All of the common avalanche safety gear – beacon, shovel, probe, airbags and breathing devices – are aimed at preventing burial and/or suffocation. But burial isn't the only way avalanches cause death. The Canadian Avalanche Centre estimates that somewhere between a quarter and a third of avalanche deaths are caused by trauma, not burial. The Mountain Airbag Harness from French manufacturer UBAK protects against both burial and blunt trauma.
Outside of a few select exceptions, avalanche airbags use the same basic packaging: a backpack. UBAK designed the Mountain Airbag Harness a little differently, stripping away the full pack and putting its airbag system into a shoulder harness. The harness includes a hipbelt to secure it to the torso and a back hook that can be used for helicopter rescue. The packaging isn't just for the sake of being different, but for creating an airbag that fully protects the head, face and airways.
When activated with the pull handle, the airbag inflates instantly, forming a protective wrap around the neck, sides of the head, and face. It also covers the face with mesh to prevent the victim from choking on mouthfuls of snow during the fall, creating a breathable air pocket. The airbag is designed to prevent the trauma that can be incurred by sliding into rocks and trees, and to keep the face up out of the snow to prevent breathing complications.
The Mountain Airbag Harness is available for €550 (approx. US$720).
UBAK isn't the first airbag product to offer some head protection. The company told us that Swiss manufacturer Snowpulse builds a similar Lifebag airbag under a patent license from UBAK. The Lifebag wraps around the sides and back of the head to keep the head above the snow and protected from trauma. It does not appear to cover the entire head and face quite as thoroughly as the UBAK harness and doesn't have a mesh breathing pocket, however.
With separate segments of the ski industry working simultaneously on more protective avalanche airbags and inflatable ski body armor, it seems like the industry is slowly progressing toward a ski suit, or at least jacket, that can inflate rapidly around the chest, stomach, back, head and neck, providing both flotation atop sliding snow and full body protection from crashes and impacts.