Sunday, December 12, 2010

At long last

After six articles about avy air bags on this very blog in 2009 + an avalanche + the broken leg that followed, I finally did it! I actually bought an avalanche airbag.
On Friday afternoon Jana drove me to Chamonix where I was going to the mother of all stores: Snell Sports on rue du Dr Paccard (kinda Main Street Cham). This place is incredible, it is large (three stories) and carries some of the coolest mountaineering stuff, including some you never heard of. I have so far never had enough time in there; I always had to leave before I felt “I was done”. Not only is it a wonderful place, the sales people in there are actual, real life experts on this stuff. Just the place for me to go to for a mission critical purchase.
After my series of articles (see the links at the bottom of this post), I was still uncertain as to which one to buy. There was the, by far, cheapest BCA that looked good although VERY new, it was not even on the market at the time I wrote the articles, and then there are the two leaders: ABS Systems and Snowpulse. I had decided I was not going to buy the BCA as it still is unproven and I could not find a single independent test on it. So I was left with ABS Systems and Snowpulse. ABS (the inventor of this product and creator of this market) is on the market since 1985 while Snowpulse has just a three years history on the market. There is a wealth of test data done using the ABS (showing a 98%+ survivability) and a lot of documented cases of avalanche survivals in the Alps using this bag. By force there is a lot less on the Snowpulse. However Snowpulse has some features that are appealing so I did not want to rule them out. After a lot of research I wrote down on a piece of paper:
- 170 litre volume – ABS System
- Remote release – ABS System
- “Head on Top Technology” – Snowpulse
- Additional testing? – Snowpulse

I had isolated these four last factors, all exclusively taking into account safety features or aspects, while consciously deciding to forget all differentiators that did not directly relate to The Mission i.e. keeping me alive! The first factor reflects the volume advantage that the ABS bags have over Snowpulse whose bag inflates to 150 l which is the European norm min. requirement (volume IS a crucial element here, I just needed to figure out how relevant a 20 l delta was). The second one is a feature that could be important and that only ABS has and that enables your ski buddy to remotely release your bags would he see you go down. Head on Top Technology (H.O.T.) by Snowpulse is the very high and wrap around shape that their bag has. It is supposed to keep your head higher than the ABS and also protected from trauma as it wraps around your head. Finally I was curious to find out if there was any additional third party testing that had been done on the Snowpulse that I would not have known about.
With this level of indecision I naturally went to Snell. There the in-house expert spent a solid hour going through design, construction, craftsmanship, research etc. The answers to my queries above?

- 20 litres matters especially if the bags don’t fully deploy. It has happened that they deployed to 85 – 90% due to extremes in temperature or obstruction in the bag or poorly folded bags from a prior use etc. 85 – 90% of 170 l is 145 – 153 l (85 – 90% of 150 l is 128 – 135 l i.e. a bit away from the norm).

- Remote release was deemed a marginal item because there is plenty of time to release early on when you find out that you are in an avalanche. I still like it a lot.

- Head on Top Technology can even be deemed a detriment as it does not keep your field of vision open neither your arms free enough for all-out swimming. Assuming you wear a helmet (which I am not so very good at) the advantage is just not there but the detriments are too sizeable to overlook.

- Additional research, other than that presented in my articles last year? Nonexistent. This was very important to me as virtually all the data and successes of these products then belong to ABS System.

One additional and important differentiator was pointed out to me: ABS has two bags (knew that) inflated by two separate valves (did not know that) which means that would something go wrong it still remains very unlikely that the ABS system would ever completely fail.

As you probably figured out by now, I bought the ABS System. I believe that in December 2010 it is the only alternative that is documented and known to work well, now and for the duration, with a 98+ success rate. It is possible that a few years from now, as more research and data comes to light, either or both BCA’s Float30 and Snowpulse’s bags will come out on top but that day is not today.
So, how does this work? Here is what you get (click to enlarge):

Bottom right is the “Base Unit” (the safety part) that is where the bags, the release mechanism and the valves etc are. To the left is the backpack that you zipper on to the Base Unit. Upper right hand corner (in the cardboard box) is the cartridge and the release handle (these are replaced after every inflation). Finally you get a bunch of (good) documentation including a very exhaustive DVD (top middle).

The consumables are the cartridge and the release handle:
 I got to test one in store on my bag to make sure it all works and that I know how to release it. The replacement cost of this set is 89 euros (about $115 or so). ABS recommends you blow one of these per season although snell told me every 3 - 4 years should be fine provided the bag is stored in a clean, safe and rodent free spot... One end of the release handle has a red dot the other end tells you fabrication date and expiery date, mine says 2010 and 2014 respectively.

The cartridge has to be screwed into the top of the base unit and can stay there for the season:

Here you can see where the airbag comes out of (for an inflated view go to the very first image above or to the respective articles):

When folding the bags back in, I was told that the "accordeon" fold (as opposed to say a roll) is "preferable". I remeber from my sky diving days that the accordeon fold is pretty much the only fold and that will be my one and only method here... 

The backpack comes with shovel and probe storage, A-Frame ski straps, ice axe strap etc. I picked the 30 l bag but can adapt any size from 15 l to 50 l plus compatible packs from Millet, Arva and soon Deuter. I had pretty low expectations on the bag but found out that it is a very good quality bag well designed for AT touring and/or ski alpinism. This is what the back pack looks like without the helmet pocket:

...and with the helmet pocket on:
Here is a sequence that shows how you attach the back pack to the base unit:

On the purely nice to have here a few things I liked or appreciated. First a very small thing but I found the exact same wistle as I have on my 30 l Black Diamond (1), I use it to call Skadi back when it is really windy. Second I like that it is hydration pack ready (2) and finally I like the heavy duty buckle system that seem to be a cross between an alpine harness buckle and a vintage airlplane buckle (3):

So, how much did I pay for this bewinged backpack? 699.00 euros for the base including cartridge and release handle plus 99 euros for the 30 l backpack i.e. a total of 798 euros (about $1,050 - $1,100 incl. taxes). The full product name for this bag is the "ABS Vario 30".  I hope that anyone who reads this won't have to wait to get caught in an avy before going to the store. The chance to make it through the avy and to the store is just about 50% without it and a bit north of 98% with it...

The prior posts on avy bags are here:

How it works:  
ABS System:
BCA Float30:

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