Words: Jakob Schiller
On a typical avalanche control day at Snowmass Ski Area, snow safety director Matt Huber loads his Mystery Ranch Blackjack airbag with 30 pounds of explosives plus another 15 or so pounds of avalanche safety gear. He then proceeds to cart that 45 pound pack up to any number of the ski area’s 130 named avalanche paths, many of which start around 12,000 feet.
Part of the reason Huber has no problem hauling a ton of weight around at high elevations is because he’s on ski patrol, and patrollers are beasts. But he also has the advantage of the Blackjack, which is specifically designed for patrollers like Huber who want the safety of an airbag but also need to pack a lot of gear into remote spots.
“We went with the Blackjack over anything else because of the way it carries the load,” says Huber, who helped Snowmass purchase 42 of the airbags. “When you're up that high it makes a big difference.”
Eric Deitemeyer, the ski patrol director at Wolf Creek Ski Area, says he outfitted the majority of his team with Blackjacks for similar reasons.
“You can really load those packs up,” he says. “They might weigh a ton but because of the way they carry the load we’ve always been able to get through our avalanche hazard reduction routes no problem.”
Founded by Dana Gleason, who also started the classic Dana Design backpack line in the 1980s, Mystery Ranch gear is known for its load carrying capacity. The spark for the company came when Gleason was approached by a group of Navy Seals who knew his work from Dana Design and wanted him to come up with a pack they could use to carry upwards of 100 pounds of military and communications gear. They hated their current setups and needed something that wasn’t going to slow them down.
What Gleason did was come up with a harness system that lets each user custom fit his or her pack. He offers yokes and waist belts in three sizes. Each pack is comes with the correct combination based on your height and waist size. Additionally, he customized the yokes with something called the Futura system, which allowed users to adjust the length of the yoke itself.
The packs he designed were such a hit with the soldiers that in 2006 Mystery Ranch signed a contract to provide packs to several of the military’s special operations teams.
“Since then we’ve heard from [elite] soldiers all around the world who called and said, 'Thanks for making my life suck less,'” said Ben Nobel, the brand manager for the ski and outdoor sections of Mystery Ranch.
Soon after the partnership with the military, Gleason was approached again, this time by a hotshot from California who said he wanted a better fire pack. Like the military, he said wildland firefighters needed something they could carry comfortably as they spent days at a time battling infernos throughout the West. Gleason delivered and now Mystery Ranch outfits fire crews across the country.
The Blackjack, which came out in 2010 has become the go-to airbag for hundreds of ski patrollers and mountain guides. Like the bags built for the military, it has a fully customizable yoke and waist belt. It’s built with three-eighths- inch fiberglass stays for load stabilization and has ski-patrol specific safety designs, such as a cover for the compressed air container so that the metal doesn't come into contact with any explosives—a necessary safety requirement.
The airbag is a standard 150 liters and the pack is designed with an easy-access avalanche tool pocket that fits even the largest shovel on the market. If you’re carrying your skis you can strap them on diagonally or in an A-frame setup.
This fall Mystery Ranch plans to launch its new Zeppelin airbag. The bag is smaller than the Blackjack and is aimed more toward the consumer market. But don’t be fooled by the word consumer. Nobel says those of us who aren’t packing our bags full of charges but still want a rugged and comfortable bag won’t be disappointed.