Backcountry Access co-founder talks winter safety trends as backcountry use rises

As more skiers, snowboarders, climbers and snowmobilers access the winter backcountry, it’s no surprise to see more companies expanding their lines of winter safety gear. Backcountry Access' Bruce Edgerly spoke with SNEWS on the topic at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market.

Throughout the month of February, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2012 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 19-22. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

As more skiers, snowboarders, climbers and snowmobilers access the winter backcountry, it’s no surprise to see more companies expanding their lines of winter safety gear. Demand for the products is up, Backcountry Access co-founder Bruce Edgerly told SNEWS at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, but so are the discussions surrounding winter safety education, especially the use of avalanche airbags. During the past decade in the United States, an average of 25 people have died in avalanches each year, according to the American Avalanche Association. The 2010/11 seasons hit exactly that average of 25 reported fatalities, down more than 25 percent after 36 avalanche-related deaths in the 2009/10 season. But those statistics don’t tell the whole story, Edgerly said, as so many success stories or near-disaster experiences involving avalanches go unreported.

Read on below for our interview with Edgerly.

In a recent paper, you put forth that social media could be used to improve avalanche incident research. Can you briefly explain your idea and conclusion?

At the snow science conferences we sponsor and attend, there are many presentations involving avalanche statistics. Most of these stats come from avalanche centers and public incident reports. But these mainly involve fatalities and injuries. This tends to bring out the worst cases, such as multiple burials and major trauma cases. We believe there are many success stories involving beacons and airbags that are not being reported, so we went to the social media to find out for ourselves. We found that about 40 percent of avalanche incidents are not being reported. Many of these involve live recoveries with no injuries. You’ll see in our ad campaigns now that we’re featuring people that have been saved with our Trackers. This is the most rewarding part of our job at BCA.

More people are venturing into the backcountry — some through lifts and the sidecountry. Is easier access a good thing? Are people creating a false sense of security?

There’s a certain false sense of security that “skier compaction” in the sidecountry creates a safer snowpack. But you’d have to basically bootpack these slopes to make them more stable. However, with increased traffic comes increased education. The ski areas are stepping up to make sure the people crossing their boundaries know they need to be educated. They’re setting up beacon training parks, beacon checkpoints, and they’re even teaching avalanche courses. Skier compaction might be overrated, but education isn’t; it’s the only surefire way to prevent avalanche incidents.

In 2011, you attended a meeting of the International Commission for Alpine Rescue in Sweden. What were the top trends discussed?

Airbags, snowmobiles and shoveling. There was a serious discussion about the ethics of guides using airbags, but not offering them to their guests. There were several incidents last year in which the guide was wearing an airbag and survived an avalanche, but the guest didn’t. The Canadians made several presentations about what they’re doing to prevent another epidemic of snowmobiler fatalities. And there was lots of discussion about the importance of teaching shoveling technique in avalanche courses.

What sort of adoption rates do you think we’ll see of avalanche air bags within the next few years? Will the airbag become the most important piece of winter safety gear?

I think that within five years airbags will be considered equally as important as an avalanche beacon. You can’t argue with the statistics — and the stats are showing airbags to be even more effective than beacons.

What innovations do you expect ahead for the avalanche airbag? What hurdles do manufacturers face to get more consumers to buy airbags?

The main hurdles are price and weight. You’ll see lots of innovation in these two areas over the next few years. In fact, we’ve decreased the weight of our Float packs by 20 percent for the season.

–David Clucas