If there is one thing that haunts every backcountry skier and snowboarder, it is the fear of getting caught in an avalanche. While all avalanche rescue gear has improved over the past ten years, it’s the introduction of avalanche airbags which has completely revolutionised backcountry safety.
Arc’teryx have just changed the game again with this – the latest in airbag technology. The Voltair Avalanche Airbag backpack. Like all airbags, the Voltair is designed to help keep a skier or snowboarder on the surface of the snow if they are caught in an avalanche, reducing the burial depth and therefore increasing the rider’s chance of survival.
“Studies suggest that if you’re wearing an airbag there’s a remarkable reduction in the avalanche mortality rate – from 22 per cent to just 11 per cent.”
How does it work? Well, shake a bowl of mixed nuts and you’ll find that the larger ones rise to the top. This principle, known as granular convection but often referred to as “the brazil nut effect”, can also be found (albeit on a far more terrifying level) in avalanches. As the snow tumbles and churns, larger objects will tend to rise to the top. An airbag makes you, as the skier or snowboarder, a bigger object, helping you rise to the surface and making you easier to find and dig out.
The science is simple, but incredibly effective. A recent study by the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research of 245 avalanche accidents in North America and Europe discovered that since 1991, 89 per cent of victims caught in avalanches who were wearing airbags survived. This is a remarkable reduction in the avalanche mortality rate – from 22 per cent to just 11 per cent. While nothing is totally guaranteed, it’s clear that avalanche airbags are a very effective emergency device.