Fifteen minutes. That's how long the American Avalanche Center gives you for a good chance at survival if you become buried in an avalanche. At that point, you are essentially helpless and entirely reliant on the other members of your group. They can't see you and they probably can't hear you. Within those 15 minutes, they must figure out where you're located in the huge mass of snow and debris, and dig you out. After 35 minutes, your statistical shot at survival drops to just 27 percent.
Avalanche safety has long dictated that you don't go into avalanche terrain without the big three: avalanche beacon, probe and shovel. The beacon is used to find a buried victim's general whereabouts; the probe is used to find a specific location under the snow so that digging can be focused; and the shovel does the digging.
While there's no replacing those backcountry essentials, they're not exactly foolproof, either. Rescues can be complicated by factors like multiple burials and rescuers' unfamiliarity with actually using their gear in real-world scenarios. With the unforgiving time frame, a victim needs every small advantage he can get.
One advantage has been derived from a fourth piece of gear. Long popular in Europe, but only now gaining acceptance in other markets like North America, avalanche airbags are backpack-based inflatables that help to keep you on top of the avalanche and prevent burial. Some even inflate around the head and neck to prevent injury from trees, rocks and other dangers. If you're not fully buried, you'll be easier to find and less likely to suffocate.
The problem with avalanche airbags is that they're flat out expensive. They cost in the upper three figures to lower four figures, potentially several times what you'll pay for the three other avalanche gear items combined.
A new system from Swiss brand Rotauf is similar to the avalanche airbag, but much smaller and less expensive. The MRK5 is an inflatable device that weighs in at a mere 150 grams (5.29 oz) and measures 3 x 5 x 13 cm (1.18 x 1.97 x 5.12 in). Unlike avalanche airbags, which are built into dedicated backpacks, the MRK5 is small enough to be integrated into existing gear, such as jackets.
The system has a small handle that you pop out prior to heading into the backcountry. If you get caught in an avalanche event, you tug the handle and a bright orange inflatable pops out. Unlike the full-blown avalanche airbag inflatables, the MRK5's small cushion isn't designed to keep you afloat. What it's designed to do is to keep itself afloat, because its density is lower than powder snow and much lower than heavier avalanche snow. It's connected to you by a cord and serves as a marker when things come to a stop.
Instead of the slow process of locating you via avalanche beacon, your group will spot the orange marker right away, and use the MRK5 cord or a probe to determine your specific location under the snow and get you out as efficiently as possible.
Rotauf believes its primary business will be in selling its technology to other gear manufacturers, but it is also working on a consumer version that could be purchased directly. Pricing isn't set, but a company rep gave US$100 as a ballpark estimate as to what the premium would be over non-MRK5-equipped gear.
That pricing sounds just about right. The system offers enough protection to warrant a hundred-buck premium, which is still much cheaper than a full avalanche airbag.
The MRK5 will not replace the aforementioned big three and is not as good of protection as an avalanche airbag, since it doesn't keep you on top of the snow. However, the lower projected cost of the smaller system, along with its potential to be built into third-party clothing and gear, makes it an attractive augmentative safety device. If you could spend a $100 premium for a high quality touring jacket with MRK5 technology built in, it would be a good way of getting one more tool to ensure that you make it home.
The Rotauf MRK5 will make its debut at next year's ISPO show in Germany. It already earned itself an ISPO Brand New Award.
The video below provides some more details on the device.
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