Backpacks balance risk with safety
by Mountain Journal: Tony Crespi
Apr 03, 2017 | 1523 views | 0 0 comments | 140 140 recommendations | email to a friend | print
This January, in Whistler, British Columbia, an airbag built into a backpack saved a snowboarder caught in an avalanche. That rider, Tom Oye, owes his life to his Black Diamond Halo 28 Jetforce Backpack. While that backpack costs more than $1,000, it helped this rider maintain buoyancy in a dangerous slide.

In contrast, in December, an 11-year-old skiing in Utah found his backpack caught on a chairlift, which left him dangling dangerously. Fortunately, in the chair ahead, a skier who witnessed this event quickly phoned the mountain patrol who were able to save the young skier.

Fortunately, in this case the boy walked away uninjured.

This January, also in Colorado, a man was seen hanging by his neck – unconscious - after his pack caught on a chairlift. This time a professional slackliner expedited the rescue and saved a life.

In truth, backpacks are helpful in certain situations and are dangerous in other situations. Clearly for skiers who explore the backcountry, and who ski steep terrain with untracked deep snow, the purchase and use of a backpack - equipped with an airbag system - can be lifesaving. In the event of an avalanche these airbags can inflate and increase survival rates. In addition, these packs often carry avalanche transceivers to help locate buried skiers, and many backcountry skiers and riders use these packs to carry small avalanche shovels and probes, as well as emergency gear such as “space blankets.”

Certainly not all lifts pose a risk with backpacks. At Snowbird in Utah skiers who explore their steepest terrain safely carry backpacks in the mountain’s “tram” before exiting for a mountain run. Mountain trams and gondolas such as at Stratton do not offer the risk of a chairlift. Still, it can reduce cabin comfort.

Honestly, these resorts are quite different than mountain resorts here in New England. Avalanche risk is low if not nonexistent in New England and the need for avalanche airbags, transceivers, and shovels seems minimal at lift-serviced resorts. And, on lifts, there is a risk that a pack can catch on a chairlift and pose considerable risk. Backpacks? Sadly, mountains are asking if they should they be banned on chairlifts. Backpacks, it seems, can help. Backpacks can hurt.

For outdoor adventures, backpacks certainly are invaluable. On a hike a backpack can hold a camera, snack, additional clothing, in summer a beach blanket, and an array of gear to augment the day. Backpacks are used in an array of adventures. A dear friend, an outdoor adventurer who has wandered mountains and oceans throughout the globe, keeps a pilot’s pack in the back of his “bush plane” - an aircraft he ferried from Idaho to his home in southern New England. Bush planes, are designed to be used in the backcountry. His was used for tracking mountain lions and has small window vents for cameras. This kind of aircraft is often used on mountains from Alaska to the Alps and is the kind of aircraft mountaineers will use to access high peaks. In his case, his bag contains key tools he might need should adventures not proceed in an ideal fashion. Still, he does not use this pack skiing New England lift-serviced terrain. In short, packs should match the mission.

Leaving a backpack, or bootbag, in the lodge may make sense. Using gondolas also reduces risk. Slipping a pack off on a chairlift and keeping the pack by your side lessens risk, but leaving a pack in the base lodge is often adequate. Skier backpacks? Airbags in New England seem not so necessary. Avalanche tracking devices seem not so necessary. Shovels also don’t seem required. Decide if a pack is, well, necessary. On the other hand, if you venture to the West it may make sense. It may make great sense. That said, here is a small sampling of backpacks and bootbags:

Backpacks with airbags- Backpacks specific for skiers are available with airbags, which can inflate to maintain buoyancy if buried. Here are three:

Black Diamond Halo 28 JetForce: The Jetforce uses modern airbag technology. At approximately $1,100 it is not inexpensive but is state of the art.

Backcountry Access Float 22: At approximately $500, this pack offers a comfortable and more affordable pack with a safety bag.

Mammut Light Removable Airbag: At $580 this is a light airbag from REI. It’s affordable. It’s well designed.

Ortovox Free Rider 24: At approximately $900 with the airbag or $198 without, the Ortovox is a backcountry pack with a pocket for a shovel and probe and a slot to carry skis, The airbag is separate - pricey at approximately $700 - but can be used with multiple packs in their line.

Boot bags- Backpacks worn while skiing aside, virtually every skier and rider will need and use some kind of boot bag. Carrying boots and gear to the lodge can be a virtual impossibility without a boot bag. In fact, a few years ago, walking around the tarmac at Gunnison Airport in Colorado, reaching for my skis before I headed for a story at the Extremes at Crested Butte, a skier commented on my backpack. In my case, testing at that time a virtually unknown boot bag - a Transpack – my hands were free as the trapezoidal shape carried my boots and gear easily, allowing me to toss my ski bag on my shoulder as I headed to the bus for the mountain. Here is a sampling:

Transpack XT1: The XT1 offers side entry for each boot, nicely padded backpack straps, a great padded back, and a wide array of colors. Dimensions: 17x16x14

High Sierra Trapezoid: approximately: $39. The High Sierra offers two-side zippered boot compartments, padded straps, a center pocket for a helmet, and great colors. Dimensions: 16x13.5x16

Transpack Heated PRO BOOT pack; approximately $199. This is a unique bag. I plug mine into the car riding to the mountain and my boots are warm when I boot up in the lodge. It offers a trapezioid shape and top pocket for gear.

Transpack Compact Pro: approximately $110. Similar to other Transpacks, this uses backpack straps, side pockets for each boot, a great array of colors, and an affordable price.

Athalon Everything Boot Bag, approximately $150. The Athalon has a backpack option and is sufficiently large to hold a day’s gear easily. The center holds gear and side pockets hold boots.

Putting this together, skiers need bootbags to carry gear from the car to the mountain. Fortunately, area mountain shops carry a wide array of bootbags. For anyone who has struggled carrying skis, boots, gloves, and gear from the car to the mountain a bootbag is a tool which can be invaluable. On the other hand, many skiers and riders happily leave these in the lodge. Given the risks of catching a backpack on a chairlift, it seems wise. What’s your next adventure? How can you reduce risk, on the mountain or at the mountain? Be aware. Ski with care. Savor your next adventure.
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