Most avalanche deaths (more than 85 percent) are caused by asphyxiation--as the victim breathes, carbon dioxide accumulates in their air pocket and their supply of oxygen runs out. Time is of the essence for the chance of a rescue.
The Avalung operates on this premise. It is a long tube with a bi-valve intake box that pulls air from the snowpack. The victim breathes in oxygen and exhales CO2 into an exhaust port, which deposits the poisonous gas near the hip and away from the body. By breathing into the Avalung, carbon dioxide will not accumulate near the victim's mouth and nose. The buried victim will have more oxygen and the time window to rescue them becomes much longer. The Utah Avalanche Center says the chances of surviving an avalanche drop "catastrophically" if you are buried for more than 15 minutes. Black Diamond says their Avalung will give victims a 58-minute window with enough air supply to survive.
But--and this is a big question--how would I ever free my hand from my ski pole to shove a plastic tube into my mouth, let alone remember that there's a plastic tube that needs to go into my mouth, when I'm about to get thrown down a mountain by an AVALANCHE?!
To this point, I had skipped over the Avalung as a piece of avalanche gear. But recently, I had the opportunity to use one and I learned they do have a place in the realm of avalanche safety. For one, they are a life-saving tool that travels much easier than an airbag.
Airbags with compressed air canisters are a pain in the ass. Since you can't fly with a full air canister, when you land in a foreign country, you have to find the time and the location and the transportation to go to a ski shop to fill it up. I don't know about you, but I've lugged my airbag across the world, only to never find the time or the place to fill up my air canister, which leaves me with just another heavy backpack that's worthless in the event of an avalanche.
The Avalung bypasses this entirely. In fact, it's really easy to travel with. After all, it’s just a tube that I packed into my suitcase. The night before I hit the skin track, I attached it to Black Diamond's Cirque backpack strap with four exceptionally strong and tight-fitting pieces of velcro, three of them with hooks. Attached to the Cirque, the Avalung Element is low profile and at 267 grams, it definitely weighs less than an airbag. It’s also cheaper. The Avalung Element costs $100, plus the $200 Cirque pack, and you’re saving at least several hundred dollars compared to the cheapest airbags on the market. (Black Diamond’s smallest Jetforce avalanche airbag costs $1,049.95). With such a low profile, I hardly noticed the Avalung when I was hiking along the ridge to a summit and it was packed away in its pocket attached to my shoulder strap. When the time came to drop in and ski, I unzipped the Avalung and pulled out the blue, extendable mouthpiece so it was close enough to my mouth that I could bite it. I will say that skiing with a plastic tube inches from your mouth is distracting, at best.
Another pro: The backpack is much more than just the Avalung. In the case of the Cirque, remove the Avalung and it's a minimalist pack for missions into the mountains in every season. With 35 liters of room to spare and a straight-forward top-loading compartment, it's ready to be stuffed with whatever you need to bring with you to snow-capped peaks near and far. There is an avy tools pocket with drain holes and there's a small zippered pocket on the outside flap, as well as a stretchy hip pocket that's good for a snack, but otherwise, you just stuff everything into the main compartment and cinch it shut. Opening it is as simple as pulling the string in BD's cinch system--simple, fast, and intuitive, which came in handy for moments of transition in the backcountry.
All these positive features aside, I still had my doubts about getting the Avalung to my mouth in the event of an avalanche. In Austria, at the top of the mountain and before our descent, I asked a Black Diamond engineer and three IFMGA-certified guides in our group my big question.
Their answer was to ski with the Avalung in your mouth from the beginning of your descent. When the snow is deep, they continued, it also works as a snorkel--a half-joke. The instructions for the Avalung give you more information: “When tumbling in an avalanche, plunging into a tree-well, or skiing or riding in deep powder, the mouthpiece must be kept firmly in your mouth. Holding it firmly in your mouth with your teeth will improve your chances of keeping the mouthpiece securely positioned in your mouth. Your mouth must remain closed to prevent loss or displacement of the mouthpiece and to avoid snow entering into your mouth. Snow in your mouth could result in a blocked airway and eliminate the effectiveness of the Avalung Element or your ability to insert it in your mouth.”
I suppose all this is to say that I still have my doubts that an Avalung is a practical tool to save yourself in the split seconds before getting hit by an avalanche and buried in cement-like snow. But at least it's better than an airbag with an empty canister.