- Buyer's Guide
Black Diamond Jetforce Series Packs
On a cool day in January, crowds swarmed the Black Diamond booth at Outdoor Retailer’s Winter Market in Salt Lake City, UT to get a peek at the much-anticipated line of bags from the area company. After spending years in the R&D phase, the unveiling of a new line of avalanche airbag backpacks left the show buzzing. Whispers surfaced at last summer’s Outdoor Retailer about a “game-changing” product for avalanche safety from the company but, while we were given hints, nothing was concrete. In other words, we knew something was going to happen, we just didn’t know what it was.
But everything changed on this day. The packs utilize what amounts to be a super-powerful fan spinning at 60,000 rpm, which inflates a large nylon pillow; an innovation that promises to revitalize the avalanche airbag market. The Jetforce bags add one more tool to the arsenal of protective technology for backcountry skiing enthusiasts.
The Jetforce was created to answer the myriad of questions left by its competition. Until now, avalanche airbag systems only utilized single-use canisters of compressed oxygen. However, a rechargeable electric unit would offer the user the ability to repeatedly practice activating the mechanism for no calculable cost. In addition, charged canisters cannot be taken on flights, so a traveling skier would have to discharge their canister, only to have it recharged at their destination.
The bag’s inflatable pillow is designed to add volume to the user if caught in an avalanche, thereby helping the user to “float” on the surface of the slide. The effect is less buoyancy and more of a “sorting” effect; larger, less dense objects tend to move toward the top while heavier, denser objects move down. For instance, a skier buried under snow can suffocate from being entombed by it - all too common in avalanche fatality statistics.
Digging oneself out can be impossible, as slide debris has a tendency to heat and refreeze because of the friction in the slide. The resulting debris resembles ice, locking solidly together like puzzle pieces after losing downhill momentum. In the event of a full burial, the 200-liter airbag will create a space around the victim’s head where they may breathe. Additionally, rescuers can more easily spot a skier on top of the snowpack. Plus if uninjured, he/she may also become involved in the rescue of other members of the party.
How it works
The airbag mechanism itself is a symphony of clever design tricks. Utilizing PU-coated materials that are lighter in weight than its competition, the airbag uses the fan to access an unlimited amount of oxygen derived from ambient air. The fan is constantly running when activated, and is designed so that the airbag can tolerate leakage. Startup is simple and self-diagnosing; press the button for 4 seconds and wait for the green light. Green means go.
Upon being deployed by tugging on the handle, the fan screams to life and the Cordura airbag is fully inflated in around 3 seconds. Backing off inflation pressure, the fan reduces to around 50% of its maximum speed, topping off every 8 seconds with full power bursts to keep the airbag taut. It keeps this cycle up for a full minute. Afterwards the airbag transitions into a sort of “maintenance mode”, which keeps the airbag topped off but not running constantly.
A distinct benefit to the fan-driven inflation method is that during an avalanche debris or branches may tear open a hole in the bag itself. A constantly running fan will ensure protection regardless of this, the CPU sensing and compensating for the hole.
At the end of the 90-second inflation period the fan reverses and fully deflates the airbag, making it ready for its user to assist in a rescue or for future use. The technology was made possible with the help of Black Diamond’s sister company PIEPS, who has long been supplying the backcountry world with avalanche transceivers and other safety equipment.
Internal studies suggest that the system is fully operational in some of the coldest imaginable weather which, having toured in those conditions, can only be described as “hateful”. I am hardly operational in that weather so it is cold comfort (get it?) to know this airbag will readily inflate long after you’ve died of exposure.
All of this airbag technology can detract from the other features on the pack. The three bag designs are all streamlined and simple externally, concealing their complex inner workings. The Pilot 11, the Halo 28 and the Saga 40 are designed for diagonal ski or split-board (in ski mode) carry, with only the Saga ready to accept a full snowboard. Each sports zippered back panel access and a dedicated pocket for avy tools, such as a shovel and probe. Features like an external helmet holder and the BD reACTIV suspension, which is designed to help balance the user and increase comfortable range of movement, are welcome and smart additions as well.
What beef do I have with this system? Very little, at least without spending some time with it on my shoulders. The people at Black Diamond are going to the furthest reaches to ensure a transition from blue-sky thinking to consumer-ready product. Some concerns I have include possible obstruction of the fan system with an errant energy bar wrapper bit, though a guard is in place over the fan intake. Lithium batteries will eventually need replacement and can be dangerous if they get damaged. Would I also like to see it weigh less? Totally. As it stands, the middle-sized Halo 28 system is 3.3 kg (7lbs, 4 oz.). It surely could suffer some weight loss, but I’ll be totally satisfied with this first generation product and the peace of mind it offers while traveling in the backcountry. A few extra pounds on the back are an insignificant price to pay.
The Black Diamond Jetforce Series bags are targeted for a November 1, 2014 ship date and will cost $1075, $1100 and $1175 in size-ascending order. We are hurling ourselves at Black Diamond’s knees in order to get one to properly road test, so stay tuned!