Boulder’s Backcountry Access pioneers avalanche safety gear, education
Posted on January 16th, 2013 by bca | 0 Comments
ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE DENVER POST, SUNDAY, JANUARY 11, 2013. Reported by Jason Blevins
“What do we call this room now?” he asks no one in particular.
“The Float Department,” comes an answer from behind a tower of cardboard.
“Ah. It’s a department now,” Edgerly says as his employees tear open boxes and stock swelling shelves with an array of Backcountry Access’ Float backpacks, each boasting compressed-air cylinders that — with the yank of a ripcord — inflate airbags designed to save backcountry travelers caught in avalanches.
The avalanche-airbag backpacks are the latest wildly popular avalanche- safety tool that the 18-year-old company — acquired last week by K2 Sports — has developed, adding to a list that includes probe poles, shovels and the continent’s most popular avalanche beacon.
As gear developed for traveling in avalanche-prone terrain explodes — skis, boots and bindings sales have soared 57 percent over the past three seasons, according to SnowSports Industries America retail statistics — Backcountry Access has emerged as a leader in the $40 million annual backcountry-accessories market.
“If you would have told me 20 years ago that I could have made a small fortune in backcountry skiing, I would have said you were nuts,” said Edgerly, who co-founded Backcountry Access with Bruce “Bruno” McGowan in 1994. “Now everybody is jumping in. It’s the real deal. It’s mainstream.”
K2’s purchase of the 45-employee company adds the first backcountry brand to the sporting giant’s quiver of 14 ski, snowboard, snowshoe and sneaker names. Terms were not disclosed.
Don’t expect anything to change. Headquarters will remain in Boulder. The Bruces will stay at the helm. Edgerly said the deal with the 50-year-old iconic and international snow-sports manufacturer allows Backcountry Access to “step it up.”
“We’ve become a little more of a product-development company now,” he said.
The K2 deal allows Edgerly and McGowan to return to their roots as pioneers, innovating not just the tools that backcountry travelers need to protect themselves in avalanche country but the essential knowledge that can help thwart avalanche incidents before the tools are even employed. Backcountry Access’ Tracker DTS revolutionized beacon searches and has ranked as the top-selling avalanche beacon for the past decade.
The Float airbag system has compiled a healthy — and high-profile — list of lives saved in its first three years. And Edgerly and McGowan have emerged as leaders in the world of avalanche education. Since the days when the duo worked out of McGowan’s garage, they have contacted every skier, snowboarder and snowmobiler who used their Tracker or Float in a reported avalanche scenario.
They heard, for instance, that shoveling out a buried victim was a lot harder than expected. So Edgerly, a former ski-magazine writer, penned a treatise on strategic shoveling that was eventually adopted by leading avalanche-education outfits. A few years later, they noticed a pattern of communication breakdowns common in avalanche incidents. Edgerly’s latest strategy paper looks at human factors in avalanches and how better communication can not only smooth rescues but even prevent accidents that require rescues. (Backcountry Access’ latest offering includes burly radios that integrate into the company’s packs, enabling better communication between backcountry partners.)
“They are doing more than simply looking for ways to design a better tool. They are looking for better ways to solve problems,” said Paul Baugher, a longtime avalanche forecaster in the Pacific Northwest who worked with Edgerly in researching “Talking the Talk: Human Factors, Group Communication and the Next Frontier in Snow Safety.”
“These guys have a scientific curiosity. That drives their innovation and makes them want to know more about how people are getting hurt. It’s not about how cool the shovel is but how to best use the shovel. It’s not just the gadgets, but how do we solve the problem in the first place?” Baugher said.
That curiosity has driven the company’s gear and educational progress. After forever changing beacon-search techniques with the Tracker, the company’s avalanche-trained team began looking into shoveling strategies, developing a technique that keeps searchers from digging down in favor of tunneling horizontally toward buried victims. As they looked deeper into shoveling, they focused on what could be done to reduce burial depth. That gave rise to developing the Float airbags, which are quickly becoming the fastest-growing segment of a backcountry-market boom. At least a dozen companies now offer avalanche airbags, compared with only a few three years ago.
“We can’t even keep airbags in stock. It’s just been growing exponentially,” said Aaron Provine, a merchandise manager for Backcountry.com, the mammoth Internet retailer that helps fuel the 67 percent dominance of Internet sales for backcountry gear, according to SnowSports Industries America.
Education wasn’t always an essential pillar in Backcountry Access’ business plan. When the company first released its Tracker DTS in 1997 — entering a beacon market 80 percent dominated by Austria’s then-analog Ortovox company — Edgerly and McGowan made some brash marketing claims.
“We were pretty proud of what we had. We implied that it was possible to save a life without practicing as much as you should,” Edgerly said. “We took a bit of beating from the industry and the pros over that.”
Soon, the 15-page user manual for the Tracker included details on shoveling, probing and analyzing human factors of avalanches. And the Tracker has remained a top seller among avalanche beacons, giving Edgerly and McGowan the opportunity to focus more on education. That focus has expanded from a reactionary perspective — how to find and uncover buried victims — to a more proactive approach that involves analyzing human factors in addition to terrain, snowpack and other more visible hazards.
“We don’t expect ski makers and binding makers to follow our model because our model is so unique,” said Edgerly, noting that Backcountry Access employs snow-safety professionals instead of sales representatives to conduct retail clinics for shop employees that sell Backcountry Access products. “There are incremental steps every company can take to move into a more educational style. Our goal isn’t necessarily to sell more beacons. It’s to save lives.”
Reported by Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/jasontblevins