Avalanche Survivor Thankful to be Alive After Three Companions Die
Skier says airbag device saved her life
WASHINGTON STATE - A professional skier originally from Girdwood is thankful to be alive after an avalanche took the lives of three of her companions on Sunday. Elyse Saugstad grew up skiing for the Alyeska Ski Team and is now a star in skiing videos. On Sunday Saugstad was skiing with a group of highly experienced skiers at the Steven’s Pass resort in Washington State.
“We had been skiing inside the boundaries but later decided to go outside,” says Saugstad.
She says the group paired up in buddies then started going down the steepest slopes in single file.
“And you ski to safe spots, it's kind of like ping-ponging down,“ says Saugstad. “Unfortunately we didn’t get very far.”
The fifth skier down the slope triggered the slide that would send all of them on a wild ride. And although the skiers were equipped with avalanche rescue gear, only Saugstad had the item she credits with saving her life, a special backpack with an airbag that deploys when you pull the ripcord.
A similar system is sold at the local REI store. The system works with a canister of pressurized air that deploys the airbag when the skier pulls the cord.
“It kind of covers your upper body,“ says Saugstad, “What it does is, the airbag helps keep you afloat on top of the avalanche.”
It can also act as a cushion for your head and neck. But there are drawbacks. At more than $600 the bags are expensive and heavy. REI says it’s selling many more of a different system called the Aqua Lung that allows skiers to breath through a tube.
With the Aqua Lung the exhaled air is vented through the backpack, away from the body so that ice doesn’t form and skiers are not breathing their own exhaled carbon dioxide, a frequent cause of death.
Experts stress the new technology can be a great safety addition, but it can never be a replacement for avalanche training or common sense. Saugstad agrees, but says the bag saved her life. She says that point was hammered home when one of the victims was found just three feet from where she landed after the slide. He didn’t have an airbag and he didn’t survive.