Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
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)