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25 October 2016

The Arc'teryx Voltair - A Revolution in Avalanche Safety

Image Source: YouTube
If you're going to go mountaineering, or do basically anything in a snowy, mountainous environment, avalanche safety is a crucial consideration. Avalanches happen far more than you'd think, and lacking the proper safety precautions turns a potentially fatal situation into a certainty.

Backpacks will avalanche airbags are easy to get hold of now, but the majority of them have one fairly significant flaw - the gas system. The airbags use a single canister of compressed air, and once it gets used, that's that. Many climbers who actually got caught in avalanches have said that they actually hesitated to deploy, or just didn't, because they didn't want to waste it.

Almost simultaneously, both Black Diamond and Arc'teryx developed solutions to this issue. The Black Diamond JetForce came out last year, making it the first commercially available pack to use a fan system which allowed for multiple deployments. Shortly after that, they were recalled, when it turned out that around 0.7% of them had a firmware error which stopped them from deploying. That amounted to about 11 bags, and it was a fixable issue, but it demonstrated that perhaps the tech wasn't quite there yet.

At the tail end of last year, Arc'teryx dropped their version, the Voltair. It works in much the same way, using vacuum style rotor fans and a special polymer lithium battery which can function in extreme cold. One pull of the chord and a 15 litre balloon inflated behind your neck and over your shoulders.

How does this save your life? Well, in an avalanche, larger objects rise up, whilst smaller ones fall, which means that if your forced into a ball under the snow, you'll get buried. If you have a huge balloon full of air behind your head, you'll go up instead of down. In the past 25 years, 97% of the people who have deployed airbags in avalanches have lived.

Being able to use it again is a huge advantages, as avalanches can often be followed by more avalanches. Additionally, airlines can get a bit funny about compressed air canisters, an issue which the Arc'teryx Voltair completely sidesteps.

A lot of very in-depth work had to be done to develop such a thing, though. Arc'teryx now have an entire tech division as a direct result of all the R&D which had to be done to get the Voltair right. It had to be simple enough to work in low temperatures and at altitude without any of the electrics failing, but be sophisticated enough to last, deploy quickly and get as much use out of a single charge as possible.

It's also picked to the gills with sensors which record situational data when the bag is deployed, and can then be used for research into how to make the bag more versatile. More improvements are planned, including a GPS system, and at the rate they're going, we could be approaching a time when deaths by avalanche become significantly more rare.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.