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Backcountry skiers using airbags for safety

By Mackenzie Wilson
Published On: Dec 05 2012 11:48:07 PM CST
Updated On: Dec 05 2012 11:51:52 PM CST

NewsChannel 21's Mackenzie Wilson reports on the growing trend in backcountry skiing of carrying an airbag backpack to help in case of an avalanche.

BEND, Ore. -

Most of us have never seen or been in an avalanche. But the sound is unmistakable.

David Marchi guides heli-skiing in Alaska and now owns Crows Feet Commons in Bend. Four years ago, he got caught in an avalanche while guiding.

"It's like getting run through the washing machine, with snow going down into your mouth," Marchi said Wednesday.

The 36-year-old was able to dig himself out, but statistics show around 30 people a year in the U.S. aren't as lucky.

Last February, all eyes were on Stevens Pass in Washington when a group of skiers, out of bounds, were swept away. Marchi knew some of them personally.

"Those guys were all very, very experienced," Marchi said.

Three died, but pro skier Elyse Saugstad survived. In interviews after the accident, she credited an avalanche airbag backpack with keeping her from being buried alive.

Dan McGarigle sells the same gear at his shop in Bend, Pine Mountain Sports. He believes videos that are common on YouTube, showing the airbag in action, are propelling sales.

"When you watch someone being swept away with a big red airbag around them, it really doesn't take a lot of education from stores like us to explain to people the benefits of a product like that," said McGarigle.

The bags look like any other backpack. But inside, a deflated airbag is stuffed into a small compartment. A pull tab on the shoulder strap triggers an air canister inside to fill it. On top, there’s a breakable zipper.

"When you deploy the airbag, it opens up and completely surrounds the person from the neck up," said McGarigle.

The idea is to keep you on top of the snow as it barrels down the mountain. One downside to the technology is the extra weight, about 3 1/2 pounds.

The price is another big drawback -- they range from $550 to more than $1,000. There is another option -- it's cheaper but also very different. It’s another high-tech backpack -- the Avalung, which acts as a modified snorkel if you're buried.

"You exhale, and it comes out here by your hip, so it gets the carbon dioxide away from the body and allows you to breathe some fresh air," said McGarigle.

Both options are going to cost you. McGarigle says it's something you never want to have to use.

But if and when you need it....

"It's worth every penny of it," McGarigle said.

When used correctly, the airbag backpacks can save your life. However, experts warn the best tool is a good education in avalanche safety. The technology also doesn’t replace bringing a shovel, beacon and poles. 

McGarigle also wants to remind people that when an avalanche happens, the snow compacts almost to a cement-like consistency. And without a shovel, it would be nearly impossible to dig somebody out, if they’re buried.

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