Volume: 2,600 cu. in. / 43 L
Weight: 7.8 lbs. / 3.5 kg, with Airbag kit
Dimensions: “Versatile and compressible”
Days Tested: 100+
Airbag backpacks have been getting a lot more attention in recent years as another avalanche snow safety tool. While the Swiss Avalanche Institute has been researching them since 1991—with compelling survival data—more and more anecdotes about lives saved by airbags have been appearing.
For those not acquainted avalanche airbags, the idea is to decrease the density of the rider relative to the snow around him or her, since, in an avalanche, less dense objects end up on the surface. The airbag adds volume without much mass, effectively decreasing the density of a rider and helping him end up on top.
I’ve been interested in trying them for eight or nine years now, and I’ve tried several models, including an older style ABS Vario and the BCA Float 30. I’ve played with friends Mammut Airbag pack and a BCA Float 36.
The problem I have encountered so far is that the design of these packs seemed to revolve around the airbag first and the functionality of the pack second. As a result, I’d often leave my airbag at home in favor of a pack better suited for what I was doing, be it a bigger, lighter pack for longer days with more climbing, or a small simple pack for average ski touring days.
The Mystery Ranch Blackjack, however, seems to break this pattern, taking a well-designed, versatile pack and incorporating an airbag.
I’ve spent the past 11 months and more than 100 ski days using my Blackjack for just about everything: lift-serve skiing; sled skiing; bootpacking; sidecountry laps; travel to South America; long, glacier-based, ski-plane-drop-off trips; and several extended self-support ski touring/winter-camping trips. I’ve even used it for summer camping and packrafting trips, and it’s become my carry-on bag for all of my travel. More than anything else, though, I’ve spent my time ski touring with it here in Alaska.
At $1,025, the cost of the Blackjack does seem steep, at least initially. But I suppose you get what you pay for, and a big part of that is the airbag system, so let’s start there.
The Blackjack uses the WARY Airbag System, which uses a single airbag system (similar to the BCA packs) instead of the dual, slightly higher-volume ABS system (150 L for BCA, Snowpulse, and WARY vs. 170 L for ABS), or the head protection style bag of the Snowpulse 2.0 packs. But the system is simple and intuitive. Pulling large T-handle (that stores neatly in it’s own pocket) on left shoulder strap deploys the airbag. After reading the manual once, I could rebuild the system after detonation in about 10 minutes.
I should note that last winter some Blackjacks had delay issues when deploying the airbag for the first time, because of some kind of O-ring issue from WARY. I do not know the technical details, but Mystery Ranch sent e-mails to all Blackjack owners with instructions to detonate packs immediately. I did, and my pack had a delay of about 15 minutes. Not cool. At that point, I had toured with it quite a bit, which was a little disconcerting.
To their credit, the guys at Mystery Ranch rapidly identified the issue and pre-tested subsequent packs after fixing the problem. I’m told that there have been zero delays on second detonations and on new packs.
I’ve fired mine four times since that first delayed event (to test the system and to depressurize for travel), and the bag release has been instantaneous, as it should be. Four other friends of mine also own this pack, and I was the only one with a delay on first opening. My understanding is that all packs since that initial run no longer have issues and are extensively tested.
When it comes to refills, I’ve had good luck at any location that refills BCA or Snowpulse packs, including while skiing in Chile and Argentina. It is also easy to remove the regulator portion of the bottle so that you can travel with an empty tank. In the TSA monitors, it then looks like a water bottle, and agents seem reassured when they can look into the empty bottle.
The airbag system is easily removable, and I’ve read rumors on Internet forums that additional packs might be built to which the WARY system can be transferred.
This point is important to me. It’s something that occurred to me halfway through the season last year, when I realized I’d taken my Blackjack every day I’d skied.
While some days involve bigger objectives or more questionable overall snowpack than others, it’s philosophically troubling to me to have an avalanche accessory that I take out only on the “big days,” and I realize now that to some degree I used to treat my airbag packs like that because I didn’t like carrying them if I couldn’t justify the need. This seems to imply that I take the airbag when I’m accepting more risk. Is this the first step toward blurring the distinction between carrying the airbag because I’m planning on taking more risk, versus taking more risk because of the airbag? If I ever slipped into the latter mindset, I think it would nullify any survival benefits the equipment might have…or worse. It seems better to have a great ski pack that comes on every trip no matter what, and secondarily, has an airbag in case the need arises.