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7 Questions with the Father of Avalanche Airbags

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Attributed with founding the modern avalanche airbag in the ’80s, Peter Aschauer has been a pioneer in, what he calls, the avalanche emergency equipment market.

While never caught in a slide himself, Aschauer has witnessed avalanches and lost friends in them.

At the helm of one of the most well-known avalanche-related gear companies, ABS, the company’s founder took some time to chat with Skiing Business about the future of airbags and avalanche safety equipment.

Peter Aschauer

Peter Aschauer

What do you think it will take for airbags to become mainstream enough for the occasional sidecountry or backcountry user? And When do you see the price and weight coming down enough for the mainstream user?
Every published avalanche accident contributes to raising the awareness for the inevitable residual risk.  Everyone who enjoys out-of-bounds skiing has to take into account the possibility of triggering a snow slab or being caught in an avalanche.  Even the most experienced cannot eliminate this residual risk.  About 80 percent of all avalanche victims die because they were buried under the avalanche.  Why would you not reduce that risk and wear an avalanche rescue bag.

For this reason, I am very confident that the avalanche airbag will become a mandatory part of the standard emergency equipment when going off-piste in the near future.

The weight of the ABS TwinBag system with both airbags is 2.28 lbs (1,035 grams). The activation unit with handle and carbon cartridge (which isn’t yet available in North America) weighs 0.76 lbs (345 grams). The base unit with cover for shovel and probe weighs 2.47 lbs (1,120 grams). That’s a total of 5.51 lbs (2,500 grams).

A weight less than 5.51 lbs (2.5 kg) including the cartridge will be difficult to reach.  Reducing the weight would be at the expenses of material safety.

The price is not determined by material and production costs. A substantial expense factor is the comprehensive quality control. Thus, every airbag is activated after assembly. This 100 percent final check illustrates our product philosophy.

When choosing avalanche safety gear one should consider the functionality and effectiveness of the system and not the price.

Where do you see airbag technology going in the next 5 years?
Hopefully airbag technology will move towards being a more functional system.  The backpack design will not change dramatically, but it will move toward the bags possible effectiveness in an avalanche.  There is a danger that the airbag system will be reduced to a backpack accessory by some vendors.

An important airbag innovation is in the activation of the system.  Too many avalanche victims activate their bags too late or not at all as they are already in the downfall and cannot reach the activation handle anymore.  ABS recognized this hazard and developed the Wireless Activation system that has been successful in many live situations.  The Wireless Activation system is of particular importance to snowmobilers who may be unable to activate the trigger by removing their hands from the throttles in an emergency.

The prevention of the “anchoring effect” in the solidification phase of the avalanche can also be further optimized.  We are already working hard to further develop the technology to reduce the risk of anchoring.

What do you see as the biggest barriers in the airbag market worldwide?
We are missing comprehensive information from the different professional associations.  Some of these organizations still consider the avalanche airbag as “nice to have;” something that supplements the beacon, shovel and probe.  However, many real cases definitely prove that the prevention of one’s own burial is by far the best possible outcome to survive an avalanche accident.  ABS avalanche airbags have a 97 percent survival rate.  An ideal situation would be to have professional associations commit to the following 3 priorities:

1. Prevention:  Avoiding avalanches
2. Self Rescue:  Avoid being buried
3. Team Member Rescue:  Fast locating and rescue of buried persons

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Do you think some of the avalanche deaths this year (in North America) are because people think they are over-prepared and over-protected? Does avy safety gear, including airbags, help create a “fearless” mentality?
No one has invented equipment to prevent avalanches, and every avalanche causes an absolute danger to life.  Avalanche emergency equipment was designed and constructed to minimize the risk of death in an avalanche.  Using the word “avalanche emergency equipment” contributes to a better understanding and reduces misinterpretations of what people think they require for safety gear when venturing into the backcountry.  Avalanche airbags can, if designed properly, in most cases prevent a complete burial.  They are, however, unable to prevent deadly consequences including trauma or shock.

Why, years ago, did ABS abandon the technology and design that many of your competitors are using today?
The ABS functionality and effectiveness has always been central to its success.  Ten years of practice and experience and several dozen documented avalanche incidents led to the conclusion that a simple increase in volume was not the best possible solution to increase survival rates.  The position around the upper body and head area results in the victim swimming with the snow similar to clinging to a ball.  In the dangerous run out zone of the avalanche an anchoring effect may be produced.  Snow piles at the end of the avalanche run and can “cork” the body.  If this occurs there is a high risk that the victim can be buried under the second wave of snow that comes down with the avalanche.

According to our experience, a more effective type of architecture is the twin bag system keeps the victim horizontal on top of the avalanche.  During the crucial halting phase of the avalanche, the twin bags allow you to slide on the surface of the deposited snow.  The risk of getting stuck in the solidifying layers of snow and becoming buried is significantly reduced.

In the event that one of the two airbags is damaged and loses pressure, there is usually sufficient volume in the second bag to prevent burial.

Manufacturers of mono-airbags do without this elaborate double safety mechanism and thus ignore an important requirement for practical use.

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What are the biggest changes you’ve seen since the ’80s when you more-or-less invented the airbag?  What do you attribute that to?
The development of the bag has taken many years.  From the inception of the idea of staying on top of an avalanche to the current ABS avalanche airbag with wireless activation, carbon canisters and the Vario system with interchangeable zip-ons.  The most important impulses and understandings of avalanches and how systems work in those situations are gained in the field.  At present, 50,000 ABS avalanche airbags are in use.  Those practical experiences in the field give weight to the nearly ideal figure of survival the ABS airbag promotes.

What market do you see as the biggest potential for airbag sales?
In Europe, it is estimated that there are 3 million active, off-piste snow sportsmen, and this figure increases every year.

In North America, freeriding and ski touring are up-and-coming sports.  The market in North America is also very big for snowmobilers.

Our sales force is still focused on Europe.  We are the market leaders here.  In our opinion, the high functionality and effectiveness of the ABS system will also become prevalent in North America.

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4 Responses to “7 Questions with the Father of Avalanche Airbags”

  1. Clay says:

    After five of our local skiers were caught in an avalanche this year in Washington state and the only survivor was the one with an airbag, the abs twin airbag is going to be a must have and use part of my everyday equipment. As for the weight, my Black Diamond Avalung with shovel and probe weighs close to that already. For the average skier I don't think 5.5 lbs will be a problem.

  2. Bob Smith says:

    I use the Avalung with of course shovel, probe, and beacon, but intend to add an airbag pack. Thanks Ski Magazine for this article as I had not yet seen this type. As far as having an airbag causing one to take risks, years ago when body armor was created for police, some were concerned that it would create a "Superman" attitude among officers. What was discovered instead was the types of officers who bought a vest were in fact already very safety conscious and viewed armor as just another tool to protect themselves. Of course now all are required to wear them. I can see air bags becoming as "must have" as the safety equipment we already carry backcountry.

  3. Cansnowplow says:

    The trigger mechanism needs to become TSA compliant. Also, the CO2 recharge/exchange canister to inflate the bladder has to become coin vending machine available at ski resorts, thus, permitting traveling off piste folks to meet TSA/airline aviation restrictions of no compressed gas canisters (loaded) permitted on board a plane. The attachment of this vending machine canister to the backpack bladder system needs to be universal, regardless of brand name and the attachment of the canister needs to become as easy as attaching a propane bottle onto a BBQ grill. Then, these life savers will become as popular to touring users as laptops are to students/graduates. A few BBQ grills catch on fire due primarily to this gas attachment procedure not being totally idiot proofed. Gas leaks due to poor seal or cross threading due to rushing the job can be reduced with the right design, or creating a warning gauge. The world cannot afford to idiot proof everything, including the backpack airbag.

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