SALT LAKE CITY — A woman who survived an avalanche in Washington Sunday credited a special inflatable backpack with saving her life.
Many such safety devices are now sold to skiers, but they can also give a false sense of security. Some experts say the best way to avoid avalanche danger is just to pay attention.
Avalanche danger is very real in Utah. Between 2001 and 2010, 36 people died in avalanches in Utah, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which is why it's a good idea to be prepared. Experts say some people take on the latest safety gear with a little too much confidence.
"I am very certain that is what saved my life," said Elyse Saugstad, speaking of the ABS Avalanche Airbag Backpack. Saugstad lost three of her friends in an avalanche in Washington state this past weekend.
Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center, said it's true that devices like the Airbag Backpack can make a big difference in some harrowing situations.
"It will probably save the lives of 20 percent, as much as 50 percent of the people who would have normally died in an avalanche," Tremper said. Still, those advances in safety can have the opposite effect.
"It's a little bit of a false sense of security, using a lot of this rescue gear, because sometimes it can save your life, but other times it can't," Tremper said.
Michael Heathfield, who sells avalanche safety gear at REI, said that it comes down to personal decisions while out on the trail.
"Make good choices. That's what I think," he said. Devices like a GPS beacon, a shovel and a probe are important for skiers headed to the backcountry. Still, he said the best way to avoid injury or death by avalanche is simply to avoid one.
"Around 95 percent of all avalanches that people are involved in, they've initiated," Heathfield said. Any slope around 25 degrees or higher can pose a risk.
"It's better just to take an avalanche class and learn how to avoid avalanches in the first place," Tremper said. "So it's not a matter of chance. It's more of a matter of choice, which is good, because we can avoid avalanches if we want to."
For the latest on avalanche danger go to utahavalanchecenter.org.
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