It was a busy President’s Day holiday at Alyeska Ski Resort in Girdwood. But for some who work here, especially those who ski in the back country, it was a day of loss. Many know the three skiers who were killed in Sunday’s avalanche near Seattle.
“It was a big shocker to the whole snow community for sure,” said Brad Cosgrove who works as a guide for Chugach Powder Guides, which takes skiers to back country slopes by helicopter.
Cosgrove also knows the Girdwood woman who survived, Elyse Saugstad, who credits an avalanche airbag backpack with saving her life.
Saugstad told the Seattle Times that Sunday’s snow slide carried her 2,000 feet down the mountain. When she landed, she was completely buried, except for her head and hands, which is exactly what an avalanche airbag is supposed to do – increase your chances of landing on top of the avalanche, where you can be rescued quickly and easily found.
Cosgrove always wears his avalanche airbag when he’s in the back country and believes it’s a good insurance policy, despite the cost which can range between $500 to more than $1,000 dollars. He hopes that the cost will eventually come down.
Chugach Powder Guides doesn’t require their skiers to wear them but rents the airbag. Cosgrove says he’s glad more are choosing this option.
The backpack has a compressed air container inside. When the skier pulls the rip cord, it inflates two bright orange flotation devices that look like wings, which help the skier ride the top of the avalanche.
Even though Elyse Saugstad survived Sunday’s snow slide, she told NBC’s Today Show that the experience was terrifying.
“Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like you’re taking an inner tube ride down some snowy field,” said Saugstad, “You are definitely in an avalanche, and it feels like you are in a washing machine – and you are being flipped and tumbled, and it’s white the entire way.”
Cosgrove says he hopes Saugstad’s story of survival will encourage more back country skiers to use the airbag, but he also worries that as the device’s reputation grows, some skiers who use them will take more risks.
“Despite all your safety equipment that you’ve got on, you need to go out and make good decisions anyways,” says Cosgrove. “The idea is not to get caught in an avalanche.”
Cosgrove says the backpack airbags should never replace standard safety equipment such as the avalanche beacon, shovel and probe – as well as a decision making process based on knowledge about avalanche danger.