Could an avalanche vest become a staple for resort skiers, snowboarders?

Olympic snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg helped develop a device that is an Outdoor Retailer Innovation Award finalist, but avalanche experts are wary that “we’re relying too much on technology.”

(Db Journey) Sage Kotsenburg, a professional snowboarder and Olympic gold medalist from Park City, wears the Db Snow Pro vest equipped with the Safeback SBX system. Kotsenburg helped develop the vest and SBX system that can provide about 90 minutes of oxygen to the wearer if he or she is buried in an avalanche or tree well. It has been selected as a finalist for the Outdoor Retailer Innovation Award.

Sage Kotsenburg had a ticket to ride Japan’s famous “JaPow” this week, but he canceled the trip. The snow around his Park City home has been so plentiful and deep that the Olympic gold medal snowboarder couldn’t pull himself away.

“I literally just canceled my trip to Japan to stay at home, it’s so good,” Kotsenburg said. “It’s just such a rad place having the Wasatch in the backyard and being able to go hit the resort, go snowmobile, go splitboard, go hike out. You can do anything.”

As the powder piles up, though, so do the risks, even for a professional snowboarder.

So Kotsenburg has been helping develop a vest equipped with an air filtration system that can give someone buried in the snow about 90 minutes of additional breathing time. The vest can provide some safety without the need for a bulky backpack. It also has room for standard avalanche gear like a probe and a shovel and a beacon can be worn beneath the vest. Kotsenburg said he sees it as particularly useful for people who mostly ride at resorts but might take an occasional trip beyond the boundary lines or through the trees.

Its potential to become a standard safety feature for most skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers — much like the helmet — has earned it a nomination for the Innovation Award at the Outdoor Retailer trade show being held this week at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

“We really kind of designed this to be something that I’ll bring out on a day that we’re going to go snowmobile pretty far in the backcountry: I could have a vest on me when I’m riding because it’s so lightweight,” Kotsenburg said. “But also, I can go to Brighton and just be riding in some of the sidecountry there and just have it on and not really feel like I’m riding with a pack, like it’s a really heavy thing.”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sage Kotsenburg of Park City poses for a portrait after winning in the men's slopestyle finals at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.

The vest, made by the Norwegian company Db and called the Snow Pro, has pockets big enough to fit a couple pairs of backcountry skins while still clinging close to the body. The crux of the innovation, though, is the Safeback SBX air filtration system.

The SBX uses technology similar to that of the AvaLung, a groundbreaking piece of avalanche safety gear first introduced at the 1999 OR show by Salt Lake City’s Black Diamond (and recently discontinued). Like the Avalung, the SBX filters oxygen out of snow crystals and feeds it into air pockets around the nose and mouth of a wearer who is buried in the snow. Unlike the Avalung, however, skiers and snowboarders don’t have to ride with a tube resembling a snorkel in their mouth. To activate the air flow, though, current models require them to pull a release, similar to that on most avalanche airbags.

William Sherman, the chief marketing officer for Safeback, noted that many avalanche burials occur just outside ski resort boundaries. Often in those cases people don’t think to bring their avalanche gear with them even if they have it because they are accessing the terrain from a chairlift and aren’t going deep into the backcountry. He said the Snow Pro vest with the SBX system — which weighs just 18 ounces, is battery operated and costs $699 — can fill that in-between area.

“What we’ve seen with airbags and user behavior with airbags [through surveys] is that people are not taking them out unless they know that their risk to have an avalanche is very high, and there are very few tools which can help victims buried in tree wells on the market today,” he said.

“So we designed it with the ethic that the safest backcountry gear you can have is the backcountry gear you take with you.”

Craig Gordon, a forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center, voiced concern about the use of the air filtration system in the sidecountry — a term avalanche officials are loath to use because the connotation is that it is less dangerous than other backcountry terrain. Gordon said a beacon, shovel and probe should be carried by anyone going outside boundary lines — and even within the boundary lines on heavy powder days. Without a beacon, a buried person likely would be nearly impossible to find, rendering the 90 or more minutes of additional air superfluous. If someone else is buried, Gordon said, having an air system strapped to their back won’t help someone perform a rescue.

(Safeback) The Safeback SBX system filters oxygen out of snow crystals and filters it into the air pocket of someone buried in the snow, potentially extending their ability to avoid asphyxiation by 90 minutes.

Through the first 10 days of 2023, the UAC has tracked 96 avalanches, though none have been fatal. Thirteen were known to be caused by a skier or snowboarder and three by a snowmobiler. In Colorado, four people have died in avalanches this season.

“I think that we’re relying too much on technology,” Gordon said, comparing wearing the vest in avalanche terrain without the other equipment and training to surfing among a swarm of great white sharks and bringing a tourniquet in case of a bite. “I just feel like, man, we’re getting away from a lot of just the basics.”

Still, Gordon acknowledged that the vest could be a valuable safety tool for anyone who might get stuck in a tree well. Tree wells are soft, deep pockets of snow that form around tree trunks. About four people die in tree wells in the United States each season, according to an article published in the journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine.

Gordon added that combining the SBX technology with a pack that has an airbag and standard avalanche gear would be the best option, aside from avoiding an avalanche all together, of course.

Williams said Safeback is working with backpack manufacturers to create a pack that would allow both an airbag and the SBX system to be activated with a single pull. As for a system that will trigger automatically if a person is caught in a slide, he said, “I think we’ll get there.”

Kotsenburg, who has become more involved in splitboarding and filming since he won the first Olympic gold medal in slopestyle snowboarding in 2014, said he’s excited about the existing technology and its potential.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s something I really, really am happy about.”

The Innovation Award winners will be announced at a ceremony at the OR show Wednesday night. Twenty-nine products were selected as finalists out of 132 entries.

Correction: Jan. 13, 2023, 2:25 p.m. >> The Snow Pro vest has room in the back for a shovel and probe. A previous version of this article stated those items could not be carried in the pack.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.