It’s a funny thing, purchasing a piece of outdoor equipment with the hope that you’ll never have to use it. But when it comes to avalanche safety tools, specifically an avalanche airbag pack, it’s critical. Carrying the necessary equipment that allows you to adeptly respond to an avalanche rescue scenario is crucial … even if that dreaded day never comes.
Luckily, thanks to advancements in snow safety technology over the last 10 years, avalanche airbag packs have rapidly evolved from heavy and complicated luxury items, to a streamlined and essential part of the backcountry skier’s toolkit.
Around 2011, Black Diamond’s product team, led by Design Engineer Pete Gompert, decided to start from scratch. And in this case, “scratch” consisted of a computer fan in the company’s IT department, and a plastic bag.
Black Diamond’s goal in creating the JetForce system was to design a system that answered the numerous limitations of the existing paradigm. Gompert was experimenting with a number of ideas on how to reinvent the system—chemical reactions, mechanical springs—but nothing stuck. One day on a whim, he placed a plastic garbage bag over the small exhaust fan on a computer. Much to his surprise, the bag filled with air in only 10 or 15 seconds. The team ordered some high-powered, ducted fans and a high-tensile airbag and quickly got the inflation time down to a few seconds.
“It kind of went from there,” Gompert says. “You have the idea of where you’re going, but it’s really just a series of solving problems one after the other.”
While Black Diamond has a rich history and deep knowledge-base in mechanical systems, the company’s acquisition of PIEPS in 2012 provided the missing link to the JetForce project: experience with highly technical and life-saving electronics systems that needed to function in extreme cold. For nearly three years, PIEPS engineers worked alongside Black Diamond’s product team to refine JetForce’s custom electronics. Once a usable prototype was finished, it was time to put it through the paces. Black Diamond’s team of Quality Assurance engineers tested the JetForce system in nearly every set of conditions and circumstances imaginable, both in the lab and in the endless ski terrain of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains.
The company not only worked with the certifying-body to develop standards for this new technology, but also designed a host of simulation tests that went above and beyond certification standards. Wear tests on the pack fabric and components, waterproof tests on the electronics, weighted compression tests on the airbag, you name it. Even the system’s tiniest hardware pieces were submitted to thousands of repetitions in a durability cycle tester.
The result was Black Diamond’s initial line of ski packs equipped with JetForce Technology, which came to market in the fall of 2015 and were integral in helping airbag systems gain traction among dedicated backcountry skiers and splitboarders alike. This innovative line of packs remains a benchmark in avalanche safety technology today and continues to provide potentially life-saving performance with functional, backcountry-focused pack features.
Innovation lies at the core of Black Diamond, and a revolutionary new system is being introduced once again. The all-new JetForce Tour Pack utilizes the rapid-discharging, capacitor-based Alpride E1 Airbag Technology—a fully electronic, turbine-based fan system powered by supercapacitors. The JetForce Tour remains cartridge-free for plane travel, redeployable for easy practice, compact, simple to use, and lighter than ever before.
Unlike the lithium-ion batteries used in previous airbag systems, the JetForce Tour’s supercapacitors are not sensitive to changes in temperature, a critical component when considering winter conditions. Once the pack has been deployed, two AA batteries recharge the capacitors in less than one hour while in the field. This cutting-edge, weight-saving system makes investing in an airbag system even more of a no-brainer for those heading into avalanche terrain on a regular basis.
It’s important to remember that no matter how good the technology, certain backcountry situations will always limit the effectiveness of an airbag system—no airbag will protect against impact or trauma in heavily treed or steep, rocky terrain, and the user’s ability to use their hands to deploy the system remains essential. But an airbag pack’s ability to keep the skier afloat in a sea of tumbling avalanche debris has been documented many times over. Being caught, carried or buried in an avalanche is the worst-case scenario for any skier or snowboarder, but leaving the trailhead with the knowledge and tools to respond to such an event is crucial.
If you have any questions about backcountry safety equipment or airbag packs, feel free to reach out to one of our Gearheads for help!