Does my ABS make me safer? Or do I take more risks?

I love skiing off piste, it is why I have strived to live a life that allows me to be in the mountains. For me there is nothing better than getting away from the crowds, skiing something new and challenging and leaving your mark on the mountain. Many of my friends feel the same, but with off piste skiing comes an inherent risk, but can the kit we buy to make us safer just make us feel more comfortable about taking greater risks?

The video above is of an avalanche in the french resort of St Foy. The video is not ours so we wish to say thank you for being able to share it.

How do ABS or Airbag systems work?

ABS or Avalanche Airbag systems are designed to keep closer to the top and ideally on the surface of an avalanche. There are different brands and designs but all work on the same principle. Think of an avalanche as a mass in motion. It consists of vast quantities of tiny snow crystals, which start rotating as they slide downhill. As a result of this rotation, all objects with a volume greater than the individual snow crystal are automatically pushed up towards the surface. This is called the “segregation process”. Close to the surface, however, the force of rotation declines and with it the lift. Here it is important for the skier’s volume to be at least equal (for the same mass) to the volume of the snow in the avalanche. This is where the airbags come in. By inflating the airbags you increase skiers volume but not their mass, the skier will be moved closer to the top of the avalanche.

Without ABS most avalanche victims will survive the initial slide but  50% will end up completely buried. Of that 50% three quarters have blocked airways or will struggle to breath because of the pressure on their body in this situation buried victims may only have a few minutes and after 12 minutes of being buried chances of survival drop very rapidly. Even with an experienced team of guides performing a transceiver search if you are under 2 metres of snow it will take them a while to get to you after they have located you.

ABS or Airbag systems can not guarantee you will not be buried but will help keep you much closer to if not on the surface dramatically reducing rescue time.

Where you can use your ski instructor qualifications will vary depending on your level

Of course it makes me safer…….

I have no doubt that my ABS bag increases my chance of survival if caught in an avalanche. My concern in not with the technology but instead my decision making process.

At the end of last season I skied off piste with out my ABS for the first time in a while. I caught myself saying something that I was not happy about. A slip of the tongue that really made me think about my approach to avalanche safety. 9 little words or 8 and an acronym if you want to be pedantic.

“I would ski it if I had my ABS”

Since then I have been thinking a huge amount about the decisions I make in the mountains. ABS is designed to make us safer and it works. However that increased level of safety has led to me feeling more comfortable taking a higher level of risk, so am I actually any safer or am I just tip toeing closer to the edge.

It is also worth considering ABS systems fall open to a huge amount of user error. People panic and forgot to pull the handle or just can not get to it. Should I be taking greater risks when it is very possible I could make a mistake that means my ABS does not deploy.

I do not feel ABS systems should justify greater risk taking. The aim at the end of the day is not to survive an avalanche but not to cause one in the first place. Taking greater risks because you are wearing a system that helps increase survival rates is like putting on a bulletproof vest and asking someone to shoot you. It is just stupid. It might work but it will still bloody hurt and what if something goes wrong.

Black Diamond have recently launched series two of their superb documentary The Human Factor. This looks at all the intrinsic factors that affect our decision making process in the mountains. Like me being comfortable taking greater risks while wearing my ABS you may not even be aware of these until they are pointed out.

Being able to use your ski instructor qualifications after your course is a huge bonus.

A huge thank you to James Thompson for these awesome photos.