Avalanche airbag has become an integral option for backcountry safety equipment | VailDaily.com

Avalanche airbag has become an integral option for backcountry safety equipment

John Dakin
Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum

The following is part of a series of articles compiled by the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame that will take a closer look at the sport of alpine ski touring. The museum is located atop the Vail Village Parking Structure and features a treasure trove of ski history and heritage.

VAIL — Chief Forest Ranger Josef Hohenester never intended to invent anything that day in the early 1970s as he traveled home from a successful hunt with a deer attached to his backpack. He also never intended to get caught in an avalanche.

Hohenester, from Bad Reichenhall in Bavaria, triggered a wind slab avalanche and began sliding down the hill. However, much to his surprise, the deer on his back helped to keep him on the surface of the snow and out of harm's way. The ranger could not forget the incident and began to investigate this phenomenon, becoming the first person to apply the law of inverse segregation to avalanches.

The principle of inverse segregation holds that in motion, larger objects will always move to the top, which is also true in an avalanche. The rotating snow crystals creep under your body and push you upwards. But because of your higher weight by volume, this upward movement will ultimately cease and you will sink back into the snow. In order to avoid being buried in an avalanche, you must increase your volume.

Hohenester began to carry out his own experiments, using canisters and airbags. He finally decided to register a patent for an avalanche airbag prototype, but progress on the project was slow.

Fast forward to the 1980s. The forest ranger's vision is kept alive by German Peter Aschauer, founder of the newly-created Avalanche Balloon Securesystem. Aschauer happened to come across a newspaper article that Hohenester's prototype patent was for sale.

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The opportunity struck a chord with Aschauer after witnessing an avalanche that could have ended badly during a heli-skiing trip in Canada. Acquiring the patent in 1980, he spent countless hours attempting to come up with a method of quickly inflating the airbag in the event of an avalanche, delivering the required volume in a short period of time.

Aschauer presented the first fully functional airbag system at the annual ISPO sports business show in Munich in 1985. Pulling a cable that punctured a compressed air cartridge filled the airbag. However, the system did not enjoy the immediate success that the company had hoped for.

Questions arose regarding the viability of the invention so the Avalanche Balloon Securesystem went back to the drawing board, working to improve the options for wearing the system. The first backpacks proved to be uncomfortable and weighed in at around 4 pounds. Nonetheless, Aschauer held firm to his belief that it was more sensible to avoid being buried by an avalanche than risking it and hoping to be rescued.

Success finally came at the end of the 1980s as Germany's DAV Summit Club became one of the first groups to recognize the value of the system. Other mountain and ski schools, along with organizers of powder skiing courses, followed. Aschauer conducted his first press conference and demonstration in 1992, using dummies which, with the help of triggered avalanches, were caught on a wind slab and remained on the surface, thanks to his backpack.

The Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research agreed to carry out an extensive series of tests on the airbag in 1995. As a result of the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research findings, Avalanche Balloon Securesystem was able to make a fundamental adaptation to the unit, launching the TwinBag system a year later. The double airbag has become the company's trademark product.

In addition to the double bags, a pyrotechnic-pneumatic activation unit also replaced the previous cable activation system and, in 1998, another German company, Deuter, took over further development of the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research backpacks, helping to expand the system's success.

The demand for avalanche airbags grew once again in 2003 when Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research developed a special backpack for the increasingly popular freeriding scene. Further innovation came in the form of wireless activation, which allowed for radio-controlled remote activation of the airbag, while in 2010, the company rolled out carbon cartridges for the first time, which proved to be almost 50 percent lighter than steel cylinders.

During the past several decades the landscape of airbag packs has dramatically changed. A number of manufacturers are now producing some sort of flotation system, with the selection continuing to grow. Sorting through the long list of options can be challenging, but essentially, they all offer the same technology in a slightly different package.

It is important to understand, however, that using an airbag is not the silver bullet of avalanche safety. There is no substitute for education and the best means of survival remains not getting caught in the first place.

But, thanks to Josef Hohenester's deer and Peter Aschauer's tenacity, the avalanche airbag has now established itself as an integral option for backcountry safety equipment for ski and snowboard tourers around the world.