The Element Barryvox (Mammut’s official somewhat backwards nomenclature) avalanche beacon is very similar to the “Basic” user profile option of its sibling Pulse, and with only a single button on the housing. Translation please? The Element has three antennas along with marking/masking capability for multiple burials, plus other features, all at a lower price of $350. The Element is likely to offer broad appeal across many different types of users, all at a price point that is becoming increasingly competitive and capable.
Interface and Controls
To switch the Element to Transmit mode, depress and then slide the three-position switch on the top edge of the beacon so that it is flush with the housing. A battery icon will display in the top left corner of the screen along with a two-digit battery percentage readout. How to tell at a glance the beacon is transmitting? Look for the three-position switch to be the flush with the housing and look for the blinking light (all of which is clearly visible with the beacon in its pouch).
To switch over to Search, depress and then slide (which is possible with one reasonably dexterous hand) that same switch even further (i.e., so that it protrudes from the other end of the housing).
The search interface is relatively simple. An LCD arrow rotates among nine different positions over a 180-degree span, with a distance readout below. (Below a 10-meter reading, the second digit is displayed in a smaller font size, so as to further distinguish XY meters from X meters plus Y tenths of a meter.) Up to three victim icons appear on the left side of the screen, with a “+” symbol for more than three. A U-turn arrow will appear on the right side of the screen if the Pulse senses that the distance readout is increasing (instead of decreasing as it should), but otherwise will never appear.
A large easy-to-press (but not unintentionally so) single button for marking is on the right edge of the housing, as compared to the Pulse’s two buttons. And note that the Element’s discrete screen elements described above differ from the full-text screen of its sibling Pulse, even though at first glance the beacons look identical to each other but for their color schemes. The Element LCD screen also lacks a backlight, which would be a problem if conducting a search in the dark without a headlamp. (Rather unlikely, but more and more backcountry skiers go on night missions, and a headlamp could get knocked off during a rescue.)
To revert to Transmit, bump the end of the switch. The Element Pulse also reverts to Transmit after 8 minutes of Search time without any use of the marking button. Upon switching back into Transmit (whether manually or via auto-revert), the Element will hold off while counting down from 5, and then emit a warning signal once it starts to transmit again. This is to alert the user in case of an unintentional switch to Transmit, and if the beacon is switched back into Search during this five-second countdown, all the search details will be restored (i.e., as opposed to starting the search anew).
Take care to avoid letting any water drip into, and then freeze, the switch at the top edge of the beacon. My Pulse – with an identical switch – once froze so firmly that back at the trailhead at the end of our tour I was unable to switch over into either Search or Off until after a minute or so of bare-hand warming. I have also replicated this with a few drops of water and a short amount of time in a home freezer. (By contrast, the occasionally seen assertion that the Pulse – and by extension the Element – can be turned into Transmit without truly being locked into Transmit is misleading: This requires a delicate action to achieve such a fine balancing point, plus the feel of the switch when locked into Transmit is so unmistakable that anyone who mistakes this small no-man’s-land for being locked into Transmit is probably so otherwise incompetent as to be incapable of using any beacon in a search anyway.)
Upon start-up the Element runs a self-test and allows for an optional group check mode in which the search range is radically shortened to a single meter with analog acoustics (although such analog acoustics are not available during regular searching). And like some of the competition, both the Element and Pulse will report an error for a transmitting beacon whose frequency has drifted out of spec.
How It Works: Initial Signal Acquisition > Secondary Search Phase > Final Search Phase
Initial signal acquisition is via LCD distance readout, LCD 180-degree nine-position rotating arrow, and digital acoustics. Upon initial signal acquisition, the Element emits a distinct warning tone to get your attention. Also, the digitized acoustics take on a distinct tone upon flux line alignment (i.e., when the arrow is pointing straight ahead). Within 3m (as measured by the distance readout), the Element stops displaying its rotating arrow, substituting a static “Airport” graphic.
Does the “Airport” static graphic mean to prepare yourself for the usual route of remembering not to bring any Gu packets through TSA security, waiting forever at the gate for your flight departure, and then worrying whether you and/or your checked baggage will make your connection? No, it’s just a static graphic designed to encourage unpracticed users to head straight in and not spend forever in the final search phase wandering around scratching like chickens.
How It Works: Multiple Burials
The Element automatically locks to the strongest signal, with additional victim symbols shown in a vertically arrayed list on the left side of the screen. When a beacon is found, the user can then mark/mask it, and the Element will automatically switch the search to the next-strongest signal. The only way to unmark/unmask a previously marked/masked beacon is to turn the beacon into Transmit then (after the five-second countdown is complete) back to Search.
Unlike its Pulse sibling, the Element’s secondary W-Link frequency is currently used only for firmware upgrades (i.e., essentially in lieu of a USB port). However, that could change in the future. But the vitals data transmission function of the Pulse will never be available in the Element, since it lacks any ability to detect fine body movements.
How Well It Works: Initial Signal Acquisition > Secondary Search Phase > Final Search Phase
Initial signal acquisition range is on the upper end of the latest triple-antenna beacons, and comparable to its big brother the Pulse in my latest range tests.
The combination of digitized acoustics (with tone change for flux line alignment), nine-position directional indicator, and typical distance readout is very straightforward. The “U-Turn” indicator (for when the distance readout is increasing instead of decreasing as it should) is very attention grabbing (and hence good!), although somewhat conservative in appearing. (That is, sometimes during my testing while going in the wrong direction and watching the distance readout increase, I thought the U-Turn indicator already had enough consistent information that it should have appeared a bit earlier.)
In the final search phase, the Element has a third antenna that eliminates all nulls and spikes. And the box size (i.e., the area over which the distance indicators are unable to differentiate the remaining distance to the target) is very small (essentially zero).
And the “Airport” static graphic? As mentioned above, yes, it’s just a static graphic. So on the one hand it’s not really doing anything, and isn’t any different than the lack of anything at all shown by most beacons in the final search phase (other than the distance readout of course). As for the idea it’s trying to convey, I agree with the goal that Barryvox is trying to reach, since when teaching beacon searching skills to my avalanche course students I’ve seen far too many searchers rotate or pivot the beacon in the final search phase (a big no-no) and/or spend far too much time moving both forward and back as well as left and right trying to pin down the location to within a few centimeters.
So the landing strip aspect of the graphic (with some relatively small left<>right elements) is intended to prevent searchers from rotating/pivoting the beacon and from going left and right in addition to back and forth. But sometimes a little bit of left and right will aid significantly in the subsequent probe strike. On the other hand, the searcher is still free to go left and right — as noted earlier, it’s just a static graphic intended to convey a searching strategy in the final search phase, not a limitation upon the beacon’s capabilities.
How Well It Works: Multiple Burials
The marking/masking feature is as reliable as any such feature can be, essentially substituting a series of single-burial searches for a confusing search among multiple signals.
The Element (and many competitors) essentially substitutes model-specific familiarity for more general beacon searching skills. In other words, hand an Element with no prior explanation to a user highly skilled in resolving multiple-burial searches on a beacon that has no special features, and the user might initially be confused with the concept of the marking feature. By contrast, a user familiar with the Element (which takes only a few minutes of practice) can usually solve multiple-burial searches as if with x-ray vision. The analogy that comes to mind is the difference between a driver in an entirely unfamiliar city yet skilled with the latest vehicle GPS system versus a driver with a good map and a general sense of a city’s layout trying to navigate through an unfamiliar neighborhood. (That is, assuming the GPS has the latest and thoroughly accurate maps.)
But the Element is still not perfect, as is the case with the signal separation competition. Why? For the very same reason that your own human ear can have trouble discerning the presence of more than one beacon signal as the different signals can overlap. Eventually, the signals’ different timing will cause them to diverge from another, and the Element will correctly identify the number of beacons. This resolution is usually very fast, typically before I even reach the first beacon, but outliers do occur.
Furthermore, the beacon transmission spec was never designed for such a purpose, although some intentional randomization among modern beacon signals can help. And older F1 beacons can cause more persistent undercounting and even ghosting. (And many F1 beacons – once the most popular beacon world-wide — are still out there in use.) When the Element is uncertain, it will helpfully (from my perspective at least) display a “+” symbol next to the number of beacons. For example, when searching for three beacons, often I will at first have two victim symbols, with a “+” to indicate that the Element is working on determining what it suspects is a third signal. And the relatively rare ghosting incidents are almost always denoted with a “+” instead of an additional victim count. Personally, I like seeing the “+” symbol to indicate possible uncertainty or “working on it . . . ” status as opposed to the “either/or” nature of the victim count on some of the competition.
In my new “5-25/5-20 Walk-the-Line Test” (as described more fully in my test notes), the Element did reasonably well for a beacon that marks/masks so reliably. That is, although the Element locked onto the Near Target and then the mark/mask function worked instantly (as it should), the subsequent strides and time needed for the signal of the Far Target to be acquired was typically just around ten seconds or so.
Overall: To What Kind of Person Does This Beacon Appeal?
The Element is likely to offer broad appeal across many different types of users, all at a price point that is becoming increasingly competitive and capable (e.g., BCA Tracker 2, Ortovox 3+, Pieps DSP Tour).
For more customization and features, another $140 buys you the big brother Pulse. The Pulse can also be operated in a “Basic” profile that is very similar to the Element. Either way, both models from Barryvox are very capable, and while the Pulse in its “Advanced” profile can be overwhelming to a first-time user still trying to figure out the entire concept of following a flux line with directional indicators, the “Basic” profile allows the Pulse to offer even broader appeal (although at a higher price).
Overall: What Thoughts Go Through My Mind If a Partner Has This Beacon?
“My partner should be a whiz at solving a close-proximity multiple burial.”
“Although in general I sure hope my partner is not an idiot, I’m feeling good because he has a highly idiot-proof beacon with a very simple user interface and a minimum of distractions.”
“It’s night, I hope my partner has a headlamp because the LCD screen of the Element lacks a backlight.”
(WildSnow guest blogger Jonathan Shefftz lives with his wife and daughter in Western Massachusetts, where he is a member of the Northfield Mountain and Thunderbolt / Mt Greylock ski patrols. Formerly an NCAA alpine race coach, he has broken free from his prior dependence on mechanized ascension to become far more enamored of self-propelled forms of skiing. He is an AIARE-qualified instructor, NSP avalanche instructor, and contributor to the American Avalanche Association’s The Avalanche Review. When he is not searching out elusive freshies in Southern New England or promoting the NE Rando Race Series, he works as a financial economics consultant.)