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Dollars and sense

Bozeman-made Blackjack makes backcountry less of a gamble

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The snow's piling up, you've got fresh batteries in your beacon, you've got your shovel and probe packed—what else do you need to hit the backcountry? Well, just when you thought you had your avalanche safety system dialed there's one more gadget to drop your hard-earned ducats on.

If you ski or ride in avalanche terrain, chances are you've heard about airbag packs. Though the Europeans have been using them for 25 years, it's just in the past two years that they've gained traction in the U.S. Now these life-saving devices are being made in our backyard, by the fine folks at Mystery Ranch in Bozeman.

Montana Headwall
  • Kyle Christenson

Before we get to the pack itself, let's go over the basics. The idea is simple. If you are unfortunate enough to get caught in an avalanche, you pull a cord on your pack's shoulder strap to inflate a big pillow behind your head, which keeps you on the surface of the snow.

It does this not by "floating" you to the surface, but by a handy little trick of physics called inverse segregation. The avalanche debris gets sorted during a slide so that the smallest particles filter to the bottom and the large ones rise to the surface—much in the same way that shaking a half-empty bag of tortilla chips will bring to the top anything big enough to dip in salsa. The airbag effectively makes you a larger piece of debris.

Sounds like a good idea, but does it work?

"Airbags save lives," says Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. "The statistics are solid. An airbag offers greater chances of survival than traveling without one."

In a 2005 study of 2,000 avalanche incidents, the Switzerland-based International Commission of Alpine Rescue found that slides killed 51 percent of victims who were completely buried. The same study found that airbags lowered the probability of a complete burial from 47 percent to 13 percent and, even more impressive, slashed the probability of death from 35 percent to 1 percent. The commission concluded that airbags are "the device of choice."

"The most time-consuming part of a rescue is locating and digging the victim out," Chabot says. "If the person is only partially buried or if a piece of the airbag is sticking out of the snow, there's no need for a beacon search, which greatly reduces rescue time."

Chabot also notes that these devices work best in open terrain, since being strained through thick timber will likely cause bodily harm with or without an airbag. For this reason he predicts that statistics gathered in the United States in the coming years won't be quite as glowing as the data from the Alps.

"In North America, paths tend to be shorter with timber lining the sides and bottom," says Chabot. "Airbags can puncture. Collisions with trees are unforgiving."

Still, it's hard to argue with the numbers, and you'd be foolish to venture into avalanche terrain without one, right?

Well, yes. But if you've heard anything about these packs you already know the bad news: They're fairly expensive (although if they save your life, you won't be complaining about the cost). And they're also heavy. There are currently five major brands available in the United States, with price tags ranging from around $700 to $1,200; each weighs 5 to 8 pounds.

Unveiled this year, the Mystery Ranch Blackjack is one of the larger packs available, at 2,600 cubic inches. It retails for $975 and weighs in at 7.8 pounds.

Mystery Ranch's winter program manager Ben Nobel acknowledges that the cost can put the pack out of reach for the casual backcountry skier.

"We'd love to have a big [market] share with the public, and I think that once people catch on, spending a thousand dollars is going to make a lot more sense," Nobel says. But for now the company is focusing on marketing the packs to ski patrols at resorts around the country.

Like all Mystery Ranch packs the Blackjack has a beefy, comfortable harness, and feels well constructed and durable. The design is simple: a top-loading main compartment with a full-length side zipper for easy access. The front panel pocket is designed to fit the largest shovel blade on the market, and has sleeves for organizing your handle, probe and saw. The options for diagonal and A-frame ski carry are stable and the side compression straps can be used to secure a snowboard vertically. The pack even has a hideaway ice axe loop.

"We originally designed it without the airbag," says Nobel. "We took a lot of the features that we wanted as skiers and mountaineers and climbers and built a bag that would do really well for all of us, and for ski patrol." The airbag, he says, is more of an accessory, since it can be removed.

The lid of the pack has two pockets, one with a breakaway zipper that contains the airbag, and one available for your energy bar and camera. A hefty metal bar threads through a series of sewn loops to secure the lid to the pack frame.

The main compartment features a goggle-sized pocket and a vertical pouch to secure the compressed air cylinder against the back panel. The trigger cable runs from the cylinder to a zippered pouch on the left shoulder strap. The T-shaped handle is easily removed so you don't blow your cylinder grabbing your pack out of the truck.

It takes a forceful yank on the handle to deploy the thing—and then what happens? Unlike the videos you've seen of car airbags, it takes a few seconds for the Blackjack to inflate its big red pillow. And if you are caught in an avalanche there is still a chance that you could be completely buried, so wearing a transceiver is a must. Once you're out of harm's way, folding the airbag and re-stuffing it is a snap. Recharging the cylinder is a bit more involved.

Before the cylinder can be refilled a tiny O-ring in the cylinder head needs to be replaced, which involves removing two bolts from the metal housing. For just a few dollars, dive shops and fire stations typically can charge it back up (although it's worth noting that the downtown Bozeman fire station I tried did not have the right-sized adaptor to get the job done). Nobel says Mystery Ranch will be offering free refills at the company's Bozeman headquarters.

Overall, the airbag component of the Blackjack is easy to use and reuse. The pack itself is a workhorse, with all the functionality you need for a morning of throwing bombs or an all-day backcountry mission.

Is it overkill for spinning laps on the Schlasman's chair or afternoon forays into Jenny Bowl? Probably. Could it save your life? Definitely. If you think you can't afford it you might want to reconsider that new pair of skis you've been eyeing.

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