ABS launched their winter campaign and the short movie below of 24-year old Aymar Navarro ‘surviving an avalanche thanks to his ABS backpack' was going viral on social media. When you look at the size of the avalanche it's most likely that he can really thank his backpack for the fact that he's still alive. But we'll never know that for sure.
Before you start reading this blog, let's make some points extremely clear. I think an avalanche airbag is a great product and I truly believe that it can help saving my ass in case I'm in a slide. I'm riding with an avalanche airbag for years now, the last two years with ABS. After following multiple avalanche courses and knowing how to use (and practicing over and over again) my beacon, probe and shovel, I thought an avalanche airbag is great extension of my ‘safety quiver'. But….I really don't like the campaign that ABS is running at the moment. To add some power to my words: it stinks. And the short movie above is one example.
Around 100-110 people in the Alps die because of avalanches. And whereas most people think that an avalanche just ‘occurs', quite the opposite is true. An avalanche doesn't just ‘occur'. 90% of the victims triggered their deadly avalanche themselves. And as you can see, that's exactly the case with Alvaro. He triggered his own avalanche. Pretty bad news for him. On the other hand, if we trigger our own avalanches we can influence the risk by avoiding those dangerous slopes and choose to ride ones where the risk is significantly lower. How do you do that? Knowledge and experience.
Unfortunately, a lot of people still believe that it's ‘bad luck' that their caught by an avalanche. And let's face it: ABS doesn't really make you aware of the fact that 90% of the deadly avalanches are triggered by the riders themselves or others in their group. Ok, they have a small passage on their website, but that isn't what the public is going to read. They think that they have to protect themselves for something unpredictable and spontaneous such as an avalanche. The answer? An avalanche airbag. This way of thinking is used by ABS in their campaign. Check out the video of Aymar once again. This is the mention by ABS:
The 24-year old survived the accident thanks to his avalanche airbag unscathed except for a few scratches.
When you take a look at the YouTube page of ABS you'll find more ‘I survived with ABS' movies. It's great that all of these riders survived and it makes everyone more aware of the risks, but prevention is better than the cure. The tone of voice is even more defined on the Facebook page of ABS 'If you think you don't need to care about avalanche safety you better watch this video.' It's a good thing that they tell you that you have to care about avalanche safety. But the message in the campaign is clear: buy an airbag and you'll survive an avalanche. I survived with ABS. I pretty much can not conclude anything else. But again, in my honest opinion, that's not the way how ‘safer' skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry should be marketed.
Prevention is better than the cure
Elyse Saugstad is one of the skiers in the ABS campaign. She was lucky to survive the massive slide near Stevens Pass, that was documented and reconstructed in a brilliant way by the New York Times. This case shows that a series of mistakes lead to this fatal avalanche. Fortunately, Elyse lives to tell the story. ABS claims a survival rate of 97%, but if you dig into the numbers, it's getting interesting.
Around 100-110 people in the Alps die because of avalanches. At least 90% of the victims triggered their deadly avalanche themselves. Research done by the ICAR tells us that 50% of all the people completely buried by an avalanche survive. The people who lose their life in an avalanche die due to suffocation or trauma (such as impact on a rock or tree). But how many people are caught by an avalanche every year? How many of them are completely buried? Even though there is more data available than ever before, we still don't know much. There aren't that many researchers. Not all avalanches are reported. Point is: can we extrapolate the research done by the SLF for ABS with a 97% survival rate as an outcome ?
What we do know
We know that your chances of getting caught by an avalanche is significantly lower with the right knowledge. By using Werner Munters 3x3 reduction method or using Martin Englers SnowCard you'll know which slopes to avoid. Backcountry skiing and snowboarding starts with the right knowledge. Not with an airbag. Let's return to the video of Aymar one more time. The video below is the one they shot BEFORE he was caught by the huge slide in the first movie.
Do you see the slide going down and Aymar escaping it? The second run (the ABS commercial) looks even steeper. So…what did they expect? A stable snowpack? Why were they riding that face one more time? The response of Aymar on the Facebook post of the Freeride World Tour is even more confusing:
Hi guys, my name is Aymar Navarro and i'm the rider of the avalanche footage! I can assure you that all the images are real! With this things you don't play...I was really lucky that day and for sure the ABS also helped for nothing worse to happen!! In this sport there are some risks that we never want them to happen, but sometimes even if we try to minimize the risk as much as possible, they do!! The risk exists as well as the accidents!! We must be cautious in the mountain, at the end she has the last word.
Read this sentence again:
In this sport there are some risks that we never want them to happen, but sometimes even if we try to minimize the risk as much as possible, they do!!
The ethical way
The video was shot for a Ford commercial. But still, ABS made a campaign out of it. In my opinion, they're sending out the wrong message. Avalanche awareness starts with knowledge. I will still carry my ABS pack this winter, because I still think it's a great product. But I'm not carrying it because I'm some kind of stuntman. And to Aymar: glad you made it and hopefully without any serious injuries.