Airbags deployed to save lives in avalanches in Japan

Courtesy of Hitoshi Onishi
Hitoshi Onishi wears avalanche airbags.

Mountaineering groups have been advocating for the use of “avalanche airbags,” an inflatable device that could save lives this spring, when melting snow raises the risk of avalanches on the slopes. Akin to a cross between an automobile airbag and a life buoy, the device, which is worn on the back, inflates to create a buoyant tube that helps keep the wearer afloat in violent snow slides. Gaining traction in Japan and abroad, the technology is now even being enlisted by some police mountain rescue teams.

“If it weren’t for the airbags, I wouldn’t have survived,” said Tatsuo Mizuno, who was caught in an avalanche in Feb. 2016 on a slope at the Happo One ski resort in Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture.

A company owner from Osaka City, Mizuno had been skiing at an altitude of 1,520 meters when he noticed a crack in the snow about seven meters away. Moments later, he was engulfed by the avalanche, and inflated his airbag in a panic. Although he was carried 300 meters downhill and completely submerged in the snow, his neck, protected by the airbag, was safe.

The airbags are produced by several manufacturers. Worn as backpacks, they are activated by pulling a ripcord handle, which injects gas into a bag that expands to cover the head and neck.

A study conducted by researchers in Europe and the United States looked at the airbag’s efficacy in 245 avalanches that occurred between 1994 and 2012 with a sample pool of 424 people. In cases where the airbags were deployed, about 80% of the victims managed to stay above the snow’s surface or not so deep in snow, skirting the threat of suffocation and other life-threatening injury posed by avalanches.

According to Hitoshi Onishi, vice president of the Sapporo-based Avalanche Safety Seminar in Hokkaido, airbags also helped a man survive an avalanche in December 2017 on Mount Yotei (1,898 meters) in Hokkaido. “There is no other equipment that is as effective as this when caught in an avalanche,” said Onishi.

The Nagano prefectural police have enlisted the airbags and the Hokkaido prefectural police, which began equipping its mountain rescue team with the devices in 2018, now has 12 of them. Although the police have yet to deploy the airbags in an avalanche scenario, they still carry the lifesaving backpacks with them each time they head up into the snowy mountains, just in case.

Still, airbags alone cannot save all lives. “Do not be overconfident in your equipment,” cautions Azusa Degawa, director of the Nagano-based NPO Japan Avalanche Network. “It is important to be prepared to avoid being caught in an avalanche, for example, by understanding the weather and terrain in advance.”