter their skill level or expertise. However, this past decade has seen substantial improvement and innovation in avalanche protection — creating a sort of watershed moment regarding the safety of mountaineers. Leading this charge is Snowpulse Highmark, a Canadian company who offers snowmobilers some of the most advanced avalanche airbags on the market.
Before Snowpulse debuted its innovative airbags, avalanches were — and, frankly, always will be — the stuff of nightmares. Even the most well-trained, expertly-equipped mountain-goers can witness a climb go from simple to deadly in a matter of seconds.
Though the immediate events of an avalanche are dangerous and life-threatening, data compiled from across Canada, the United States, and Europe indicate asphyxia accounts for up to 70 to 80 percent of all avalanche deaths. Because of this, avalanche flotation devices have become increasingly popular for anyone heading into the backcountry. They work by reducing the depth of burial while also creating an enhanced visual to alert authorities, acting essentially as balloons which are deployed by the wearer upon pulling an activation handle.
During an avalanche, flotation devices function through a process known as inverse grading or inverse segregation — this means that larger particles tend to float towards the surface of the avalanche while smaller particles get buried underneath. Avalanche airbags are made of compressed gas, air, or battery-operated fans and when inflated, serve to make the wearer larger in size. The intent is that this carries them to the surface of the avalanche and prevents burial, thus reducing the risk of asphyxiation.
A peek into avalanche safety
Despite reams of existing data and ongoing research, there are plenty of misconceptions surrounding avalanche safety and the effectiveness of avalanche airbags. Though conflicting research is readily available, one thing is certain: Avalanche airbags and avalanche beacons are the most advanced avalanche safety products available. Put plainly, when they’re used properly, they save lives.
One thing is certain: Avalanche airbags and beacons are the most advanced avalanche safety products available.
However, just because someone dons an airbag or carries a beacon, it doesn’t mean their guaranteed survival — the key lies in understanding the terrain. Neither beacons or airbags will solely save someone caught in un-survivable terrain. Having the knowledge and skills to avoid zero-tolerance terrain is the first line of defense. Though the effectiveness of airbags and beacons is secondary to this, research shows that when an airbag is deployed in survivable terrain, your chances of survival and recovery are dramatically increased.
A statistic compiled by the Swiss Federal Institute of Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) states that avalanche airbags deliver a 97 percent success rate in real-world conditions. A percentage that high certainly suggests a high rate of effectiveness but it’s also worth considering that 80 to 90 percent of people caught in an avalanche survive without an airbag at all. Because of this, the most interesting statistic is actually how many people survive due to the deployment of an airbag who would have otherwise been killed.
“The percentage of people caught who died in an avalanche decreased from 19 percent to 3 percent for those who successfully deployed an avalanche airbag,” read a 2013 blog post from the Utah Avalanche Center. “In other words, there is an 81 percent ‘success rate’ for those without a deployed airbag and a 97 percent ‘success rate’ for those that did.”
While there are other factors to be taken into consideration — such as trauma and those who wear an avalanche airbag but fail to deploy it — data shows these airbags have the potential to save significantly more than half of those who would have otherwise died.
The Highmark by Snowpulse
Avalanche airbags have been around for over a decade and different companies use different deployment techniques. Although the technology originated in Europe, it’s recently caught on in North America over the last five years as snowmobilers have been extremely receptive to the technology — especially as more products are tailored to their needs.
Snowpulse was an early developer of the avalanche airbag, making packs for skiers and snowmobilers.
Snowpulse was an early developer of the avalanche airbag, making packs for skiers and snowmobilers until the technology was bought by Mammut. After the purchase, Highmark by Snowpulse was established as a separate brand tailored specifically to the snowmobile market, establishing the best technology available in avalanche airbags from one of the world’s leaders in avalanche safety.
“For the past 5 years, Highmark has been working with Mammut to utilize their Snowpulse technology and backpack making prowess to make snowmobile-specific avalanche airbags and distributing them across North America,” Mountain Sports Distribution’s marketing manager, Jessica Joy, told Digital Trends.
Avalanche airbags are made of compressed gas, air, or battery-operated fans and while every brand differs, Snowpulse’s mantra is to stick with what works for them. Used primarily by backcountry skiers and snowmobilers, pack designs also vary depending on the kind of activity they’re used for.
“Dry, compressed air is all Snowpulse has ever used and one of the reasons for this is that it’s very easy to get them refilled — they’ve stuck to the tried and true mechanical version,” Joy relayed. “These packs still look different depending on the sport. For instance, snowmobile-specific packs have a lower volume — and an exterior shovel carry slot — since they tend to load a lot of gear on their sleds. The trigger’s even located on the right side since snowmobilers need to keep their right hand on the throttle (and pull with their left hand).”
Snowpulse currently offers two separate forms of its technology — aptly named the 2.0 and the 3.0. Its 2.0 technology is utilized in the Vest and Pro Avalanche Airbags and the new 3.0 technology is utilized in the Spire LT and the Ridge 3.0.
“Highmark makes four models and two of them are vests,” Joy added. “As opposed to traditional skiing, when you’re snowmobiling, you’re swinging around and you’re having to pull a lot on your pack. If your pack slips around, it can mess with your weight. Snowmobilers really appreciate having something that fits snug to their bodies and a vest displaces the weight much better.”
Snowpulse integrates two different systems of technology: The Protection Airbag System (PAS) and the Removable Airbag System (RAS). The RAS system is a square 150L airbag that’s contained in and deploys from the top of the pack — once deployed, Joy referred to it as a “pillow behind your head.” It is extremely lightweight and features a low packing volume, taking up less space in your pack.
The PAS system is a collar-shaped airbag that packs and deploys from the shoulder harness of the pack. What sets the PAS apart from the RAS is that the former provides for added elements of protection. This includes trauma protection by helping shield the wearer’s neck, head, and chest area, as well as its Head-on-Top protection, which keeps a wearer’s head and upper body on the surface. Since roughly 20 percent of avalanche deaths are caused by trauma, these features native to the PAS are nothing short of lifesaving.
With the updates in technology and positive survival statistics showing the benefit of avalanche airbags, it’s clear anyone venturing into the backcountry wouldn’t want to leave home without one. Snowpulse Highmark is on the cutting edge of this developing technology and with continuing advancements, the future for snowmobilers and mountaineers just keeps getting brighter.
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