Avalanches are not glamorous. Getting caught in one does not make you cool. Most often, it just makes you cold and dead and then shatters the lives of all the people around you.
You'd think that after all the heartbreak skiers have sustained in recent years, and all the attention given to the tragic outcome of avalanches, that we'd finally arrived to a point where the glorification of avalanches was a thing of the past.
Apparently, that's not the case. This week, a video is going around the web showing Spanish skier Aymar Navarro triggering a massive avalanche, trying to outrun it before he gets consumed in its path, then deploying his airbag backpack. He survives, shakes off the snow, then, as seen through his helmet cam, he climbs back aboard the helicopter. It's as if nothing ever happened and he's ready to take another run.
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There are, of course, many videos showing how airbags can help skiers survive an avalanche. The ugly difference in this video is the prominent nature of the ABS logo, the editing to specifically showcase the ABS pack (including showing Aymar readying the pack's trigger mechanism before skiing), the dramatic music, and the fact there is nothing in terms of messaging about decision-making or avalanche safety. Rather, the message appears to be that all you need to survive an avalanche is to wear an ABS backpack. It's hard to tell if this is indeed an ad since there are no credits or attribution, which makes it even more egregious because that would imply someone somewhere knew enough not to put their name on it, but not enough to shelve it. Some people have even suggested that the entire thing was staged just to generate publicity for ABS. Turns out that the footage came from a car commercial in the Spanish Pyrenees. One can only assume that after the accident, ABS pounced on the clip and edited it to dramatic effect to promote their product.
There is another video where Aymar describes the incident, saying that the sun broke through after a week of storms and 12 feet of new snow, with another foot of fresh overnight. He says they evaluated three slopes and tried to minimize the risk yet didn't expect what happened. That tiny bit of avalanche awareness (and that's being generous) is followed by a much larger plug for his airbag.
Of course, airbags are a useful tool when traveling in the backcountry and they have saved lives. But there is no guarantee. To throw this caution to the wind is irresponsible and dangerous to anyone who explores the backcountry, especially to young skiers who are full of bravado but short on experience.
Aside from promoting a false sense of security, this "ad" also perpetuates the ski industry's serious problem of having a lack of accountability. Sales of backcountry equipment have soared in recent years as more people ski beyond the gates. So while the industry enjoys these profits, their customers head into hazardous terrain believing that their equipment alone will save them. It's beyond time that we hold up our end of the deal by recognizing that avalanches are very real, very dangerous, and that avoiding them requires more than just gear.
Last winter, the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) launched a campaign called Project Zero. The intent was to build a unified safety message within the ski industry with the goal of reducing avalanche fatalities from the current average of 30 per year, to zero. This ABS video is the perfect example of why this message is needed, and how it could be utilized. But despite enthusiastic interest from the industry last winter, says Tom Murphy, AIARE's operations director, the campaign has since slowed because it lacks the proper funding.
"The industry at large realized that it would behoove them to come together and do something about avalanche safety," Murphy said Thursday. "It recognized the uptick in sales and the correlating uptick in backcountry accidents. We know that this is likely not going to go away. So while they realized this conundrum, it's gonna take some money to put this together. That hasn't been forthcoming."
Instead, we have exciting video footage showing professional athletes escaping avalanches using only their airbag. And zero message about how to avoid avalanches in the first place.
Not that cool.