A case study from the fall edition of the Canadian Avalanche Association‘s publication The Avalanche Journal details the death of a skier in Revelstoke and brings light to one feature on many airbag backpack systems you might not have even heard about: the crotch strap.
The author, a key analyst of the incident for CAA and aid for both the RCMP and BC Corners Service, noted that the failure to use the crotch strap while in avalanche terrain may have been a key factor in the skiers death.
“He had not attached the crotch strap of his airbag. As the overburden of the slab he triggered from mid-slope overran his position in the toe of the debris, the airbag was lifted away from his back and above his head.”
Not fastening the crotch strap allowed for excess movement of the pack allowing it to swing from the skiers back as he was carried down the hill. It’s sobering to think that such a simple device could have made such a difference.
“As the balloons and pack were pushed forward and downhill it lifted the pack, causing the chest strap to catch on his chin and impede his airway.”
The absence of the strap turned the airbag backpack from a lifesaving device to mere hindrance of the victims survival. His pack blocked the airway, suffocating the skier along with the mass of snow which had carried him down the slope. When the snow mass had stopped the airbag was approximately 50cm from his back and it was evident that it had prevented the skier from being able to use his arms to protect himself and create a pocket of air around his head.
To say that this skier’s failure to use the crotch strap was ignorant or careless would be a misconception. After speaking with a number of experienced skiers, we found that the crotch strap on airbag backpacks is not a well know feature. For some it’s an option that they choose to wear or not to wear. For others, it wasn’t even something they knew existed.
Some older packs didn’t feature a crotch strap or leg strap, and because of the magnitude of the investment of an airbag (often $700 or more) it’s not uncommon for an owner to use the same system for a long period of time.
A quick search of various ABS ready or equipped packs shows that the crotch strap isn’t a prominent feature. Most Mammut packs have it shown in their catalog photos, but other brands often omit a crotch or leg strap from product photos or descriptions. In fact, the Canadian Avalanche Center’s webpage about Recommended Gear mentions nothing about airbags featuring a crotch strap.
What have we learned from this Case Study?
The great thing about the backcountry skiing community is that everyone is keen to share new information and learn more about safety in the field. With each incident we learn more and though every death hits home for each and every one of us, we can pull something new away and hopefully prevent future deaths.
In this case, we have learned that wearing the crotch strap is extremely important when using an airbag backpack. The failure to use the crotch strap can lead to a worse outcome than no wearing one at all because it can become restricting to both your body’s movement and your airway.
We highly recommend researching what type of crotch or leg strap features any airbag pack you may be interested in buying has and to always wear the straps when skiing in avalanche terrain.
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