By Art Bentley
For the skier or snowboarder who has everything — except maybe a strong urge for self-preservation — an empty bag may be the ideal gift for that next big occasion.
This bag comes in a $700 backpack, accessorized by a $129 cartridge for inflation. The Mammut Snowpulse Air Bag Technology system is designed to help a snow junkie survive an avalanche, a constant danger for powder-crazed daredevils who stalk deep untracked snow beyond the boundaries of designated ski areas.
As long as they remain inbounds, where snow conditions are carefully monitored by the Ski Patrol, skiers run little risk of avalanche. However, in-bounds slides with fatal result are not unheard of.
One killed a snowboarder late last month at Donner Ski Ranch near Lake Tahoe. At about the same time, two skiers at Squaw Valley, also near the lake, were caught in another slide. They survived.
Beyond the ropes, the danger escalates sharply. Three years ago, people were killed in slides in unpatrolled back-country near the Mountain High ski area, close to Wrightwood.
With a 30-liter capacity, the backpack would seem to carry just about anything a back-country skier could want or need in an emergency, short of a St. Bernard. There are pockets for ice axes and goggles. Space is designated for an avalanche beacon, GPS device, a probe pole, even a shovel, not to mention water, food and first-aid supplies, all noted in a check-list displayed on fabric inside the pack.
It’s held in place by a harness secured over the chest by a clasp of aircraft-grade aluminum. The metal was chosen because of its capacity to withstand the extreme force generated when the ripcord is pulled to inflate the bag, which pops through a special break-away zipper. The back of the pack is cushioned with heavy “memory” foam, presumably to help prevent bad memories that may develop because of impacts against rocks or trees during a slide.
The purpose is to keep the skier or snowboarder on top of the snow as it charges downhill as fast as 70 miles per hour. Chances of survival plunge when victims are buried because snow, when it stops moving, immediately encases them in a coating as unyielding as cement.
Air bags, supplied by several manufacturers besides Mammut, have proved effective. Early last year, one saved a professional snowboarder from harm in a slide in Colorado. Another allowed a professional skier to survive an avalanche in Washington.
The choices for the skier who has not yet acquired everything are more plentiful. The list is arbitrary, but at the top is the Knee Binding, designed exclusively to prevent often catastrophic damage to the anterior cruciate ligament of the knee in a twisting backward fall.
The device is designed to release laterally at the heel before stress on the knee becomes severe enough to tear the ligament. The cost is significant — $399 to $459 — but far from the financial and emotional impact of surgery to deal with the injury.
Another premium-priced selection ($150 to $400) is the Electro Amp Core Vest by Columbia. Turn it on by pushing an illuminated button at about the level of your cards if you hold them close to your vest. Heat flows from three settings: high, medium or low. A rechargeable wallet-size lithium-ion battery supplies power for two to four hours.