Reducing Risk on the Last Frontier – The ABS Airbag

July 08, 2015 D'Arcy McLeish
This is why we spend time in the mountains... Photo - Dave Silver
This is why we spend time in the mountains…
Photo – Dave Silver

Skiing in the backcountry is never without risk. Be it ski touring, cat skiing or heliskiing. All of those take place outside the controlled environment of a ski resort and as such have an inherently greater risk. Managing that risk is essential to having fun and staying safe. Over the last few years, airbag packs and many other devices have come on the market, all designed to minimize the risk of avalanche hazard either by providing direct, potentially life-saving pieces of technology for use in the moment of being caught in a slide, or for rescuing those unlucky enough to have been buried in an avalanche.

The White Room you want to be in... Photo - Jun Yanagisawa
The White Room you want to be in…
Photo – Jun Yanagisawa

Perhaps the most innovative and effective piece of kit that’s come out in the last few years is the avalanche airbag. Incorporated into a back pack, the airbag is designed to keep you on the surface when you’re going for a ride in the White Room. And it’s simple: inside your pack are one or more airbags that inflate upon pulling a ripcord on your shoulder strap in the event of being caught in a slide. And they work. In fact, airbags are the only tool out there that can prevent you from getting buried once you are caught in an avalanche. Statistics show that 97% of folks who deploy their airbag in an avalanche survive. 84% of users suffer little to no injuries. Those are pretty good numbers. While several companies make air bag systems, at Last Frontier Heliskiing, all of our guides and clients use the ABS airbag system. Click here for an overview of the ins and outs of why we choose the ABS system for our guides and clients.

– The ABS bag at work

While I am supportive and encouraged by any new product designed to save your life and minimize risk in the backcountry, none of these things can ever be a substitute for experience, caution and careful decision-making. You have only to chat to any ski guide to understand that when they take a group out, they are using a little technology and a boat load of experience. I’ve spoken before about your mountain sense, and ski guides tend to have it honed into a sharp instinct. One of our guides illustrated one of the dangers of having so much readily accessible technology designed for avalanche safety available to the average backcountry enthusiast: “The problem with a lot of the new products out there is that they tend to make the average backcountry user feel a little invincible, and that’s dangerous.” Venturing out into the mountains and thinking a beacon and an ABS bag will keep you safe no matter what the conditions is not managing your risk, it’s dangerous. It’s critical for people to understand that an ABS bag is merely a tool that goes along with experience, a good dose of humility and a deep respect for mother nature.

Last Frontier Heli Skiing Safety
The best tool in our quiver…our guides.
Photo – Last Frontier

For a heliskiing operation, managing risk is a day to day business. At Last Frontier, we have a variety of tools we use to keep our guests safe. First and foremost are our guides. Years of experience, familiarity with the terrain and a keen spider sense make them our best resource for managing risk. Second come our pilots, who all have bags of experience flying in the mountains and know their way around our tenure. Add to that beacons, shovels, probes and ABS packs for all guides and clients along with the training to use everything and you’re off and rolling. But any guide will tell you eliminating risk is impossible.

Demonstrating the ABS system. Photo - Last Frontier
Demonstrating the ABS system.
Photo – Dave Silver

So please think about that next time you go into the mountains. And while accidents do happen, I know from experience that when I am caught in an avalanche, I have made one or more bad decisions that have contributed to me being in that avalanche, usually involving ego or ambivalence. So do yourself a favor and understand that while an ABS pack might save your life, it’s no substitute for caution and a little humility and even better, a guide to lead the way.

Be safe and ski hard.