Dec 152011
 

After 35 minutes, your statistical shot at survival drops to just 27 percent

 
Fifteen minutes. That’s how long the American Avalanche Center gives you for a good chance at survival if you become buried in an avalanche. At that point, you are essentially helpless and entirely reliant on the other members of your group. They can’t see you and they probably can’t hear you. Within those 15 minutes, they must figure out where you’re located in the huge mass of snow and debris, and dig you out. After 35 minutes, your statistical shot at survival drops to just 27 percent.

Avalanche safety has long dictated that you don’t go into avalanche terrain without the big three: avalanche beacon, probe and shovel. The beacon is used to find a buried victim’s general whereabouts; the probe is used to find a specific location under the snow so that digging can be focused; and the shovel does the digging.

While there’s no replacing those backcountry essentials, they’re not exactly foolproof, either. Rescues can be complicated by factors like multiple burials and rescuers’ unfamiliarity with actually using their gear in real-world scenarios. With the unforgiving time frame, a victim needs every small advantage he can get.

One advantage has been derived from a fourth piece of gear. Long popular in Europe, but only now gaining acceptance in other markets like North America, avalanche airbags are backpack-based inflatables that help to keep you on top of the avalanche and prevent burial. Some even inflate around the head and neck to prevent injury from trees, rocks and other dangers. If you’re not fully buried, you’ll be easier to find and less likely to suffocate.

The problem with avalanche airbags is that they’re flat out expensive. They cost in the upper three figures to lower four figures, potentially several times what you’ll pay for the three other avalanche gear items combined.

A new system from Swiss brand Rotauf is similar to the avalanche airbag, but much smaller and less expensive. The MRK5 is an inflatable device that weighs in at a mere 150 grams (5.29 oz) and measures 3 x 5 x 13 cm (1.18 x 1.97 x 5.12 in). Unlike avalanche airbags, which are built into dedicated backpacks, the MRK5 is small enough to be integrated into existing gear, such as jackets.

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