Avalanche Airbags are a great piece of safety equipment. A recent survey confirms the effective reduction of mortality in avalanche accidents if skiers wear backpacks with avalanche airbag systems… and know how to use them. The Halo 28 JetForce Avalanche Airbag Pack by Black Diamond is a freeride backpack you want to wear, and particularly one that you can practice with.
I own a backpack with avalanche airbag since a few years and I have been using it… sometimes. It’s not my favourite backpack, but it could save my life, so I am wearing it when there is substantial avalanche risk involved in my ski day and unless I bring my photo equipment. Because of the sturdy mechanism of the avalanche airbag and where it is positioned, I just can’t fit my camera and some lenses in my airbag pack and still feel comfortable skiing around with it. Being a professional photographer, however, I bring my photo equipment quite often and good shooting days with lots of fresh snow tend to be prone to avalanche danger. As a result, most often I don’t have an avalanche airbag with me when I actually should.
So, when the new Black Diamond Halo 28 JetForce pack arrived at our office, I had a look and immediately volunteered to test it. The pack has a nice internal layout with all the sturdy mechanical mechanism of the new JetForce system tucked away in a bottom corner of the pack, thus leaving enough room to bring my full freeride shooting equipment (a professional DSLR with four lenses) plus some food, water, back-up gloves and a down vest. While this specific feature may not be of the same importance to the regular freerider, it is just great to have an avalanche airbag pack that also works perfectly as a great backpack. And the Halo 28 really shines here. It’s as heavy as other airbag packs, but it’s rather slim and its “reACTIV suspension with SwingArm shoulder straps” make it great to carry. What Black Diamond labels with typical marketing slang is in fact an awesome invention where the shoulder straps are somehow connected and shift length and also weight from one side to the other as the torso moves. It’s hands down my best carrying experience of a heavy backpack so far. Plus the Halo 28 has all the little details that make a great backpack: sturdy yet easy to handle buckles; effective ski and helmet carrying system that can easily be packed away when not in use; dedicated compartment for shovel, probe and climbing skins; extra pocket for googles or sunglasses; easy access to the main compartment through zippered back flap.
Of course, the big news about the Halo 28 is the all new JetForce Avalanche Airbag system that was developed in co-operation by Black Diamond and Austrian avalanche safety specialists Pieps. It’s the first airbag system that doesn’t work with a cartridge of compressed air or some other gas, but simply takes the surrounding air and blows up the airbag with a very powerful vent; hence the name JetForce. The name is actually a good fit, since the vent is pretty loud when operating and it fills the bag ridiculously fast. I wish I had the same vent to fill my air mattress! Although I didn’t time it, I am quite sure the JetForce Airbag blows up just as quickly as every cartridge driven device, and that’s with the biggest airbag of all systems with 200l volume. To be fair, I only have triggered other systems at trade shows and that’s some time ago. But this is exactly the biggest advantage of the JetForce system: You can trigger it and just pack it up and trigger it again without having to replace the cartridge and pay substantial money for it, not to mention the time and hassle to go to a shop. The JetForce system works with a rechargeable lithium battery that is specifically designed to work in low temperature and should enable at least four releases when fully charged. So you could even head off to the backcountry for a couple of days and test your luck with several slides without the need for a power plug or the necessity to bring an extra cartridge.
When you actually get your hands on a JetForce pack for the first time, you will quickly realize that your are operating a serious piece of technology. You really need to read the manual before using it! But once you have gone through all the process yourself, it is rather simple and easy to handle. Another big difference to other airbag systems: you have to power it up before starting your run. The good thing: Every time you power up the JetForce system, it performs a self-check and confirms that it is ready for operation. Also, when it is shut off, you cannot erroneously blow up the airbag. (Watch out: If you pull the trigger of the switched off JetForce system, you need to re-set the trigger mechanism before using the system again.) All of this, including to re-pack the airbag after triggering the JetForce system, is really simple once you get used to it. And to get used to it you should! According to the above mentioned survey a substantial amount of deaths in avalanche accidents despite the use of an avalanche airbag occurred because the airbag didn’t blow up, and the main reason why the airbag didn’t blow up was simply the fact that it wasn’t released. Followed by the fact that the system wasn’t set up correctly. The JetForce system could be a great improvement here since it allows everybody to test trigger or even falsely trigger the airbag without regret and it confirms the system is correctly installed before every use. I test triggered the Halo 28 three times in one day while skiing and it really makes a difference. First time still feels awkward, third times feels just natural. And the airbag doesn’t even effect the skiing too much. I am sure you could still outrun an avalanche with a blown-up pack if you managed to do the same without it.
While I am really convinced that the JetForce system is great, I have to admit that I didn’t subject myself to any avalanche for testing. How the JetForce system performs in real avalanche conditions, particularly compared to other avalanche airbag systems, has to be learned from general experience or might be shown through scientific testing that is unfortunately beyond our resources. But until a specific avalanche airbag system may or may not be proven superior to others, the Black Diamond Halo 28 JetForce Pack will be the backpack I trust.
If you count among the lucky guys who regularly fly to their freeride destinations by commercial air travel, it is worth noting that the JetForce system is not effected by any airline transport regulations as opposed to many other airbag systems.
Personally, I will most likely opt for the bigger Saga 40 JetForce pack due to my camera gear carrying habit. If there is one downside to the JetForce system, it is the fact that one cannot switch it between different sized backpacks. (Although backpacks with removable systems tend to suffer in backpack design exactly due to the requirements of such systems.) Furthermore, packs with avalanche airbag systems generally won’t allow compression straps at the side of the pack since those would obviously hinder the unfolding and inflation of the airbag. Therefore, I strongly recommend to thoroughly think about the best pack size before buying a specific model. And as a hint to Black Diamond: If you still want to improve your great packs, think about a cool system of how to internally adjust pack size, so we all just buy the big one.
More information: HERE
“The Effectiveness of the Avalanche Airbag” on www.slf.ch