Science Behind Avalanche 'Air Bag' Saves Skier

Three skiers died in an avalanche over the weekend in Washington state. A fourth skier was caught in the snow slide, but survived thanks to an airbag she deployed from her backpack. Audie Cornish speaks with Doug Abromeit, former director of and now consultant for the US Forest Service National Avalanche Center, about how the air bag works.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

On Sunday, three experienced skiers were killed by an avalanche in Washington state. They were with a group of 13 skiers in the back country just outside the resort area known as Stevens Pass. Pro skier Elyse Saugstad, one of the survivors, told NBC's "Today Show" that, to survive, she used an avalanche safety device.

ELYSE SAUGSTAD: Don't get me wrong. It's not like you're taking an inner tube ride down some snowy field. You definitely are in the avalanche and it feels like you're in, like, a washing machine and you're being flipped and tumbled and it's white the entire way. It's very scary.

CORNISH: To find out more about these devices, we turn to Doug Abromeit. He's former director of the Forest Services National Avalanche Center. Welcome, Doug.

DOUG ABROMEIT: Thank you.

CORNISH: We just heard from a skier, Elyse Faugstad, who believes she was saved by this device. Explain to us what it looks like and how it works.

ABROMEIT: They're like airbags in a car and skiers and snowboarders wear them on their back. They're an integral part of their backpack. and if a person gets caught in an avalanche, it's got a ripcord like a skydiver has a ripcord for his parachute and they pull that and then it inflates an airbag that goes around the person's head, which protects their head and their neck, and then it provides floatation so the person stays on top of the avalanche debris. Then they can just ride down on the avalanche and, nine times out of 10, they're on the surface of the avalanche debris when it comes to rest.

CORNISH: How new is this technology and how widespread is its use?

ABROMEIT: It's actually been around for quite a while in Europe. In the U.S., it's relatively new and I would say the past two to three years, you know, it's become more and more popular and so the airbags are widely available.

CORNISH: Doug, can you talk a little bit about whether or not this has a high rate of survival? I mean, do these devices make a huge difference?

ABROMEIT: Well, I think that airbags definitely have a high rate of survival. I mean, they've worked extremely well in Europe and definitely, you know, at first glance, they're working very well in the U.S. But they are an imperfect panacea, I mean, because once a person pulls the ripcord and inflates their air device, that person is going to go exactly where the avalanche goes. If the avalanche goes over a cliff, the person's going to go over a cliff. If the avalanche hits a tree, the person's going to hit a tree.

So they're definitely a valuable device to carry and to use, but like I said, they're an imperfect panacea.

CORNISH: That's Doug Abromeit. He's the former director of the Forest Services National Avalanche Center. Thank you so much.

ABROMEIT: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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