Today we received two new BCA Float 32 Avy Airbag Packs. This decision was a long time coming, but I knew that ultimately I'd get one (and, of course, get one for Ash too; I'm no dummy!) and I was waiting for a backcountry ski pack to be introduced that would fulfill my desires, and this seems like the best one. While this one isn't perfect, it's quite good.
First, why an airbag pack....
The theory has been floated (so to speak) for a long time that airbags go a long ways to keeping people who are caught in avalanches on top of the fast-moving debris, for two reasons: the compressed air of the balloon is provides more lift in an already-aerated avalanche, and also because - as anyone who consistently does as I do and put things like sunflower seeds in gorp knows - smaller objects tend to get sifted to the bottom, so an airbag creates a far-bigger object (an M&M) that stays on the surface. I'm no physicist, but these two concepts - which may be one and the same, for all I know - seem pretty plausible. And hearing of the studies done in Europe and Canada where they put dummies with airbag packs on in big avalanches and they almost always stay on top was convincing as well. And watching this video:
I've been a BD avalung user for years, and the one significant ride I've taken I ended up on the surface with the mouthpiece in my mouth, without recalling that I had popped it in during my violent ride. I never ski with it in my mouth, however, and think this is a bit of a liability, though I have put a hanger inside it to put the mouthpiece right in front of my mouth. Basically, I decided that I'd prefer to use gear that has the goal of keeping me on top versus hanging out 4 feet deep hoping my friends are able to get me. And our friend Evan started out his run last week with his mouthpiece in, let it go when he thought it was "safe" got caught, and then couldn't get it back in.
In my muse about the Stevens Pass avy I said that it was unrealistic to say that the woman who employed her airbag lived - and the other guys died - because of her airbag; that was heavily treed terrain and the fatalities were badly beaten, and the airbag means that you'll still hit the tree at 60mph, you'll just be able to see it first. And if/once the bag tears - when you go through a tree/bush - the airbag will deflate instantly since it's a one-shot deal (vs a continuous air feed that could maintain some inflation even with a tear). And I think it's notable that many of the publicized or dummy-test airbag "saves" have been on big, open slopes. So like every piece of gear, it's not foolproof, and it's important to keep understand the limitations of all the gear you have.
First.....Why not to get it....
Reason one: it's heavy. Yes, it feels a little heavy. It weighs 3 pounds more than my avalung pack. But the truth is, it doesn't feel like that much, and I anticipate that as these become more popular, people will start looking for other areas to cut some weight to compensate. I think the irony of willingness to haul around 15-20 pounds of skis, boots, bindings, and skins to enhance skiing - which is already the funnest thing we do - and being unwilling to haul 3 extra pounds to give us a 50% better chance of ending up on top will sink in.
Reason two: it's spendy. Yep, it's a lot of money. And it seems like a bit of a weird deal to have to spend a bunch more $$ for the cannister on top of the pack. But if you were able to do a Wile E. Coyote-like, stop-action moment as you are getting rolled in a big-ass avalanche and someone could stick a microphone in your face and say "so, NOW how much would you pay to be on top of this thing?!?!?!" I think what I'd come up with would make the $700-$1000 seem like nuthin'.
Right now the crucial pieces of equipment that you "can't" go into the backcountry without are shovel, probe, and beacon. However, given - supposedly - that an airbag pack can increase your odds of survival by 50%, I anticipate that eventually there will be four pieces of crucial equipment, with the exploding packs being the fourth.
Because if you ski in the backcountry enough, for long enough, the odds are almost certain that you will get caught in an avalanche. I literally don't know anyone who has been skiing for over 10 years who has not had one. So forward this post to your mother and tell her you need one of these packs but can't afford it!
I'll do a pack-specific review after I've used it a few days.