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January 8, 2013

North Face Avalanche Airbag System


Read John Branch's gripping New York Times story about an avalanche last year in Washington's Cascades that killed three of a group of 16 expert skiers and snowboarders and you'll pony up for one of these in a heartbeat if you're the backcountry type.

The only thing that kept professional skier Elyse Saugstad from being among the dead was the fact that she wore a backpack equipped with an air bag, whose deployment cord she pulled just as she was about to be overtaken by the avalanche.

Wrote Branch, "She was knocked down before she knew if the canister of compressed air inflated winged pillows behind her head."

"She had no control of her body as she tumbled downhill. She did not know up from down. It was not unlike being cartwheeled in a relentlessly crashing wave. But snow does not recede. It swallows its victims. It does not spit them out."

"Snow filled her mouth. She caromed off things she never saw, tumbling through a cluttered canyon like a steel marble falling through pins in a pachinko machine."

"At first she thought she would be embarrassed that she had deployed her air bag, that the other expert skiers she was with, more than a dozen of them, would have a good laugh at her panicked overreaction. Seconds later, tumbling uncontrollably inside a ribbon of speeding snow, she was sure this was how she was going to die."


Cheap at twice the price.

From a website:



• ABS avalanche airbag system integrated for quick deployment

• Bombastic auto-airbag fabric + higher denier internal materials to support ABS system

• Proprietary metal hipbelt buckle for superior breaking resistance during an avalanche

• Simple, stable, athlete-tested tuck-away ski/board carry

• Huge avy tools pocket with organization sleeves and backcountry-essentials checklist

• Reinforced high-abrasion zones on pack face

• Internal pockets for gear organization

• Dual hipbelt pockets


• Average Weight: 6 lbs. 9 oz. (3 kg)

• Volume: 1465 cubic inches (24 liters); 8 liters for ABS system

• 315D Cordura Bombastic nylon; 840 Jr. ballistics nylon



[via my LA correspondent]

January 8, 2013 at 12:01 AM | Permalink


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The Tunnel Creek report of the February 2012 avalanche, with photos: http://www.nwac.us/media/uploads/documents/accidents/2011_2012/Preliminary_Tunnel_Creek_Avalanche_Accident_2-19-2012.pdf

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Jan 9, 2013 11:34:49 AM

pilai, this is great stuff: you have finally enlightened me as to why — when I shake Gray Cat's litter box after she's done her business — the clump of urine-saturated litter rises to the surface, making it easy pickings for my trusty litter scoop.

Too wonderful: made my day!

Posted by: bookofjoe | Jan 8, 2013 3:05:56 PM

Watch this video from 2008 of a snowboarder deploying his airbag in a massive slab avalanche.

Posted by: pilai | Jan 8, 2013 2:48:32 PM

I disagree that airbags are not designed for slab avalanches and that skiers are not at risk for slab avalanches. Slabs happen all the time in prime ski terrain. Tunnel Creek was a slab. Avalanche danger has been high for weeks where I live because of an upside-down snowpack with the potential for slab avalanches.

Posted by: pilai | Jan 8, 2013 2:45:04 PM

The prevailing theory is that the airbag makes you a Brazil nut in the shaking jar of mixed nuts that is the avalanche. When a mixture of variously sized particles is mixed or shaken, the larger particles end up on top. An inflated airbag makes a person a larger particle and more likely to end up on top of the heap. But this only works while the avalanche is moving. If you are trapped and snow piles up on top of you, the airbag will not float you to the surface. However, most airbags are designed to automatically deflate very slowly, with the idea that if you are trapped under the snow after the avalanche stops, the deflating airbag will leave you a larger space under the snow in which to breathe and more time to avoid CO2 suffocation. Another potential benefit is that the airbag may protect you from the force of being slammed into a tree or a rock, though that may puncture the bag.

Posted by: pilai | Jan 8, 2013 2:37:10 PM

Roughly speaking, there are two classes of avalanche: 1) The Slab Avalanche; and, 2) The Powder Avalanche.

This device works by making you relatively buoyant in a Powder Avalanche while providing some large pillows around your head and torso to buffer impacts.

It is a last ditch device (we only had radio locators and avalanche poles prior to this invention) and it is not designed for protection in a slab avalanche. (Climbers, not Skiers, are at the greatest risk of experiencing a slab avalanche.)

Think of a ping-pong ball floating down a raging stream - at least it's afloat!

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Jan 8, 2013 9:13:21 AM

Luckily, something I will never need. Ahh, the financial security of being a chicken.

Posted by: Becs | Jan 8, 2013 5:52:10 AM

What do the "winged pillows" do exactly? Do they keep you aloft? create an air pocket? a breathing apparatus? Do you have to be conscious to survive? I'm not a skier, just curious.

Posted by: tamra | Jan 8, 2013 2:30:45 AM

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