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Airbags, Beacons, and Probes....Oh my!
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By greenben
From Bozeman, MT
Jan 18, 2012

An interesting discussion was started in this forum about the relative advantages and disadvantages of carrying and airbag vs. carrying the traditional beacon, probe, and shovel combo. Just thought it would be worth further discussion in its own thread....


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By greenben
From Bozeman, MT
Jan 18, 2012

Call me old school but I would prefer my partners be carrying a beacon, probe, and shovel over an airbag any day.

Probes, shovels, and even beacons have utility for things other than avalanche rescue. I use my shovel all of the time and would feel naked in the mountains without it. Digging pits, creating snow shelters, and recovering people after burial all come to mind. Probes are the same way. I use mine to help in column separation, particularly with extended columns. I also use it to help determine where cornices start and end and as a quick way to measure snow depth. Beacons are a bit more one dimensional but they do provide a way to find a body burried deeply in debris, even after the chance of their survival has dropped to zero. I don't have personal experience in this, but it would seem like being able to recover a loved ones body would be better than knowing they are going to be frozen in the snow all winter and looking for them in spring/summer when things begin to melt.

This is an interesting subject and I would like to hear other folks' views on the subject


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By Nick Stayner
From The Magic City
Jan 18, 2012
Nick Stayner near the crux. Ryan Minton photo.

Once again, the masses of Mountain Project weigh in and provide uninformed nonsense on the topic of backcountry skiing (referring to the other thread here)... sorry guys!
In the other thread, lots of statistics were thrown around by Brian Abram, who failed to cite any of them! The article on airbag packs' effectiveness in this month's Backcountry refers to two studies (one ongoing) that deal with airbag packs. Neither of them reflect his 87% assertion. Either he's making it up, juggling numbers around, or he's seen a study that I haven't and I'm really curious.
I don't know what kind of magic bullet Brian thinks airbag packs are, but telling any inexperienced newbie to forgo a shovel/probe/beacon until later is absolutely ludicrous. In saying that, Brian reveals his own noobishness.
Staying out of an avalanche is the best way of avoiding death. Begin by building your knowledge base by adding these two books to your library and read/reread them:
Snow Sense, 2nd Ed.
Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain

Then get yourself a probe, shovel, beacon and sign up for an Avy Level One course or even attend an avalanche awareness night. Find yourself an experienced mentor or two and learn from them.

By all means, if you have the cash, get yourself an airbag pack. Statistics do indicate it will save your ass. But remember that staying out of the slide in the first place will give you much better odds of surviving your day in the backcountry, and that takes knowledge and experience, not an airbag pack.


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By kBobby
From Spokane, WA
Jan 18, 2012

I totally agree with you. The shovel, I would argue, is the most important tool we have in the backcountry. More important than a beacon even. You have already done a great job of listing the versatility of the shovel, I just wanted to reiterate that point.

NOT being in an avalanche provides a 100% survival rate. Shovels are essential for digging pits or doing column tests.

So, even if I were to go into the backcountry with an airbag in lieu of a beacon (which I personally would not), then I would still carry a shovel!

On to the debate between airbag vs. beacon, I fall heavily into the beacon camp. Airbags are great tools when used correctly. However, they are a double-edged tool. There is a very real aspect of human nature called Risk Compensation. Beacons suffer from this problem as well, but IMO to a lesser extent. (Beacon users succumb to a much greater danger, however, known as Group Think.)

We shouldn't dismiss airbags though. They do have a pretty amazing record. There are several studies showing that they may boost avalanche survival rates up to as high as 97%. See: thewary.com/files/brugger_falk_report_2002.pdf

Personally, I would recommend someone getting into the game spend their cash, in order, on the following:
(1) A snow safety course, perhaps several;
(2) A book on snow safety, perhaps several;
(3) Shovel;
(4) Beacon and probe;
(5) Airbag.


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By Nick Stayner
From The Magic City
Jan 18, 2012
Nick Stayner near the crux. Ryan Minton photo.

Bobby- you make some great points. All of which are echoed and expanded upon in both of those books I mentioned.
On another note, I think it's strange that people are drawing this dichotomy between an airbag pack and traditional rescue gear. The term "rescue gear" is sort of funny, because like you guys said (and is obvious to anyone who's spent time backcountry skiing), every piece (besides the beacon perhaps) has tons of different functions. An airbag pack is just another tool in your kit, and one that lacks the multifunctionality of a shovel and a probe. Yet another reason the idea of getting one INSTEAD of a beacon/shovel/probe is totally ridiculous.


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By Brian Abram
From Columbia, SC
Jan 18, 2012
Brian Abram, leading pitch 2 of Dinkus Dog on the South Side of Looking Glass.  Kyle Sox is belaying.

Nick, thank you for holding my feet to the fire. The ad hominem is a bit silly, but go for it. It's another hallmark of the simple-minded internets.

The study you are telling others I made up is from the International Commission of Alpine Rescue (IKAR). It is summarized here:

www.avalanchesafety.ca/node/96

The risk of complete burial was lowered to 13%. That is an 87% chance of not being completely buried. So there's the juggled numbers.

Other statistics come from here and the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research:

www.thewary.com/files/unfallstatistik-en.pdf

That is a different study, so those stats are slightly different, but still similar. Figures 4, 11, and 18 are key. Figure 4 shows the comparison of fatality rates between those who are buried and those who are not. Figure 11 shows the number of completely buried people who survive after being found via transceiver (50.7%, though this has risen in recent years). Figure 18 shows that 15.6% of airbag users get completely buried (84.4% not completely buried). But even in the cases of complete burial, 80% still have the airbag visible above the surface. Only the very smallest percentage were buried with no signs on the surface, making the beacon only necessary in the rarest of cases. The overall mortality rate for those with airbags was 2.5%.

As I said in my very first post, I agree 100% that the shovel is used all the time and can't imagine not having it. I don't think airbags are a magic bullet. It's just that beacons are even worse. I understand the knee jerk reaction. Beacons are sacred things. But there is indeed a newer technology that appears to increase the chances of survival even more than a beacon does.

I disagree with the assertion that an airbag pack is not multifunctional. It is a pack.

If the beacon with no airbag reduces the risk of death to the point of acceptable risk, an airbag that reduces the risk of death even more should be granted the same status.


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By coppolillo
Jan 18, 2012

Abram's numbers are spot on. Swiss Federal Institute study is accurate...further studies indicate of those dummies not buried in avalanche tests, the remaining had at least their airbag visible. Pretty convincing stuff.

That said, for those of us skiing in Montana and Colorado, we spend a lot of time below treeline (unlike Europe), so trauma is a major factor in avy fatalities and I imagine over time we'll see our survival rates come in lower than Europe/Alaska...

Guess my take would be it's not an either/or with traditional rescue equip (beacon-shovel-probe) and the airbag.

And ultimately, avalanche avoidance is the only fail-safe method to staying alive...now, surviving the drive home on I-70...another case entirely!


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By Brian Abram
From Columbia, SC
Jan 18, 2012
Brian Abram, leading pitch 2 of Dinkus Dog on the South Side of Looking Glass.  Kyle Sox is belaying.

Thanks. I agree with you that it shouldn't be an either/or thing. But right now it is. Just about everyone buys beacons and they don't buy airbags. They buy the beacon/probe/shovel and call it good. There is a valid argument to be made that an airbag (plus shovel, btw) makes more sense than a beacon if one had to choose. And a lack of money makes us have to choose, at least until we get the funds to get the rest.


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By Buff Johnson
Jan 18, 2012
smiley face

What idiot came up with carrying a bag in lieu of carrying rescue tools?
It's meant as one tool to help along with everything else; especially using buddy tactics and not getting caught in the first place.

grrr

CO's first season incident will post in a day or two; terrain trap.

This upcoming weekend will probably be the most dangerous of the season so far. good luck with the bags


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By Crag Dweller
From New York, NY
Jan 19, 2012
My navigator keeps me from getting lost

Brian Abram wrote:
Thanks. I agree with you that it shouldn't be an either/or thing. But right now it is. Just about everyone buys beacons and they don't buy airbags. They buy the beacon/probe/shovel and call it good. There is a valid argument to be made that an airbag (plus shovel, btw) makes more sense than a beacon if one had to choose. And a lack of money makes us have to choose, at least until we get the funds to get the rest.


What's having an airbag going to do for you when your buddy was caught completely off-guard, or for any of an infinite number of possible reasons was unable to pull his rip cord, and is buried under 4 ft of snow?

It's not going to do anything except, perhaps, give you an opportunity to experience even more guilt than survivors of deadly events normally experience. Not only will you be asking yourself why it was him and not you but you're also going to be thinking about the fact that you may've been able to save him if you'd had a beacon.

I absolutely think an airbag is a great addition to the system. It is not a replacement and, until you can afford the gear needed, you should choose not to go into the BC.

If you're choosing an airbag over a beacon, you're making an extremely selfish decision. A lack of money is a weak excuse.


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By Brian Abram
From Columbia, SC
Jan 19, 2012
Brian Abram, leading pitch 2 of Dinkus Dog on the South Side of Looking Glass.  Kyle Sox is belaying.

That's all true. I would turn it around and say the beacon is the recommended added tool that can help deal with situations like that. It can never replace the airbag, but is a good additional tool.

I agree that a lack of money is a weak excuse to not have the needed safety gear. But a great number of folks are making just that excuse to not have an airbag.


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By Crag Dweller
From New York, NY
Jan 19, 2012
My navigator keeps me from getting lost

Brian Abram wrote:
I agree that a lack of money is a weak excuse to not have the needed safety gear. But a great number of folks are making just that excuse to not have an airbag.


And, in doing so, they're opting to instead spend their money on something that is going to help save not only their lives but also the lives of their friends. Or, for that matter, anyone who might be nearby and get caught in an avalanche.

BTW, you can get an avy package including beacon, shovel, and probe for $335. (www.bentgate.com/avypkg.html) That's $165 less than the airbag deal you posted.


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By Brian Abram
From Columbia, SC
Jan 19, 2012
Brian Abram, leading pitch 2 of Dinkus Dog on the South Side of Looking Glass.  Kyle Sox is belaying.

=)
Not that it's really the point, but to call it entirely fair, you have to add a pack on top of that.

As a hit against me, I am going to be more forceful in my agreement that a shovel is super necessary. You gotta add that to the price of an airbag. So call it me with $550, 9 pounds, and a conservative 80% survival rate in avalanches (not having a beacon and the Selkirk trees hurt my stats a bit) vs $450, about 5-6 pounds, and a 50-60% survival rate in avalanches.


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By Crag Dweller
From New York, NY
Jan 19, 2012
My navigator keeps me from getting lost

How many avalanche fatalities have occurred in your part of the country in the past 10 years? How many avalanche burials (partial or full) have occurred?


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By Nick Stayner
From The Magic City
Jan 19, 2012
Nick Stayner near the crux. Ryan Minton photo.

Brian, thanks for providing those stats. Always fun reading those studies. For the record, I'm not "telling everyone" you made the numbers up. It was one of three things I figured were the most plausible explanations.

Brian wrote:
Buy an airbag pack first, and skip the pack/beacon/probe/shovel until later.

Reasons why this statement is ridiculous:
1) Obvious, stated by many: How are you going to get your buddy out?

2) Try showing up for an avy level one course without a beacon, shovel or probe.

3) Snowpit tests? Shovel and probe both get used on almost every tour for this purpose at the very least.

4) What if the airbag doesn't deploy or the user couldn't deploy for various reasons and you still wind up buried with your $500 pack? The same study you cited show cases of this happening. Be a big bummer to not be wearing a transceiver now eh?

5)Can't hike the Ridge or ride Slushman's with just an airbag pack :)

...just to name a few.

"Brian" wrote:
...it shouldn't be an either/or thing. But right now it is. Just about everyone buys beacons and they don't buy airbags. They buy the beacon/probe/shovel and call it good. There is a valid argument to be made that an airbag (plus shovel, btw) makes more sense than a beacon if one had to choose. And a lack of money makes us have to choose, at least until we get the funds to get the rest.,

Hopefully they don't just "call it good". Ideally they learn how to use those tools well in a rescue situation, and even more ideally they integrate that with the more important issues of terrain selection, weather, and snowpack knowledge to more acutely help them assess risk. I think you're missing a big part of the point.

How many days/year do you ski in the backcountry Brian?

(Just in case anyone is unconvinced of their awesomeness, by the way, sweet video of a truly epic avalanche survived with an ABS pack:
)


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By Brian Abram
From Columbia, SC
Jan 19, 2012
Brian Abram, leading pitch 2 of Dinkus Dog on the South Side of Looking Glass.  Kyle Sox is belaying.

Again with the ad hominem?

If by "my part of the country", you mean where I go to school and rock climb most often, none that I am aware of.

I didn't grow up in the mountains, but here is what I've managed lately:
Last year, I was in the eastern Sierra for April-mid May. I was also in Colorado in early March, but just went to Steamboat with my wife. I got out for one day on that trip, and it was nothing to speak of. The year before I managed 3 trips of 8-10 days each, but some of those were resort days. This year, I haven't been out yet. I will be in Golden, BC in early March and will be in the Pacific Northwest for all of April and as much of May as I can until summer classes begin at the end of May.

I'd say I'm only averaging about 20 days a year. I know that is nothing to some who live where it is better, but I do the best I can for where I live.

In a way, I wish I could say that I deal with avy danger when ice climbing, but that's not gonna happen in NC. When I've climbed ice in the Sierras, it's been late summer alpine ice and falling rocks the size of microwaves are the biggest hazard. I've done nothing but ice cragging in New Hampshire when I've been there.

And again, you are all right. I should not have thrown the shovel in there. It was more of a roll-off-the-fingers, these-3-things-are-always-grouped-together thing when I wrote it. God forbid my wife ever going headfirst into a tree well and I was without a shovel.

And for the record, I have a beacon and would never leave it at home simply because I also have an airbag. My wife is why I felt I needed an airbag. The stats for beacons alone are just so grim.


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By kBobby
From Spokane, WA
Jan 19, 2012

Ok, I think we need to stop the piling on Brian. His bigger point---the added safety of an airbag---was lost in his suggestion that someone getting into the sport should start with that piece of equipment.

The bottom line is that no one should get into the sport until they have the resources to ensure their own safety and the the safety of those traveling with them. That includes knowledge as well as equipment.

I realize that people want to ski in the backcountry, and I realize that it is expensive to get started in the sport. But, if you buy super sick skis with dynafit bindings, then you have no excuse to not have a shovel, beacon, and probe.


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By Brian Abram
From Columbia, SC
Jan 19, 2012
Brian Abram, leading pitch 2 of Dinkus Dog on the South Side of Looking Glass.  Kyle Sox is belaying.

Sorry, that was directed at the post above yours. I posted that and your new one appeared above while I was typing. I should've quoted.


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By Crag Dweller
From New York, NY
Jan 19, 2012
My navigator keeps me from getting lost

^^^

I think he may've been referring to my question.

But, still, ad hominem? I suppose in the literal translation, yes. I was directing the comment at you, Brian. But, it certainly wasn't an attack, which is usually implied by the phrase.

By 'your part of the country', I meant the part of the country you live in. The intent of my question was to point out that you live in a part of the country where avalanches are extremely rare.

I suspect that you would have a different perspective on them if you lived in a part of the country where avalanches are covered on the local news at least monthly if not more. And, those are just the ones that kill people. People are out there getting fully or partially buried and rescued far more frequently. Avalanches are not rare. They're actually pretty common.

Here's a great story that never made the news. It's about an incident where two people amazingly escaped: avalanche.state.co.us/acc/acc_co.php?accident=20091025.

Make note of when the avalanche hit and what they were doing. It was when they were digging a pit. And, what do a lot of people do when they stop to dig a pit? Take off their packs, at least temporarily.

If they'd relied on airbags, at least one of them would very likely be dead.


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By Brian Abram
From Columbia, SC
Jan 19, 2012
Brian Abram, leading pitch 2 of Dinkus Dog on the South Side of Looking Glass.  Kyle Sox is belaying.

Those are good points. I don't have to hear about it all the time. And yeah, taking off your pack would be like turning off your beacon. That's something I hadn't considered.

I think another thing is that I don't have a community here where I know the folks who are going out. In the past 5 years, I've been out with my wife and exactly 2 other people from here only. That definitely changes the way I feel about looking out for others in general.

But yeah, a lot has been shifted over the course of this conversation. Originally, I wasn't at all saying to not get a beacon at all. Late last night it kind of became that, and for that, I'm sorry for the misunderstanding. I don't think that would be a good thing at all. It's just that from my perspective, an airbag might make at least as much sense as a beacon if one were absolutely forced to pick one to have at first.

Yeah, I got a little defensive when I felt like I was being called out for living in the tropics. I felt the implication was that my opinion was irrelevant. Sorry.


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By Brian Abram
From Columbia, SC
Jan 19, 2012
Brian Abram, leading pitch 2 of Dinkus Dog on the South Side of Looking Glass.  Kyle Sox is belaying.

Nick Stayner wrote:
I think you have said some pretty insightful stuff in other posts!

You must be referring to this:

www.mountainproject.com/v/supertopo-vs-mountain-project/1074>>>


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By Andy Librande
From Denver, CO
Jan 19, 2012
Me in the Buddha Cave at crumblewood a while ago.

The Bobby wrote:
The bottom line is that no one should get into the sport until they have the resources to ensure their own safety and the the safety of those traveling with them. That includes knowledge as well as equipment.


Quoted for truth.

Just like an avalung, an Airbag is just another tool in the arsenal. It is not a replacement and never will be as not all avalanches are the same.

And just like any tool if one does not know how to use it then it is useless.


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By Crag Dweller
From New York, NY
Jan 19, 2012
My navigator keeps me from getting lost

It seems as though you exercise all of the common sense and good judgment that would be taught in an avy course, Brian. I think you're right in that the evolution of the conversation has a lot to do w/the responses you received. I know that's the case as far as mine go, anyway.

I honestly do think it's irresponsible to recommend that someone make the choice of a self-preserving device over one that has the ability save both the individual and their friends.

And, while I know there are a lot of people out there who make the choice to head into Avy terrain w/o having invested in any equipment, I take a pretty hard line against that decision. They're idiots or, best case, over confident or extremely ignorant. Just because some people do it isn't a reason, IMO, to suggest that there's a way to prioritize your spending on safety equipment that is safer than buying all of the gear needed. Because there's really not.

No one would only buy skis and go skiing w/o boots because it's simply not possible. I view beacon, probe, and shovel in the same light. It's not possible to deal with the situations you may potentially find yourself in w/o all of those pieces of equipment.


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By Buff Johnson
Jan 19, 2012
smiley face

Topic for anyone --

Take all of that stuff off and get rid of your partners. Would you still commit to the terrain?


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By Crag Dweller
From New York, NY
Jan 19, 2012
My navigator keeps me from getting lost

Buff Johnson wrote:
Topic for anyone -- Take all of that stuff off and get rid of your partners. Would you still commit to the terrain?


Great way to put it all in perspective. I know I wouldn't. Hell, it's not because I'm polite that I give my partners first tracks. j/k


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By Buff Johnson
Jan 19, 2012
smiley face

Crag Dweller wrote:
Great way to put it all in perspective. I know I wouldn't. Hell, it's not because I'm polite that I give my partners first tracks. j/k


It's counter-intuitive -- you would not, meaning you will commit to an unacceptable situation because of the gear you have.


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