Snow is composed of two key ingredients: ice and air. The Norwegian company Safeback, founded in 2016 by engineers and backcountry enthusiasts Tor Berge, André Mjølhus and Sigmund Andreassen, takes advantage of this fact to enable winter sports athletes to continue breathing for up to 90 minutes under the snowpack without having to use a mouthpiece in the event of burial in an avalanche or tree well. The jury of the ISPO Awards 2022 rewarded the innovation with the coveted accolade in the third award round of the year.
Normally, the air stored in the snowpack is not available for avalanche burial victims to breathe. Safeback’s new SBX system is designed to continuously draw fresh air from the snowpack around the user’s backpack and deliver it to his or her breathing area. In this way, the buried person receives fresh air to breathe. At the same time, the exhaled CO2 is directed away from the face. This extends the window of time for snow burial victims to continue breathing and increases their chance of survival.
Normally, one currently assumes a time window of 15 minutes in which the survival of an avalanche burial victim is likely and a rescue can be successful. “The most frequent cause of death of completely buried persons is suffocation, as the buried person often has no or only a small respiratory cavity. This is why the chance of survival of a completely buried person drops markedly after only 15 minutes,” the Swiss WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF states on its website. At the same time, up to 75 percent of deaths in avalanche accidents are due to suffocation (source: CMAJ). The Safeback SBX provides breathing air for 90 minutes and thus significantly increases the chance of survival.
This new avalanche safety technology, already patented in Norway and patent pending in the EU, USA, Canada and Japan, is thus the world’s first active air supply system that helps people to continue breathing for longer, even under masses of snow, without the need for a mouthpiece. The SBX control unit, which is about the size of an avalanche transceiver, is integrated into the body of the backpack. It is activated with a T-shaped handle on the shoulder strap, as found on avalanche backpacks. As soon as it is activated, the SBX continuously draws in air from the porous crystal structure of the snow through an inlet in the backpack and feeds it through the outlet tubes on the shoulder straps into the victim’s breathing area. According to the manufacturer, even compact avalanche snow consists of 50% air. Tests carried out together with the Norwegian army showed that the system also works in these snow conditions.
“The Safeback SBX system can deliver fresh air to your nose and mouth so long as your mouth and nose are at are within 25 centimeters or 10 inches from the nearest outlet on one of your shoulders,” Tor Berge, Safeback's co-founder and CEO, explains the result of the five-year development process. “Safeback SBX has been developed based on four important fields of expertise. Medical, focusing on requirements for survival during avalanche burial. Mechanical, focusing on gas transport through snow and how to influence it. Technical, focusing on building a system that delivers according to the medical requirements. And practical, to satisfy even the most demanding backcountry user. This has been a fantastic journey with many challenges that we have solved to arrive at Safeback SBX, which is ready for integration with our dedicated partners.”
The Safeback SBX can be used repeatedly and is powered by six lithium batteries selected for their high performance at low temperatures. The fan and the electronics that control it have been optimised to provide air to the breathing area of the buried person for as long as possible. With a full battery charge, the Safeback SBX runs for 90 minutes at minus 30 degrees Celsius.
The system can be integrated into freeride and avalanche backpacks from a wide range of manufacturers but will only be certified for use in backpacks that meet the guidelines: Firstly, the free airflow through the system to the breathing area must be guaranteed; secondly, the SBX and its parts must be protected from damage; and thirdly, it must be secured against the forces of an avalanche.
At the same time, the company clarifies that using the Safeback SBX will not “turn the wearer into Iron Man”. After all, the system can only help victims if their airways are at least partially open after burial. Moreover, avalanches generate tremendous forces that can cause fatal injuries. Therefore, Safeback advises acquiring knowledge about avalanches and attending avalanche courses before venturing off-piste.
Higher chance of survival in case of avalanche burial
Innovative system without mouthpiece
Small and light
Secure fastening in the backpack and on its straps
Works even in freezing sub-zero temperatures and in compact snow
Control unit size: 147 x 107 x 48 mm; hose length: 495 mm
Weight: 480 grams (incl. batteries)
On sale from: Winter season 2023/24
Estimated retail price: 600 to 800 €, depending on the certified backpack model and its features