'Inflatable backpacks' next big thing in avalanche survival

'Inflatable backpacks' next big thing in avalanche survival »Play Video
Pro snowboarder Meesh Hytner shows off the airbag backpack from Backcountry Access that kept her afloat atop an avalance in Colorado in January 2012.

EUGENE, Ore. - The avalanche that claimed three lives Sunday - and the device that helped another skier escape alive - were the talk of the local ski community Monday.

Jen Davin at Backcountry Gear said the outdoor retailer has been getting calls in the wake of the fatal avalanche at Stevens Pass in Washington.

The store on West 2nd Avenue in Eugene stocks avalanche poles and beacons for finding skiers buried by avalanches, plus shovels for digging them out.

Starting next week, they plan to have the kind of airbag that pro skier Elyse Saugstad credits with saving her life.

"We have a few coming in next week from Backcountry Access," Davin said.

Saugstad isn't the first pro whose life was saved by an airbag or airpack. In January, professional snowboarder Meesh Hytner got caught in an avalanche in Colorado.

Hytner deployed an airbag that let her glide down the mountain atop the snow instead of being buried in the avalanche. The incident was caught on camera.

"The nice thing about having these inflatable backpacks, it gives you more buoyancy and allows you to float to the top and get out of the fray so you're on top of the slide," said Svein Berg at Berg's Ski Shop.

Berg said the airbags were designed about 10 years ago in Switzerland. They are relatively new in the United States.

"The big thing that's really kept them from really expanding very quickly is the price," Berg said.

An airbag will cost you anywhere from $700 to up around $1,200.

Berg said avalanche deaths are far more common in the backcountry than at ski resorts, so skiers who ride the lift probably won't need to invest in one.

"This traditionally has been for big, deeper, high mountain expeditions," he said, "and really for unique and out-of-bounds situations."

Video of Meesh Hytner using airbag backpack to "float" on avalanche