Gear Review: Highmark Spire LT Vest Avalanche Airbag
It wasn’t long ago that to see someone sledding in the backcountry with an avalanche airbag was a rarity. Nowadays, it seems that more riders than not are wearing them. Alongside an increase in demand for the products, there has been a significant improvement in the technology. Today’s avalanche airbags are the best they’ve ever been, and all the refinements from the early days of the first commercially available airbags have gone into the new Highmark Spire LT.
Highmark Spire LT Avalanche Airbag
Highmark—perhaps the most prolific avalanche airbag brand in the western Canadian sled scene—has put all its expertise and technical know-how into the Highmark Spire LT, new for Winter 2017. It falls into the vest category of airbag, and is the result of feedback and refinement of its Vest 2.0 product.
Highmark has been around since back in Winter 08/09, although the brand hasn’t always been recognized by that name. In fact, even today you will often hear sledders referring to the brand as Snowpulse. That misnomer comes from the technology that was first available over 8 years ago in the form of Snowpulse airbags. Since then, Snowpulse technology (collectively the airbag, cylinder and trigger mechanism) has gone into several different manufacturers of avalanche airbags including Mammut and Dakine. However, Highmark is the only airbag manufacturer that produces avalanche airbags exclusively for sledders.
Highmark currently offers 4 models of airbag: two vests and two backpacks.
New to Highmark’s lineup of airbags this winter is Snowpulse 3.0 technology. Snowpulse—now owned by parent Mammut—has worked with manufacturers of vehicle airbag technology to develop the lightest weight airbag technology out there, weighing in at less than 1kg.
This is achieved by the 3.0 inflation system that incorporates an air volume amplifier and deployment mechanism into one housing, thereby reducing both weight and size from prior generations.
The 3.0 system makes use of the same pressure cartridge system as the previous iteration. This is good news for users looking to upgrade their 2.0 technology Highmark pack, as they won’t be required to purchase a new cylinder as well.
The Spire LT comes with Highmark’s Protection Airbag System (PAS), which the company claims as the most safe airbag available. It’s a horseshoe-shaped airbag that, when deployed, wraps around the head and shoulders to provide trauma protection as well as the standard benefit of floatation in an avalanche.
Highmark declares the Spire LT (weighing in at 3.02kg including cylinder) to be the lightest avalanche airbag vest on the market. It certainly feels lighter than the Vest 2.0 (3.62kg) when empty. But when your pack is stuffed full of heavy stuff, will a pound or two really make a difference? That leads us to our next point.
When you’re talking about weight, you’ve got to talk about the fact that the Spire LT has less storage space available than its predecessor. That means whether you want to or not, you just can’t physically carry that much heavy stuff. Which is a blessing and a curse.
There is a growing trend in mountain sledding to move gear from your back to your sled. The thinking is this: the less weight you carry on your body, the less tired you will be at the end of the day. And that mindset is certainly true. Nowadays there are a million practical options to store gear on your sled, and smart riders take advantage of that. However, you’ve got to remember that there are a few items that you should ALWAYS carry on your body: those being a shovel, probe and first-aid kit.
The Spire LT offers enough space for those crucial items, but not much more. You can squeeze a sandwich and a pair of gloves or goggles in there as well, but that’s about it. It really makes you think about what you might want on your body and what can go on your sled. Highmark claims that the storage area is 16l, but how much is that really? In this case, it’s not much.
Case in point, I can’t fit my bulky DSLR camera in the bag without removing the lens from the body. So if you’re serious about photography when you go riding, you should look at something with more storage capacity. If you’re just there to rip, then the Spire might be the ticket for you.
So, getting back to weight, the answer is yes; the Spire is light! The combination of lightweight material, refined airbag components and limited storage makes for a very light unit.
The advantages of a vest airbag are well known, the biggest of these being the fit. The vest wraps around your body and takes weight off the shoulders. It feels less like you’re wearing a pack and more like you’re just a little overweight (which most of us can relate to after the holidays). Part of the benefit is the spreading of weight from shoulders to the entire torso.
The other part of the picture is that the pack doesn’t have the tendency to swing side-to-side like a traditional backpack does when you’re moving about. One way to understand this is to imagine climbing around on a spinning playground roundabout. When you’re close to the middle, it’s fairly easy to move around and hang on. The farther you get towards the outside, the more pull you feel on your body as the centrifugal force gets ahold of you. I realize that this isn’t a perfect scientific metaphor, but you probably get the picture. A traditional backpack has more weight rotating side-to-side and away from your center of mass. In practice, you don’t nearly feel that effect so much with the Spire, and that makes riding less tiring.
One important note about the Spire LT is that the back portion of the pack is long. Quite long in fact. Which means that it probably won’t work for the shorter fellas and some women. This is a case where you should try this pack out if you’re worried that it might be too long for your back. Try it on and then sit down so you get a feel for how it will sit when you’re riding trail as well.
Like all Highmark airbags, the Spire sports an exterior shovel carry. Thank you, Highmark! I don’t know why all brands don’t do this. There’s no need for me to waste valuable interior space with a shovel blade and handle. And I certainly don’t want to stick my snow covered blade back inside anyway.
Compression straps on the side allow easy adjustability to fit very slim to severely chubby riders. I set these once and then forgot about them.
Inside the pack there is a sleeve for your probe, and two zipper pockets for other do-dads. I fire my inReach in there along with small items like a lenspen and cloth, extra batteries, memory cards and so forth.
The Snowpulse 3.0 system comes with an adjustment for handle height. This is useful so that you can move the handle position up or down based on the length of your back and how much the straps are cinched. This is a nice feature, but since the Spire can’t be adjusted for height anyway, I just put this on the lowest setting.
The Spire boasts two pockets on the front. One is useful for your transceiver, and the other could be used for… well I don’t know, I didn’t use it. In fact, I only used the transceiver pocket one day. Here’s why.
I put my transceiver in there, because I was worried about feeling the pressure of it against my ribs under the vest. The problem with putting your transceiver in your airbag pocket is that anytime you want to take your airbag off… guess what, you are no longer protected! That’s incredibly bad news. There are a few times a day when I like to take my airbag off, such as everytime I pull out my camera, or we’re stopping for lunch in a safe spot and so forth. But I don’t EVER want to not have my transceiver on my body.
Here’s the good news. Since that day I have worn my transceiver either strapped to my body with its harness, or inside a jacket pocket (in both cases, under the vest). And I haven’t felt any pressure on my body because of having the transceiver under there. So it turns out that my fear was unfounded. Another solid option if you’re still worried is to zip your transceiver into a pocket on your pants.
Well, the pack seems like it will hold up well and has so far. I did have the misfortune to put durability to the test pretty quickly in my first few rides with the pack.
In one case, after hitting a hard packed windslab in the middle of a high-speed “pow” carve, I was bucked into the air high enough that I landed, pack down, onto the still-spinning track of my sled which had flipped over from the impact. Thank goodness that I had my tether attached, which killed the sled after a second of paddling the s&*t of out my backside like a turbo-charged feather plucker at a chicken harvest. After making sure that no one saw what happened, I checked to see that other than a series of blackened skid marks that coloured the white plastic part of the shovel holder—and which also left a couple of foot-long rubber skid mark stains on my pants—the airbag looked none worse for the wear. Had I not been wearing the airbag, I’m sure I’d still be sleeping on my stomach weeks later.
However, I did manage to rip about a 3cm long tear in the fabric of the shovel carry on another occasion. After running out of talent and getting rubbed out by a tree at a moderate clip, the pack got hung up on a sharp corner of the tunnel rack on my sled and I was subsequently dragged through the snow for about 5m. I was totally surprised that the pack wasn’t ripped all the way through, and I know that a couple of stitches will make it “good as new… enough” again.
Otherwise, with the exception of a little dirt, the vest looks brand new still.
Wrap it up
The Spire LT adds to the list of great airbags produced by Highmark. It’s got all the latest, lightest technology in it. The Protection Airbag System it uses offers some of the best protection you can get in terms of trauma protection as well as floatation. It’s the got the fit and feel benefits of a vest, and is the lightest vest available on the market.
There are only two downsides that I can see. It’s too long in the body to fit riders of shorter stature. And, those that are required to ride with a lot of gear—guides, search and rescue personnel, photographers and so forth—will find it limiting in terms of space.
Otherwise, it’s a home run—and will be my go-to airbag any day that I’m just heading out to shred with my gang.