What began with a Bavarian forest ranger's accidental discovery in the 1970s became an innovative but initially neglected niche product. Through decades of development work, practical experience and system optimization, the avalanche airbag has now established itself as an integral part of emergency equipment for freeriders and ski-tourers.
The history of the avalanche airbag started by chance in the early 1970s - with a hunter and a dead chamois. When Chief Forest Ranger Josef Hohenester triggered a wind slab, the chamois, which was attached to his backpack, increased his volume and kept him on the snow surface. Hohenester, from Bad Reichenhall in Bavaria, Germany, could not forget this insight and began to investigate the phenomenon. He was the first person to transfer the physical law of "inverse segregation" to avalanches. Hohenester carried out more of his own experiments with cannisters and airbags and finally registered the patent for the avalanche airbag prototype with the support of the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft.
This also began by chance: "While reading the newspaper I came across an article in which the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft was offering to sell the patent," explains Peter Aschauer, now 72. "It interested me because while heliskiing in Canada I had myself witnessed an avalanche that could have turned out badly. From then on I was very much aware of this issue and acquired the patent in 1980."
There then followed years of intensive development work for the newly formed ABS Peter Aschauer GmbH (ABS stand for Avalanche Balloon Securesystem). From the outset, the company developed and produced its product in Bavaria. "We racked our brains as to how we could quickly inflate the airbag as fast as possible in the event of an emergency. It really had to be a system that provided the required volume in a relatively short time," explains Aschauer. In 1985, ABS finally presented the first fully functional airbag system at the ISPO. It worked by pulling a cable to puncture a compressed air cartridge, which then filled the airbag. But the invention did not find the response ABS had hoped for: "It was a modest success and the reactions were not very encouraging," says Aschauer. He began to question his ambitious project, but his tenacity and belief in his product ultimately retained the upper hand. "Particularly in the early stages, you obviously need a certain amount of conviction and perseverance. It's more sensible to avoid being buried by an avalanche that risking it and waiting to be rescued. I never let go of this idea and it was the reason we continued. In particular, we began to work on the wearing options, which were still very much in their infancy. The first backpacks were not comfortable to wear and weighed about four pounds."
The end of the 1980s marked the first success: the DAV Summit Club was one of the first to recognize the value of the system. "In 1989 we finally introduced the mandatory use of ABS avalanche airbags for all 'Ski Plus Wochen' participants," says Günter Sturm, former head of the DAV Summit Club. "Initially, customers were not enthusiastic, but this changed over time - our mountain guides were behind the product from the outset." Other mountain and ski schools as well as organizers of powder skiing courses followed. In 1992, Peter Aschauer conducted the first press conference in Disentis, Switzerland. He used dummies, which with the help of triggered avalanches, were caught on a wind slab and remained on the surface thanks to the ABS backpacks.
In 1995, the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) agreed to carry out several extensive series of tests. "This was a real milestone. The Institute became very involved and recognized the potential of our system," says Aschauer. He and his team took advantage of the resulting insights to make a fundamental adaptation to the system: a year later, ABS launched the TwinBag system - the double airbag that has become a trademark. A pyrotechnic-pneumatic activation unit also replaced the previous Bowden cable. In 1998, a company called Deuter took over further development of ABS backpacks, helping to expand the system's success.
In 2003, ABS developed a special backpack for the increasingly popular freeriding scene and the demand for avalanche airbags grew further. In 2008, the Vario line was introduced; its design allowed quick and easy adjustment of backpack volume by attaching different backpacks. Another innovation was Wireless Activation, which allowed radio-controlled remote activation of the airbag. In 2010, ABS offered carbon cartridges for the first time; these are almost 50% lighter than steel cylinders.
Due to continuous enhancements to the system and the decades of experience from practical cases, ABS can claim to be not only an innovation leader, but also a market leader, with a tried and tested, fully developed, made-in-Germany product. Growing sales figures and constantly increasing demand confirm this and have led to collaborations with industrial partners from 2011 onwards. Well-known manufacturers such as The North Face, Salewa and Ortovox now integrate the ABS system into their backpacks (Inside Partners), while other brands, such as Burton, Osprey and Salomon, produce corresponding zip-ons for the ABS base units (Compatible Partners).
"It is thanks to Peter Aschauer's tenacity and perseverance that the avalanche airbag project did not fall by the wayside," says Bernd Kullmann, who partnered ABS for many years as the former Managing Director of Deuter. "Of course, it does make me a bit proud in a way that the effectiveness of avalanche airbags ultimately prevailed in practice," Aschauer admits, "but we're nowhere near finished. We're continuing on our path to develop new solutions to optimize the system."
The highest priority is quality control and guaranteeing the provision of reliable and efficient rescue equipment. An example of this is the recall of steel cartridges and TwinBag systems in December 2014, which above all demonstrated an aspect that has always been the top priority for ABS over the past 30 years: the issue of security. "My aim is always to produce the best product for the intended purpose. This means that it must be synonymous with absolute quality. Because the avalanche airbag just is not a jacket whose colour might not be quite right. We have to expect that if something does not work properly, the worst case scenario becomes reality - and we must avoid this at all costs, whether it is during the production of our product or in the event of an avalanche."
ABS Peter Aschauer GmbH is a dynamically growing, owner-managed company with a commitment to avalanche safety inspired by a passion for winter sports. For 30 years, the ABS avalanche airbag has been the original product, sold in 25 countries worldwide. Field-tested on hundreds of occasions, the ABS system works where it counts: in the avalanche. In the event of an avalanche, it can help to prevent burial and therefore significantly increase the chances of survival. ABS' success and market leadership are underpinned by innovation and stringent quality standards.