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With An Air Bag, Help During An Avalanche Is A Cord-Yank Away

Feb 11, 2014
Originally published on February 18, 2014 11:03 am

Let's say you're skiing in the backcountry, looking for some powder — but instead, you trigger an avalanche.

If you have an avalanche air bag pack strapped to your back, you just yank the cord. That deploys the air bag, which keeps you close to the surface and easier to dig out, says Andy Wenberg with Backcountry Access, one of several companies making the devices. When deployed, his company's version of the air bag comes out like wings.

"The whole idea when you deploy that thing in an avalanche is you're avoiding burial death," he says.

They look something like car air bags, but they work on an entirely different principle. Car air bags lessen injury by stopping you from crashing into the dashboard. Avalanche air bags don't stop you from crashing at all. They keep you safe simply by turning you into a larger object.

"And larger objects rise to the top of avalanche debris," says Bruce Tremper of the Utah Avalanche Center. He says it's about the physics of granular flow.

"Take a bag of tortilla chips — and, of course, you want the big pieces, not the little crumbs — and so you shake the bag up and down, and the big pieces come to the surface," he says.

Geologists noticed that big trees and big rocks rose to the surface in avalanches. So why not make people bigger?

One reason avalanche air bags have been slow to catch on in the U.S. — they've been popular in Europe for more than a decade — is because the TSA doesn't allow passengers to fly with the canisters used to inflate the air bags. Ski resorts and backcountry guides are beginning to keep canisters on hand so people don't have to fly with them.

Amie Engerbretson, a professional skier, says she wears an air bag backpack whenever she skis into the backcountry. She needed it a couple of months ago near Alta, Utah.

"I made my turn, I felt the snow shift under my feet, and then I saw cracks visibly shoot everywhere. And that moment I immediately reached up and released my air bag," Engerbretson says.

The next thing she knew, she was being carried along. She came to rest at the bottom of a gully under 2 feet of heavy snow.

"Obviously it's scary, but without an air bag I probably would've been buried 5 to 7 feet deep, which is a very dangerous burial depth," she says.

Instead, rescuers used beacons and probes to find her and dig her out in less than five minutes.

Tremper says that if every backcountry skier, snowboarder or snowmobiler wore them, "they would probably save about half the people who would otherwise have died in avalanches; so they work pretty well." Since Christmas, avalanches have buried 15 people in the U.S.; eight have died.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Avalanches in Colorado and Idaho killed three people over the weekend. It's part of a growing death toll. A total of 15 skiers, hikers, snowboarders and snowmobilers have now died in U.S. avalanches since Christmas. Now, a rescue technology that's been used in Europe for more than a decade is finally gaining wider acceptance in the United States: avalanche airbags.

NPR's Ted Robbins reports on skis.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SKIER)

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: So let's say you're skiing the backcountry, which I am most definitely not doing here in Utah, but you get the picture. You're looking for some powder, a thrill. Instead, you trigger an avalanche.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SKIER)

ANDY WENBERG: Pretty much as soon as you see that snow start to move, know you're going to get caught. See it coming towards you, no hesitation, just pull the trigger.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN AIRBAG INFLATING)

ROBBINS: Andy Wenberg yanks the cord inflating the airbags in his backpack. They come out like wings. Wenberg is with Backcountry Access, one of several companies making airbags. We're on solid ground but if we were in an avalanche, he says the backpack would keep him close to the surface and easier to dig out.

WENBERG: And the whole idea is when you deploy that thing in an avalanche, you're eliminating burial death.

ROBBINS: They look something like car airbags but they work on an entirely different principle. Car airbags lessen injury by stopping you from crashing into the dashboard. Avalanche airbags don't stop you from crashing at all. They keep you safe simply by turning you into a larger object.

BRUCE TREMPER: And larger objects rise to the top of avalanche debris.

ROBBINS: Bruce Tremper, of the Utah Avalanche Center, says it's about the physics of granular flow.

TREMPER: Take a bag of tortilla chips and, of course, you want the big pieces not the little crumbs. And so, you shake the bag up and down and the big pieces come to the surface. I mean most everybody knows that.

ROBBINS: Geologists noticed that big trees and big rocks rose to the surface in avalanches. So why not make people bigger. One reason avalanche airbags have been slow to catch on in the U.S. is because the TSA doesn't allow passengers to fly with the canisters used to inflate the airbags. Ski resorts and backcountry guides are beginning to keep canisters on hand so people don't have to fly with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKIING)

ROBBINS: Amie Engerbretson is a professional skier. She says she wears an airbag backpack whenever she skis into the backcountry. She needed it a couple of months ago near Alta, Utah.

AMIE ENGERBRETSON: I made my turn and very quickly after I made my turn, I felt the snow shift under my feet and then I saw cracks visibly shoot everywhere. And at that moment, I immediately reached up and released my airbag.

ROBBINS: The next thing she knew, she was being carried along. She came to rest at the bottom of a gully under two feet of heavy snow.

ENGERBRETSON: Obviously it's scary. But without an airbag, I probably would've been buried five to seven feet deep which is a very dangerous burial depth.

ROBBINS: Instead, rescuers used beacons and probes to find her and dig her out in less than five minutes. Bruce Tremper of the Utah Avalanche Center says if every backcountry skier, snowboarder, or snowmobiler wore them...

TREMPER: They would probably save about half the people who would otherwise have died in avalanches. So they work pretty well.

ROBBINS: Avalanche airbags can cost more than a thousand dollars. But that's not what you're thinking about when a wall of snow rushes at you.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.