Three Myths of Avalanche Survival – #1, My Beacon is my Savior — And Needs More Features

Post by blogger | February 5, 2008      

In today’s Rocky Mountain News, a column by Hannah Nordhaus covers what she calls the “transceiver trap.” Her premise is that, thanks to avy beacons, surviving an avalanche burial is now more common than it was before such electronics. BUT, she writes, that fact has led to people taking even more risks — with resulting tragedy.

Nordhaus’s point about safety gear inspiring more risk is a known psychological factor that’s had an influence on everything from NASCAR to mountain bike downhilling. Some even say that ski helmets negate most statistical safety gains they could offer, because many helmet users ski faster and harder while using ski helmets that offer meager protection in comparison to their appearance.

It’s about myths. Feeling that a helmet will do much to protect your head when you hit a spruce tree at 25 mph is mostly fantasy — but perhaps you feel better about skiing crazy in the trees because you’ve got a helmet on. Strap on that avy transceiver that provides seemingly endless and mind blowing options, and your resulting behavior may far exceed any real safety gains the beacon truly offers.

Nordhaus got me thinking about all the constructs that comprise our feelings about avy survival.

So, time for Backcountry Avalanche Myth Busters #1!

I’m pissed and I’m not going to take it anymore. A few days ago found myself, another adult and a group of young people at the side of an avalanche path. We weren’t planning on crossing the path, but rather doing some micro route finding for a safe route around the toe of the runout. Even so, in situations like that everyone should have their beacon on in case something unpredictable happens, or Lord forbid, a mistake is made.

That is, all beacons should be turned on — if they work.

In our case, one guy turned on his Mammut Barryvox Opto 3000 only to find an error message. We swapped batteries, warmed it up, shook it, banged it. I even cussed at it. No joy. So there we were, operating by headlamp at 10:00 pm in a heavy winter storm, in avalanche terrain, with a failed beacon. Like I said, I’m pissed and I’m not taking it anymore.

Myth is that we need beacons with fancy “group burial” functions and who knows what other whiz-bang features. Reality: We need beacons that are better than mil-spec reliable. They should easily survive something like multiple 20 foot drop tests to concrete, be waterproof to several feet of pressure, and allow use of lithium batteries for better cold temp performance. Most of all, they should simply work when you turn them on.

After that, as more than one pundit says, “what matters is the quality of your shovel.”

Nordhaus is indeed correct in saying beacons are over rated and sometimes inspire false confidence. But they do up your odds. That is, if they work.

As for our group that night, we skied as if we didn’t have beacons — which is what we should have been doing anyway.

What do you guys think? Are avy beacons durable and reliable enough? Can they be improved? Should magazines do more durability testing and less yammering about things like multiple burial functions?

(Myth #2 tomorrow)


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45 Responses to “Three Myths of Avalanche Survival – #1, My Beacon is my Savior — And Needs More Features”

  1. Barry February 5th, 2008 11:41 am

    I’m with you 100%. I have never seen a digital beacon beat a Ortovox F1 Focus in the hands of practiced beacon user – even for multiple burials. The difference is always significant. Simple works, when is the last time you saw the old F1 fail?
    I’ve seen a number of folks struggle with both probing and digging. Very few people understand how long it takes to dig out a target that is buried about a meter deep.
    I’m not sure I buy that beacons make people take risks. Better gear in general makes it much easier for the masses to access the backcountry. I’m also not sure the rate of incidents is going up – just more people therefore more avalanche accidents

  2. Clyde February 5th, 2008 12:07 pm

    “Are avy beacons durable and reliable enough? ”
    Of course not. I’ve written about the weak beacon standards before, specifically the drop test and crush test (water resistance could be better too). But changing European standards from this side of the pond is damn near impossible (and the AAC doesn’t care about gear testing). BCA could up the ante by increasing and selling durability but they are chasing a different marketing angle. When testing a new beacon, I always carry a back up unit.

  3. Adam February 5th, 2008 12:07 pm

    My Tracker has taken a beating, and seems to be holding up well, it has surived the trip home on the roof of my car! I would love to be able to use lithiums though.. it seems as the beacons become more complex internally, there is more that is apt to go wong, kinda like computers,DVD players and other electronics and it’s not like they will be that easily repaired and if you drop one…game over. When I buy a beacon, I want that one to last for a long time, I want to be comfy with it, not replace it every two years cause the internals are bad or the technology is “old”.

  4. Tom Rossi February 5th, 2008 12:09 pm

    Lou, I think you make excellent points. I don’t want to ever use search on a beacon except in practice. And the thought of dealing with multiple burials? Except for Patrol or S&R, no one should ever put themselves in a position where that can happen.

  5. John Klemchuk February 5th, 2008 12:18 pm

    I think that the industry is pursuing a totally different angle with the advent of multiple burials, GPS, etc. I think that they should go back to building a better volkswagon and not try and concentrate on developing the next ferrari. Of course, that seems to be the way the entire ski industry is going…

  6. Big Sky Rida February 5th, 2008 12:35 pm

    I want a super burly F1 to be reproduced…I mean bombproof. I don’t want my becaon to do anything else, but be a rescue tool. No time, altitude, barometer, pulse detector…maybe next they well come out with a becaon where you can text message your buddy that’s buried? Back to basics while still incorperating the best new technology for rescue only….thats all.

  7. Rick February 5th, 2008 12:54 pm

    It’d be great if transceiver manufacturers made products that were more ruggedized and durable; Clyde’s point about specs are valid. I’ve had virtually every beacon (F1, Tracker, …) fail in some way, despite adhering to recommended service intervals (where appropriate).

    But I must ask: why are you turning on a beacon in the dark at 10pm when trying to micromanage terrain? Didn’t you perform a trailhead check? Why wasn’t the beacon “on at the car and off at the bar?”

  8. Greydon Clark February 5th, 2008 1:03 pm

    Lou, good post and I agree that it seems that beacon durability is lagging behind other functions.

  9. Lou February 5th, 2008 1:30 pm

    Rick, indeed, we should have checked them at the truck. My mistake. In this case we were doing motorized on-snow transport on a non avalanche road to the “upper trailhead” where we parked the sleds etc., and that’s where we started messing around with the beacons. Most of us do turn them on at home or at the truck and Louie and mine were on, but this was a new fellow we hadn’t skied with before, and he had different habits. We did talk about that, and he’ll be “putting it on and turning it on” more often, and I’ll be doing more checks at the parking area after this experience.

    We do carry a spare beacon in the truck and could have gone back for it if it was critical, but we opted for the ultra-safe route and didn’t think it was necessary to head back to the truck. Judgment call. For the skiing later, we swapped the bad beacon for a good one from someone staying at the hut and not skiing that lap.

  10. Chris February 5th, 2008 1:34 pm

    Couldn’t agree with you more, and I’m glad you’re giving the subject some attention. In our avalanche classes to illustrate your point, we often ask people what happens when they get studded snow tires. Most everyone quickly realizes the answer – they drive faster. I think many people take more risk with their safety gear than they realize. If you’d ski a run with your beacon but not without, then there’s your answer. A beacon is really a poor safety net – although the odds are increasing, if you get fully buried you still have less than a 50-50 chance of surviving. The common wisdom is don’t ski alone, but I would argue that I make safer choices when I do. I don’t rely on a safety net that has proven to be ineffective more often than not.

    The market for avalanche beacons is increasing and this is a double-edge sword. It’s driving beacon improvement, but in my opinion, not in the right direction. With more demand, traditional marketing approaches are beginning to dominate and sexy beacons sell. Bells, whistles, multiple burial features, and video-game style screens may make a beacon sell, but do they necessarily save lives? While teaching classes, I’ve seen a scary number of beacons malfunction, and off the cuff I think the number is increasing. I’ve heard of two new S1s whose displays quit working after taking an impact that would not be uncommon in the rough knocks world of backcountry skiing. But a more durable beacon that finds one person well isn’t all that sexy and isn’t as marketable of a feature.

    In my humble opinion, the most significant advances in beacon technology have been the addition of the second antenna and digital technology, and now the third antenna that increases pinpoint accuracy. These features have and will save lives. Most recreational users struggle with a single burial, much less a multiple burial. Let’s put the horse before the cart. Make a bomber, simple, reliable beacon that will allow the average recreational user to save their friend’s life.

    Sorry for the long-winded response…Chris from the SNFAC

  11. Lou February 5th, 2008 1:37 pm

    “Make a bomber, simple, reliable beacon that will allow the average recreational user to save their friend’s life.” Thanks Chris!

  12. cory February 5th, 2008 1:48 pm

    I ski with my beacon even on my solo missions. Why? Because I simply see it as a body recovery. The quicker they put me to rest, the quicker my family can have closure. My thoughts are the same when I ski with a group.

  13. bjørnar February 5th, 2008 2:21 pm

    We do avalanche courses at the west coast of Norway, we’ve had two barryvox 3000 with broken displays after “normal” use. The two 15 year old f1’s still working.

    Pieps DTS, Pulse etc, many with durability problems,

    There is an avalanche industry growing, pushing expensive gear to novices to avalanche terrain. The fact is, as Lou is pointing out, that a burial is so risky that one should not change a climb or line because of a beacon. A beacon plus a helmet, bodyarmour, ABS bag and avalung, well, then it’s at least a good chance to survive an avalanche

  14. Ray February 5th, 2008 2:30 pm

    Hi Lou
    I’ve been making all the people in the group we ski and snowboard with to test both the send and receive functions of their beacon. We do this because the last time we were practicing beacon searches, we found one of the beacons wouldn’t adjust to a closer search mode.
    It would only work at at the highest search setting.

  15. Christian February 5th, 2008 3:10 pm

    Barry Says:
    February 5th, 2008 at 11:41 am

    I’m with you 100%. I have never seen a digital beacon beat a Ortovox F1 Focus in the hands of practiced beacon user – even for multiple burials. The difference is always significant. Simple works, when is the last time you saw the old F1 fail?

  16. Nick Thomas February 5th, 2008 3:13 pm

    Myth number N?

    Do beacons need batteries that work at really low temperatures? Dunno about you but I wear the beacon over my thermals and under all my other layers. So I doubt it ever gets anywhere near freezing. Never noticed batteries failing due to the cold even when taking it out for considerable periods when practising either.

    Oh and the old analogue beacons aren’t 100% reliable either. My F1 Focus went faulty at less than 5 years old and it hadn’t been abused.

  17. Lou February 5th, 2008 3:33 pm

    Nick, depends on your style. I frequently keep my beacon in a pocket of my shell jacket, and have even been known to store it in my rucksack when in non-avy terrain. In either case, it can get quite cold and show diminished battery life.

  18. Geoff February 5th, 2008 6:16 pm

    Is there anything akin to a safety cover (like for an iPod) for transceivers? Something lightweight, durable, waterproof? Just wondering…

  19. David February 5th, 2008 6:18 pm

    My old F1 experienced enough frequency drift that it no longer worked with many of the newer transceivers. The “Obsolescence and Analog Avalanche Transceivers” article describes this issue in more detail. It was a bit scary to discover that this seemingly functional transceiver did not work with some (but not all) other transceivers in our group. Luckily I noticed this during early season practice…

    Of course it would be great if all beacons were more durable…but even the old ones are susceptible to issues.

  20. Mark Worley February 5th, 2008 8:32 pm

    I say keep ’em simple…and learn to shovel like a rotary plow! Avalungs and airbags could really help reduce fatalities and hopefully will grow in their use.

  21. Greg February 5th, 2008 8:43 pm

    I think the solution is frequent practice with the beacons and for certain trailhead checks. I have had the speaker go out on on old Pieps and discovered a loose connection with the battery on an Ortoxovox M1, both during practice sessions. The funny thing is they would work for a few seconds at a time, then fail. Also I had a buddy who’s Tracker wouldn’t go into search mode. So until we are all satisfyed that they can make a beacon that will pass the master lock test of working even after taking a round from a high velocity rifle, frequent testing of (all) avy rescue gear will have to suffice.

  22. John Gloor February 5th, 2008 9:02 pm

    I had an old Ortovox F2 years ago that fell from the hood of my 4runner to the concrete slab of my garage at the very end of the season. The next year I bought a new beacon but decided to take apart the still functioning F2 . I found the antennae, which is composed of a brittle grey ceramic wrapped with copper wire, to be cracked it two places. It may have worked for a long time or conked out on the next usage. I for one would gladly lug an ounce or two of shock absorbsion/rubber armour for such an important piece of gear

  23. Randonnee February 5th, 2008 11:18 pm

    Great commentary Lou!

    My views have developed from study of the literature, 12 years of hucking bombs and kicking slabs, and 31 yrs. backcountry skiing. Beacon rescue and partner rescue resulting in no consequences are false assumptions most of the time, nearly all of the time. I do have two friends involved in successful beacon rescues with no injury, one friend had mouth-to mouth performed and came around. So it is a possibility, but nothing to think of as viable.

    One must simply avoid avalanche entrainment. In virtually all avalanche accident reports it is clear that a basic rule was violated or obvious clues were ignored.

    The equipment manufacturers just want to make sales, they are not a legitimate voice in the avalanche world. It also is evident that some Guides appear to attempt to avoid responsibility for failures in judgement by perpetuating the myth of the mysterious nature of avalanching.

    There exists an unfortunate and common assumption of the mysterious nature of avalanching. I do not agree. My view is that informed, thoughtful evaluation of the avalanche problem accompanied by proper, disciplined behavior intended to avoid avalanche entrainment will allow the avoidance of avalanche entrainment nearly all of the time. In fact, in my view, great numbers of the uninformed or those lacking clear judgement stumble around in the face of dangerous avalanche potential daily during the winter and few suffer consequences, simply as an accident of nature meaning there is mostly snowpack stability to be found. It is in part this unknowing population that suddenly suffers the consequences then labels it mysterious, or those with knowledge but lacking self-discipline who push the limit and suffer the consequences and then label the problem as mysterious. Again, informed, thoughtful evaluation of the avalanche problem accompanied by proper, disciplined behavior intended to avoid avalanche entrainment will allow the avoidance of avalanche entrainment nearly all of the time.

  24. Marc February 5th, 2008 11:19 pm


    Your opinion, as humble as it may be, is always welcome insight. I’d agree that the directional arrows and distance readings of digital beacons have greatly simplified searches for novice and experienced searchers alike. Now if they could just package it in a compact and durable unit without all the bells and whistles, (no I don’t need an inclinometer in my beacon), we’d be headed in the right direction. I find it amazing that beacons are still as big as they are. In fact many of the newer models have gotten bigger since the days of the original Pieps and F1s. How is it that cell phones and GPSs are getting smaller and smaller, yet beacon size is headed in the other direction?

    Another aspect to this discusion is the acceptance that many of today’s skiers have towards avalanches and potentially triggering one. I think this attitude is fueled by the movies, the equipment and the thirst for fresh tracks. How many ski movies have you seen where a professional skier triggers a slide and narrowly misses getting burried? How many companies are making avalanche rescue gear; i.e. beacons, shovels, probes, avalungs, air bags, etc.? How many more users are there in the backcountry/sidecountry these days? I think 20 years ago folks avoided avalanches by avoiding avalanche terrain like it was the plague (except in spring maybe). These days, folks are diving into avalanche terrain because they see it in the movies, they’ve got the gear, and if they don’t get it first someone else will. Let’s face it, many of us are guilty of this to some extent. Avalanche terrain is fun to ski! But, there’s a difference when someone follows the weather, the storms and the snowpack and decides a line is “safe” to ski, compared to someone who jumps in blindly just because they have the gear and they’ve seen tracks in there before…

    Good topic Lou!

    Cheers, Marc.

  25. Michael Kennedy February 6th, 2008 10:07 am

    Another great (and sorely needed) discussion.

    Randonee and Marc, your comments are right on.

    Avoidance of the hazard in the first place is key! The real “mystery” of avalanches is how few of us get caught these days, given our often wanton disregard of the obvious.

    Every single close call I’ve had over the past 30+ years (fortunately no burials for me or my partners) was the result of pilot error, either from a lack of attention, laziness, or hubris. The operative word was “luck,” something I’d rather not rely on.

    Hopefully I’ll get through another 30 years, preferably without seeing another avalanche (except on some rad video from the comfort of the living room couch!).

  26. powderjunky February 6th, 2008 10:08 am

    Hopefully the beacon industry will be reading these comments and get their act together.

    It seems like beacons are heading in the same direction as cell phones. A cell phone from 10 years ago always had service and never broke down even if dropped it in the toilet. Nowadays any little flux in conditions or a little trauma cause all sorts of issues.

    Before you know it they will start making beacons that can take pics and play audio!

  27. Andrew February 6th, 2008 1:48 pm

    TGR is a convenient whipping boy, but from what I’ve seen, they are very willing to donate their time and avalanche footage to any sort of avalanche education video project, including the latest one from Recco (The White Room?).

    I think a far more insidious media threat is the advent of instant trip reports on internet forums and blogs. In the case of our current local conditions, what was safe to ski yesterday would be suicidal today, yet all the reader sees (or wants to see) is that there is a skin track up XYZ Couloir and it was successfully skied yesterday, therefore it must be good to go today. Even in, for every 50 photos of someone skiing powder, there is little to no mention of the decision process that went into deciding if and why that slope was safe to ski, and personally, I don’t think there needs to be.

    More than books, magazines, video’s, blogs or even avalanche safety gear manufacturers, it is an individual’s responsibility to get educated and make informed choices. To paraphrase something my Mom never said “Now honey, if Jamie Pierre jumped off a 250′ cliff and landed on his head, would you do it?”

  28. Nick DiGiacomo February 6th, 2008 2:31 pm

    Agree that the new digital beacons offer too many features, that the multi-search function is unreliable and that they can encourage risk homeostasis. But don’t let that distract from the very important positives compared to older analog boxes:
    Relative to analog beacon reliablity (F1s in particular): The new Pieps DSP software update allows the box to directly measure the deviation from 457 KHz (in Hz, up or down) of other beacons. It’s been a big eye-opener – some boxes that friends were using were well outside specs (one F1 was a full 500 Hz off – made the beacon essentially useless, but it still made the requisite beeping noises that people associate with a “working” beacon). I would offer that faith in older analog beacons is very often due to ignorance of their actual state of repair (or disrepair).
    Also – three antenna beacons eliminate the near-search ambiguities that require analog (single or double antenna) beacon users to employ complex near search procedures. In English, that means that the average recreational user (read: most everybody) is MUCH more effective in near search with digital three antenna beacons. This is a key point – we live in a three-dimensional world, and with one or two antennas and an unknown orientation of the buried beacon, there will always be ambiguities that require an understanding of the physics involved (apples, anyone?). Don’t let the existence of wierd extraneous features on new beacons (e.g. an accelerometer to tell you which buried victim is still breathing !!!) take away from the clear advantages that three antennas offer to the average (minimal training and practice) recreationalist.

  29. Nick DiGiacomo February 6th, 2008 3:55 pm

    A few more comments aimed specifically at beacon durability:
    1) Who said a beacon should last 10 years? We don’t expect other portable electronics to last that long, do we? Who has a 10 year old cellphone or I-pod? I am stunned at people who wouldn’t even consider buying a new beacon every few years, yet they buy the latest ski gear at the drop of a hat (or credit card).
    2) Things break. So carry a backup. Stick your last-generation beacon in the pack along with the binding repair parts and the tiny headlamp. Unfortunately, I know more people who carry an extra I-pod on multi-day trips than do an extra beacon.
    3) Don’t trust durability testing reports. Just because somebody who makes, sells or promotes beacons says you can take them scuba-diving, don’t do it. Digital beacons are portable electronic devices that contain a computer, software, and radio antennas (hopefully three), among other things. Be nice to your beacon. Treat it like you would your I-pod or cellphone.
    4) Check it often. New beacons offer powerful self-check and other-beacon-check capabilities than . “Is everybody beeping?” before punching the centerline Canadian-style does not consitute beacon testing, by the way.

  30. Lou February 6th, 2008 4:05 pm

    I don’t have any problem with three-antenna beacons, so long as they’re effective and simple for single person rescue, and at least as reliable as my headlamp. Is that too much to ask?

  31. Lou February 6th, 2008 4:07 pm

    Nick and all, good stuff! I’m sure this comment thread is being read by some folks in the industry…

  32. Garrett February 6th, 2008 9:02 pm

    All anyone ever asks me is “Do you have a ‘beeper’?” A more relevant question would be “Did you pull your head out of your ass this morning?”

  33. Dostie February 7th, 2008 12:17 pm

    Hannah Nordhaus builds a case based on convenient twisting of facts. I won’t go so far as to say I have FACTS to refute her, but I’ve studied the phenomenon a lot closer than her analysis implies. There may be exceptions, noteably victims of avalanches, but outside of those exceptions I claim that the use of avalanche beacons tends to raise most users awareness of the danger they were made to overcome.

    It is simplistic, and sophmoric to assume that the use of a safety device encourages reckless behavior. True, for a small percentage that will be the result. But for the vast majority, purchase of a safety device, whether that be studded snow tires or an avalanche beacon, is done because most people recognize that there is a danger to be avoided. The safety device is bought to help avoid that. I say that such awareness will, on average, improve peoples desire to avoid the danger.

    In the backcountry skiing world in particular the number of people dying in avalanches continues to increase, but there is no way that the increase is as great as the number of participants. Avy deaths since the early 90’s have increased, on average, about 4x to 5x. Meanwhile, the number of people who are backcountry aficionados has increased somewhere in the 8x to 10x range. No one really knows this figure because there are no numbers on the size of the backcountry skiing population (in N America) in the late 80s/early 90s.

    Avy beacons are a poor substitute for lack of discernment when it comes to avy danger. But they’re a heckuva lot better insurance policy than none.

    As for the durability issues that Lou raises, Clyde pointed out the key issue…European standards. Keep in mind that part of what drives these standards is economics. It is certainly possible to create avy beacons that are more durable, reliable, easier to use, and all that stuff, but at what cost? And who will buy ’em then.

    Pieps just came out with a low cost avy beacon, the Freeride at $195. Can’t speak for it’s durability (other than LCD screens are known to be “relatively” fragile), but by comparison, the new Ortovox S1, which truely raises the bar on ease of dealing with multiple burials will retail for around $500. I think consumers will let their wallets determine how important fancy features are, but I’m not making any predictions at this point on that. It will be interesting to watch.

    One of the common, achilles heels of most beacons is the antenna(s). Yes, most do use a brittle, ferrite core. Hey, it’s brittle. Duh! I trust that this configuration has been adopted because it is optimal for the size and range needed for avy beacons. But maybe engineers need to look afresh for new antenna designs. And, back to that economics thing. More durable beacons might be achievable, but at what cost? Will we really pay for that? Perhaps better to have lower cost beacons, with a spare, and shovels with a hoe mode.

    Or better yet, revert to the standards of those who introduced me to backcountry skiing. NO touring in powder conditions…only in spring.

    Yeah, I don’t like that either. But if we’re gonna ski in powder conditions, we need to be smart about it. As has been pointed out here and elsewhere, when folks die in avalanches, they presence of operator error cannot be avoided.

  34. Lou February 7th, 2008 6:10 pm

    Dostie, yes, at what cost? That’s probably what they said when they built the latest $500 beacon… someone out there thinks we’ll pay. All I’m saying is that we should be paying for durability and reliability, not just features.

    For example, when I got my test unit for the Spot Satellite Messenger, I threw it as high as I could so it would drop on to a concrete driveway, three times. It survived and worked fine after that. That’s a fairly complex device, but it’s got that kind of durability. Could an avy beacon survive that? Perhaps, but in my opinion that kind of durability should be certain. Instead, people are worrying about dropping their avy beacon out of their pocket or off the hood of their truck! Ridiculous. I’ve got headlamps that are possibly more reliable than my beacon!

  35. Lou February 8th, 2008 1:41 pm

    Steve, I still love the form factor and relative simplicity of the Opto 300, but long term testing and observation of the unit has brought me to a regrettable thumbs down, and I can’t recommend it. Perhaps the other model Barryvox is better, but frankly, I’m not interested in it. I’ve decided to not do much with beacon reviews because Dostie does such a great job with his at Backcountry magazine, but also because the testing I’d do (water immersion and drop test) would probably fail most of them and we only review stuff that works to our standards at least part of the time.

  36. Steve Haymes February 8th, 2008 1:29 pm

    When it comes to beacons, I am a firm believer in the KISS principle. The new digital beacons have way too many bells and whistles. What we need is a simple, durable, long-range, digital or digital/analog hybrid beacon. The manufacturers are NOT doing this and instead seem to be driven by marketing hype.

    About 2 years ago, I replaced my old PRE-Focus version F1 with a Mammut Barryvox Opto 3000 in part because of Lou’s review of it and in part because the price was right and it had a better range than the ever popular BCA Tracker. I like the Barryvox’s dual digital/analog functionality, but I do question it durability.

    Frequency drift on OLD F1’s is a very real problem and should not be dismissed lightly. Last spring while doing a beacon check of our group, I encountered one F1 with fresh batteries and a limited pickup range. Last weekend, I encountered another F1 again with fresh batteries and a pickup range of UNDER 3 meters.

    The old F1 was a real work horse, simple in design and very effective in the hands of an experienced user. Unfortunately, it has it’s manufacturing limitations. The new digitals and especially the new digital/analog hybrids are very fast. Unfortunately, the need to be manufactured to be simple and durable.

    My 2 cents.

  37. Steve Haymes February 8th, 2008 3:33 pm

    Lou, thanks for your latest feedback on the Opto 3000. After 2 years of use, I do have some concerns about it’s long term durability and I am familiar with some of it’s quirks (like REALLY replace the batteries at 65-70% and occasional false digital directions at MAXIMUM digital range). Of course, practice makes perfect, so I know how to adjust for these quirks. What is your basis for giving it a thumbs down now?

  38. Lou February 8th, 2008 4:54 pm

    Steve, one failed to turn on one morning, another we had got an error message, and then the more recent one presenting an error message. Just my gut feeling that if I encounter that many failures with one beacon, while using others for several years with no problem, my thumb tends to turn down. Basically, I’ve had more problems with Barryvox beacons than I have with headlamps, that seems wrong.

  39. Larry February 8th, 2008 7:11 pm

    I have had good luck with the Barryvox in light use. I also have an M2 and it is clearly far better built…

  40. ffelix February 15th, 2008 4:17 pm

    Dale Atkins published a paper maybe 7-10 years back about risk acceptance increasing with the use of safety technology. It was well supported by data from studies of automobile & pharmaceutical safety devices [seat belts & child-safety caps, I remember specifically. Maybe helmets, too]. You could ask CAIC or TAR for a copy–the avy world lives in the dark ages as far as putting digital documentation on line. Might as well burn it. Ian McCammon has done related work on human factors in avalanche accidents, too, if you want to check into it.

    It seems to be a well-documented phenomenon, not a “simplistic, and sophmoric [SIC] assumption”: use a safety device, incline toward ratcheting up your risky behavior until you feel unsafe again. Werner Munter incorporates this idea in his avalanche awareness writings, as well: low-tech, high-brain; high-tech, low-brain. I don’t know how much has been translated into English, though, or what his supporting references are.

    I don’t think that means these devices aren’t useful, but we should be aware of our compensating behavior: my observation is that folks do tend to use them as an excuse to shut their brain off. Witness the cases in these comments.

    And I wonder if today’s bigger skis have something to do with the declining percentages of avalanche victims: less surface pressure? Harder to get face-shots, too 🙂

  41. Coofer Cat April 10th, 2008 10:46 am

    This page and the comments make interesting reading. I’m a fairly advanced skier, but don’t tend to do much that’s realistically at that much risk (mostly because I don’t spend enough time in snow these days). However, I am thinking I should get a beacon, mostly out of responsibility rather than because I’m in places where it might be needed.

    I really don’t care about features or glitz, and I’ll pay almost any amount of money for a decent beacon. I’ll obviously do some practice, but with the best will in the world, I’m never going to be an “experienced” user. As such, I need something that stands a chance of getting me found, and something that makes me some use in an emergency.

    I’ve heard that the the Tracker DTS is okay, same goes for the Ortovox M1, but that’s really pretty much hearsay, and almost certainly not based on “real world” experience. It’s been pretty enlightening to hear the differences in reliability and durability, so I’d be really interested to hear which beacons people think are good (so far most feedback’s been pretty negative of most beacons!).

  42. Steve Haymes December 26th, 2008 7:35 pm


    It took a while for me to find this blog with you from last winter.

    Just to let you know that my Barryvox Opto 3000 died on me yesterday after about 3 years of use. The on-off switch did not power on the beacon. Same results with another set of batteries. I REALLY liked the dual analog-digital capabilities of this beacon, analog for distance and close in and digital for in between.

    I had to use a 10+ year old F1 today which I did not like because I know that it is drifted and we had 4 “cross it one at a time spots”.

    I plan to contact Mammut ASAP to fix/replace ASAP. Any comments/suggestions?



  43. Scott Tucker November 5th, 2010 12:15 pm

    I totally agree, I think that everyone should at least have an avalanche beacon for the sheer fact that you never know what could happen when you are dealing with a force that is bigger than you. I use a Pieps Dsp
    and have been for 4 of 5 years. This particular model is a little bit more expensive then say the freeride version, but even then the freeride is a really decent price for a first beacon. Just make sure you keep yourself safe while on the mountain, especially for the type of riding I do I feel a beacon is one of the best ways to protect myself.

  44. Graham March 25th, 2015 4:06 pm

    Does anyone know where I can learn the Physics of avalanche rescue tranceivers? As a Physicist, I have to admit to being baffled how they can make an direction finding system to operate at less than a meter, with a wavelength of 600 metres. The European Standards don’t explain. Or am I supposed to treat it as a black box and just use it as written on the tin, without understanding?

  45. Lou Dawson 2 March 25th, 2015 4:28 pm

    At less than a meter the direction finding functions don’t usually work, you revert to grid bracket based on strength of received signal. Overall, in my opinion avalanche transceivers really don’t work all that well, and they’re quite user unfriendly. Numerous examples can be easily had in the avy accident literature, for example of folks not even switching to receive for the search. Also, whenever practicing always orient the target (victim) beacon vertically, then do your search exercises, along with simulating the burial being three feet deep (hold search beacon at chest level if you’re simulating by having victim beacon on lawn or snow surface. Searching for a vertically oriented beacon is sometimes an eye opener that can really make you wonder how well you’d do once your adrenals dumped, and also illustrates why during a rescue you’ll probably need to eventually chuck the super-tech beacon and go to using an ancient tool known as a probe. Transceivers are built by geeks and sometimes even sold by geeks, if you’re not a geek, prepare to be challenged once you set up real-life rescue simulations. Lou

    As for the physics being exposited, I don’t know of anything other than looking at the patents but perhaps there are some white papers from the ISSW.


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