Multiple Burial Controversy in Avalanche Rescue — Ortovox Speaks

Post by blogger | October 4, 2008      

All, while I was up in Aspen yesterday watching 3,467 filmed kicker tricks (I counted every one), below writing came over the transom from Marcus Peterson. For those of you who don’t know him, Marcus heads up the North American side of Ortovox. He’s knowledgable and outspoken.

I’ve known Marcus for decades. He’s supported myself and Wildsnow on and off for years, with gear and a recent dose of display advertising. But mostly I’ve enjoyed a professional friendship with him and have had some amazing conversations about the avalanche safety gear industry and what goes on behind the scenes. The following screed came in as a comment, but it’s too long for that format so we did a bit of editing and worked it into a guest blog. While we don’t make a habit of publishing “he said she said” industry guest blogs, when something beefy comes in we do consider placement, and Marcus made the cut.

How do all you WildSnow visitors feel about the importance of multiple burial in both rescue training and beacon design? Leave comments. Lou

Dear WildSnow,

Having read Christian Skalka’s Guest Blog I felt it necessary to respond to his comments regarding multiple versus single burials. It should be noted that entire first day at the International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW) in Whistler was given over to presentations from a variety of international experts from both North America and Europe regarding multiple versus single burial technique and technology. As Christian noted, Backcountry Access feels that single burial scenarios are what should be emphasized. We at Ortovox strongly disagree.

While simple single burial training scenarios may be a great way to get the educational process going, Ortovox feels that more complex multiple burial scenarios represent the greater challenge and the more deadly encounter and deserve serious attention during training – especially for the recreationist.

This is precisely why Ortovox devoted so much time, effort and resources into producing our S1 Sensor, a transceiver that can discriminate between the signals of multiple buried transceivers and can electronically “flag” victims once each individual has been pin-pointed. Since the S1 is engineered to be able to identify up to three buried units (including any mix of modern analog or digital 457kHz brands and models) at a given time it is obviously more than capable of quickly finding one buried victim. Even for novices.

The cold hard fact is that the bulk of avalanche safety equipment manufacturers worldwide (including Pieps, Barryvox, and of course, Ortovox) are diametrically opposed to BCA’s staunch single burial perspective.

Sure, the three key European manufacturer’s top units all work slightly differently in practice. However, the manufacturers all agree in this principle: solving multiple burial problems is where the focus should be.

In fact, at Ortovox, we would go so far as to say that with one of today’s highly advanced transceivers one should not even think in terms of single versus multiple burials. There are just burials. Your transceiver should be able to tell you whether there is one or more buried victims, and most importantly, where they are to be found. At this point, pushing single burial training at the expense of multiple burial training only introduces unnecessary confusion into the industry, avalanche education, and actual avalanche search and rescue work.

Ortovox does continues to offer a variety of transceivers including analog models, digital models, and analog/digital models that do not have our new digital compass and inclinometer scanner technology, advanced LCD screen or cutting edge software. There is still a market for these devices and they continue to sell very well as they are time tested, they offer lower price points, they can compliment our S1 in a guided situation, and because there are people who simply prefer them.

However, I want to state unequivocally that when it comes to Ortovox transceiver hardware and software design, and, “search and rescue” training efforts, for pros and weekenders alike, we will continue to vigorously support the multiple burial school of thought now and in the future.

In that spirit I’d like you to know that myself, our engineers, and our product manager Franz Kroll (the noted Austrian guide and guide examiner) are always available to explain our perspective and products.

Marcus Peterson
General manager, Ortovox USA

(Lou: Though you do run a superb website and blog, and, do so much to help educate skiers, I think it would benefit WildSnow visitors if you presented more balance (i.e. differing opinions) in your reporting than what appeared in Skalka’s blog and in other posts on your website from last spring and winter. This will bring greater understanding to the topic and will also help to explain why manufacturers choose one path over another when it comes to the design and implementation of their tools. It also just makes for more interesting reading. Marcus)


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


42 Responses to “Multiple Burial Controversy in Avalanche Rescue — Ortovox Speaks”

  1. Eric October 4th, 2008 9:16 am

    I’m not sure of BCA’s opinion on this, but I have always viewed them as the amatures company. Making it easier for me to save my bodies life. When we are in the BC their is little oportunity for muliti-burial, and even less likelyhood of a successful multiple rescue. For guided situations, the ability to rescue everyone in the group is essential and ortovox has a great new innovations to improve its likelyhood. Having two training standards does add complexity to knowledge base of BC users, but I equate it to being trained as a first responder vs an EMT. There is a place for both.

  2. Matt Kinney October 4th, 2008 10:33 am

    “and the more deadly encounter and deserve serious attention during training – especially for the recreationist. ”

    Not sure if I agree with this. It seems that incidents involving mulitple burial are more commom by professional guided groups than recreationalist.

    Of course the rule “ski one at a time, wait in safe spot” seems to be a protocol broken most oftenin the pro world. I give avy educated recreationalist more credit for good decision than most. In that regard. I appreciate the letter by Marcus and agree with him with the exception of thinking gang skiing is OK as long as you are with professionals that can do multi burial searches effeciently .Whiz bang features on modern beacons may be breeding an attitude the tempers the “one at time” thing. Guides need to manage groups according to his simple rule or folks will die regardless of which beacon you use.


  3. Randonnee October 4th, 2008 12:54 pm

    I do not see it as one way or the other, it depends on the group behavior and terrain, and the local population on avalanche terrain at any one time. The reports of some famous and not-so-famous Guides’ incredible failures in reasonable judgment for their groups’ safety show perhaps that there is a place for multiple-burial practice. If one wants to pay to follow a Guide with these habits, then yes. In the Alps as well, it would seem, multiple burial scenarios would be likely and are reported. As for my personal habit, I prefer to follow the long proven safety rules every time, and recognize that when I have been in trouble on avalanche terrain I have not followed an obvious safety rule. As well, I have not toured with a group larger than three for several years, as I feel that group size enhances safety in my situations.

    I strongly endorse the concept that one needs to become expert at the basics before trying to practice or solve the complex scenario.

    The following statement is significant:

    “It should be noted that entire first day at the International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW) in Whistler was given over to presentations from a variety of international experts from both North America and Europe regarding multiple versus single burial technique and technology.” That makes me glad that I did not attend, I will read the Presentations. There are two problems here. First is a glaring lack of leadership and scientific discipline at ISSW that would allow such gadget fascination to interfere with the serious study of avalanche science. This beacon fascination and probe or shovel envy in my view represents an undisciplined surrender to failure in judgement by “the avalanche community.” That represents a sad acceptance, an imagined inevitability of being caught in an avalanche and the fairytale belief that one will heroically recover his partner(s), alive, after being caught in an avalanche. The second glaring problem is that there seems to be a trend that equipment manufacturers and even a film company drive the conversation and to some degree lead the discussion of avalanche rescue. Unacceptable, a conflict of interest. It is amazing that there is no one in “the avalanche community” is pointing this out to the general public. This marketing by BCA and others under the veil of sponsoring research would be much like McDonalds handing out samples of Lipitor (to control cholesterol) with the purchase of a large-sized Big Mac Combo.

    In general, avalanche entrainment of a person represents failure in judgment or disciplined behavior. One must be prepared for rescue and competent in rescue techniques for that possibility. The gadget fascination, shovel and probe envy and endless study and discussion of it take away from the important consideration and study of the avalanche problem.

  4. Simon October 4th, 2008 1:20 pm

    If we exercise caution, and follow certain safety procedures, we can virtually eliminate multiple burial scenarios. I think the recreationalist is far better off dedicating their time to learning efficient digging techniques, and first aid skills, rather than spending countless hours learning difficult multiple burial skills. And, I absolutely refuse to believe that the answer lies in simply throwing more and more money at higher-tech instruments which make it easy, “even for novices”. The last thing novices need is to think that any of this is easy.

  5. Lou October 4th, 2008 1:44 pm

    Wow you guys, great stuff for a Saturday! What’s going on here, Saturday traffic! Now we have to blog 7 days a week? All I can say is our stable of guest blogger is the pedigree and they save my rear.

  6. Randonnee October 4th, 2008 1:57 pm

    Well, I just came from my daughter’s soccer game, and it is raining. Thus, I went on Wildsnow and found opportunity for a favorite soapbox!

    Hi to Marcus, and good job. I enjoyed talking to you back in the day when I attended ISSW. Ortovox remains my favorite and I carry an M2. I ordered 30 or 40 Ortovox for my crew back in the day…

  7. Christian Skalka October 4th, 2008 6:58 pm

    Marcus, I’m really glad that my post elicited your response. I want to clarify that I did not intend to promote BCA’s or anyone else’s view, or state my opinion in any way; rather, I was only attempting to report what I heard at ISSW as objectively as possible. Indeed, I was somewhat surprised to not hear more from the “other side of the aisle” on the multiple burial topic, as this is such a contentious issue. If my post was unbalanced in this regard, it’s simply because I did not hear any counterarguments at ISSW, not because I don’t think Ortovox et al.’s views are invalid.

    One question I would have, however, is how you interpret the data that BCA presented (or, more fundamentally, if you agree that it is valid).

    And by the way, if other experts feel that other material in my post gives an unbalanced view, I hope they will respond as Marcus has, even via private email (you can get my email address from my homepage link provided in this comment).

  8. Jonathan Shefftz October 4th, 2008 7:49 pm

    Some various rejoinders as follows:

    “The cold hard fact is that the bulk of avalanche safety equipment manufacturers worldwide (including Pieps, Barryvox, and of course, Ortovox) are diametrically opposed to BCA’s staunch single burial perspective.”
    – Also ARVA, which although now well known in the U.S., upgraded its ADvanced beacon to include a masking function last year, and is now introducing the “3 Axes” that includes the same masking function plus a third antenna. So the tally now stands at four companies with triple-antenna masking-function beacons vs BCA’s dual-antenna non-masking beacon. (Well, plus SOS still makes a knock-off of Ortovox’s F1.)

    “First is a glaring lack of leadership and scientific discipline at ISSW that would allow such gadget fascination to interfere with the serious study of avalanche science.”
    – Although I was not there, I do not understand how that conclusion follows from this program:

    “If we exercise caution, and follow certain safety procedures, we can virtually eliminate multiple burial scenarios.”
    – Yes, but the same could be said of *all* burials?

    “One question I would have, however, is how you interpret the data that BCA presented (or, more fundamentally, if you agree that it is valid).”
    – TAR already published a critique of BCA’s analysis last year. And another assessment is slated for publication this year. (I can email a draft if interested.)

  9. Fernando October 5th, 2008 12:26 am

    As a professional computer scientist and a very amateur backcountry skier, the software complexity of multiple burial beacons worries me. All software has bugs, however carefully designed and tested. Bugs are more likely in more complex software. The relatively rarely realized benefits of multiple burial beacons must be balanced against the increased chance of more complex software suffering a safety-critical fault in a more common rescue situation. Current software engineering methods are not capable of evaluating accurately that tradeoff.

  10. Herf October 5th, 2008 3:04 am

    i am the designer of the Tracker DTS. We are concerned about and worked to address the issue of finding victims when there are multiple burials. We were the first to incorporate “lock onto strongest signal” AND an “SP” mode that allows isolating transmitters based on direction.

    Isolating the first (and most typically the only) victim quickly and easily should be the priority. As Fernando mentions, layers of algorithms, digital processing, and cluttered user interface can complicate finding a transmitter. Ease of use, for all users, is critical.

  11. Lou October 5th, 2008 7:41 am

    Thanks for dropping by Herf. In spirit I feel the same way you do, but in practice, if sophisticated multiple burial functions are easily hidden and don’t confuse, then it seems such functions might as well be included in all beacons. Beyond all that, it seems to me that the market will probably sort this out eventually.

    I’ve got gripes with all beacons, and also see their strong points. To bad there is not one uber-beacon (smile).

  12. Randonnee October 5th, 2008 10:09 am

    “Beyond all that, it seems to me that the market will probably sort this out eventually.” Right on, Lou. Much of this stuff belongs in the realm of the market and not in serious scientific or practical discussion of the avalanche problem. At ISSW an efficient presentation of gear tests would seem appropriate, not a belabored fascination and endless discussion.

    Jonathan, your comment about my hot-air rhetoric has validity, although I hope to put forth an important concept in my overstatement. Rhetorically, has the important focus been degraded? What is the result of the efforts and practice of the “avalanche community?” My observations in Professional practice and now recreational use shape my rhetoric.

    For example, why so much time and effort in regard to gadgets when clearly most travelers on avalanche terrain that I meet and also those in reports of accidents have little solid understanding of terrain, snowpack and weather. Modern avalanche education appears to put a lot of effort and time into the gadgets and plans for rescue (failure of decision or discipline) and into the esoteric aspects such as pit studies and various tests. Fine, those are tools, but the ultimate problem to be considered becomes clouded. If I had to choose between a supercomputer transceiver and a platoon of giant-shovel-wielding rescuers watching over me, and the data from weather telemetry and snowpack history, I would choose the data and my understanding of terrain and solo travel after an informed decision over the rescue technology, organization, and technique, Perhaps a silly statement in part, but again I feel that the important focus becomes clouded. I do have all of the stuff- transceiver, probe, Avalung, ABS, trained avalanche dog- but I do not depend on it and try to discipline my thought within the framework of “get it right, or die.”

    And to confirm above statements, avoidance of avalanche entrainment is the problem in the pure form. If one person only is exposed to avalanche hazard at one time, then only one may be caught, obviously. In light of crowding on local ski tours or in the Alps, or in light of examples of Guided parties with groups stacked above each other on an avalanche path on a day when the (general) avalanche forecast states do not go there, a need for multiple-burial rescue capability is demonstrated. The reality remains, “get it right or die.’ That advanced-capability transceiver and well trained shoveler, within an easily defined probability, will just recover a corpse or soon-dead person more quickly.

    And bla, bla, I do like the discussion and enjoy constantly challenging my personal concepts within this topic. This fits my personal strategy of “staying scared” (meaning vigilant-to stay alive) as I ski tour avalanche paths every week throughout the season.

  13. Jonathan Shefftz October 5th, 2008 10:36 am

    “Modern avalanche education appears to put a lot of effort and time into the gadgets and plans for rescue (failure of decision or discipline) and into the esoteric aspects such as pit studies and various tests.”
    — I do not understand how that conclusion can follow from any review of the AIARE Level 1 curriculum (which accounts for the vast majority of recreationalist avalanche education in the U.S.).

  14. Lou October 5th, 2008 11:37 am

    Jonathan, it is true that the curriculum has improved. I’d say, however, that in a more general sense (not just in education) there is still quite a bit and perhaps too much emphasis on avalanche rescue and gear rather than prevention of accidents. The simple fact is that things like beacons and rescue techniques are easier to learn than complex decision making processes, so the public dialog tends to take the path of least resistance. I mean, reality is for the vast majority of backcountry skiers the type of beacon they carry is not going to make a wit of difference in their lives. But, the go-no-go decisions they make for years and years are a different story.

  15. Keith October 5th, 2008 2:18 pm

    Some excellent points made so far. I am certainly on the side of Ortovox here. While I believe equal training to single and multiple burials is of the utmost importance, If i were going to err on the side of overemphasizing one over the other I will choose multiple burials every time. My reasoning is simple: when the worst happens and you are forced to make the decision of whose life to save first, focus on single burial victims does not help the decision making skills that will allow you to say I did the best I could without second guessing yourself for the loss of life that may occur.

    As scenario’s of burial go, even the best organized and most stringent rule following groups sometimes find themselves in a situation where they must help other backcountry users to find multiple burials. Sometimes the situation is one where all the rules WERE followed as well. Example: My most frequent backcountry skiing is undertaken in “the Canyon” (an area very close to Big Mountain in Montana). The canyon is flanked on one side by excellent glade skiing on 30-45 degree slopes, in the other side is a wall non-affectionately known as “the slides”. Too often people ski the slides in dangerous conditions. Far too often snow mobile users play the dangerous game of high marking these avalanche prone slopes. All it takes is one slide on a normal day of use and any number of users exiting the canyon via the ONLY exit would be buried by an avalanche they did their best to avoid. It is the multiple burial scenario from hell: completely innocent skiers stuck because of on persons negligence, or, just as likely, a temperature change on the south facing slides.

    Emphasis on multiple burials allows the searcher to have confidence in making tough decisions and conducting effective searches that may help save the most lives.

  16. Randonnee October 5th, 2008 3:08 pm

    Jonathan, you may very well be right, in regard to current curriculum I would yield to your knowledge. Great, I realize that there are folks out there smarter than me and more current, skilled, and experienced than me. Generally, my impressions come from what I read in The Avalanche Review, other publications, and online. Further, when I talk to folks in the backcountry I reach the conclusions that I have stated. I have seen classes being taught in the backcountry, and am impressed at the apparent lack of understanding demonstrated by those teaching at times. At other times, there are folks quite gifted, I have recruited some for courses that I put together in the past. One of my pet peeves is to see pits dug in locations that do not correlate to avalanche activity- they should be in an avalanche starting zone, any other location even a few feet away may differ significantly. Get out there and jump on it! Another is what appears at times a lack of understanding of terrain- the angle, aspect, anchors, from starting through runout zones, orographic effects,consequences of terrain and level of commitment to particular terrain after deciding to go. A very instructive question that I consider asking in a survey fashion would be “do you know why the slope that you just skied did not avalanche?”

    I do not intend to brag when saying that in over 2000 days of exposing myself to avalanche terrain in active avalanching areas doing control work or backcountry skiing, my percentage of being correct in my assessment is so high that it actually frightens me. I feel it coming, the day that I get it wrong. I describe this not because the avalanche potential is not easily defined and evaluated (it is easily defined with proper information and consideration), but because I fear complacency or lack of proper attention. For me, that proper attention includes complete knowledge of the snowpack since the ground was covered, recent weather factors and some set go/no-go parameters, knowledge and understanding of the avalanching history and the nature of those avalanches where I am going, the slope angles and aspects, local orographic effects, I actually walk the ground to understand possible effects in summer and fall on some avalanche paths that I frequent for powder skiing, and I am probably leaving some stuff out. I do actually have all of this information when making my go/ no-go decision. The attention must be on the decision to enter avalanche terrain and the consequences of doing so, other considerations may just be dangerous distractions.

  17. Matt Kinney October 5th, 2008 6:09 pm

    Rondonee…I really like your last post. Good stuff. I actually like the new beacons cause they add variety to beacon drills. which are typically a bit boring and routine. Gives me more “drills” to perform under a variety of scenarios and educate at the same time.

    All to often I encounter avalanche Instructors/experts heavy on education/educating but low on practical expereince , that is, making “the call” on a day to day basis. But this is the issue in disciplines in many work places, not just skiiing in avalanche terrain. I have always thought we should have a “recency” test for instuctors. Hard to take instructions from someone with 8 days in the BC a year, but AIREE Level 3. To many instructors have more class time than a solid and extensive history of practical application in the field. This is readily seen in the wisdom of Mr. Dawson on his comments on avy sciences. In other word, you apply what you learn so often that you understand what is going on when you approach slopes that can kill nearly every day. Its a different level of understanding and concern, thus are perhape a bit more passionate about “ski one a time” or other protocols that one reinforces a dozen time a day, 100’s of times a year or thousands of times in a ski lifetime.

    As a dirtbag skinner I will quote Garcian (1800’s)…

    “There is no one who cannot teach someone something and there is no one so excellent that he cannot be excelled”

  18. Randonnee October 5th, 2008 9:22 pm

    Great, Matt. Clearly, I am into this and probably drone on a bit much. Hopefully it gives me clear thought and perhaps encourages clear thought in others. I often muse about contributing formally to the “avalanche community” but hesitate since there is there seems to be so much homogeneous thought and message control by political hierarchy and beer-bottle-clinking social hierarchy- but there is plenty of solid science there to be found also in some corners of the “community.” My primary concern is to avoid that mistake on my 1001st ski tour….my friend Ludwig calls it the 1001st rule- get away with it 1000 times, then….1001st you die.

    And yeah, my respect usually goes to bomb-throwers who spent a few years kicking slabs at a very active avalanche Area (eg west coast). It is amusing to hear instructors try to teach who have not felt the power, kicked a slab, seen trees broken from an avalanche that they caused, had frightening narrow escapes, seen the effects on a human body of avalanche entrainment.

    Good stuff.

  19. Halsted October 5th, 2008 10:32 pm

    There are some good points in this thread and some others that I would take major issue with on a separate thread = Mainly about education, value of ISSW and “beacon envy.”

    But, to stay on track I’ll address what BCA has been advocating since last fall and now currently at ISSW (Yes, I was there at ISSW).

    As background I have been teaching/instructing avalanche safety courses since sometime in the late 80’s/early 90’s, for professional, amateur and occupational groups. I worked as the education outreach director for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center for 7 seasons (“retired” from CAIC at the end of 2006 = Lou has seen my classroom sessions), and had approx +8k students… Along with a few thousand days in the field, while ski patrolling (yes, kicking slabs “Randonnee,” aka Robert Mullins), guiding and working for CAIC…

    What BCA is advocating (i.e., get folks to buy transceivers, practice with their transceivers, concentrate transceiver practice only on single burial searches in Level 1 courses and learn strategic digging) is not all entirely new.

    Since the 70’s avalanche instructors have been trying to get folks to JUST buy transceivers and practice with them. It has been a long uphill battle…

    The “strategic digging,” subject is “new” to the avalanche patch (BTW, I worked on the BCA Strategic digging study). The idea behind the study was that modern transceivers are getting so fast at finding the buried victim, that we wanted to find away to dig them out faster. Sadly, that will always be the case until someone finds away to carry a light-weight backhoe in your pack. Good work came out of the study as much as Mullins doesn’t like it…

    But, what has happened since that study was done is that the majority of transceiver manufactures have gone on to take another giant step forward in transceiver technology (i.e., signal separation, downward signal compatibility, three antennas, multiple burial capability, etc…) and passed BCA with their Tracker DTS by.

    In its day the Tracker was a good transceiver. But, apparently BCA is struggling to catch-up. Meanwhile, BCA needs to keep the DTS seen in the transceiver market, as equal to all the other transceivers that have all the modern capabilities.

    So, how do you keep your transceiver competitive with the rest of the transceiver manufactures? Well, you come out and say that ALL the other manufactures are making “overly-complicated-multiple-burial-capable-transceivers,” by saying that multiple burials don’t happen very often, if every, sort of not at all, don’t worry about them, etc, etc, etc….

    So, they took a small data set of stats and massaged them to show that multiple burials don’t happened very often; in order to make the Tracker look better. The truth is that multiple burials do happen and CAN HAPPEN.

    Think about this for a second. How many of you go out in the backcountry with more then one other partner?

    And how many of you spend time touring in popular backcountry areas (i.e., Berthoud Pass, Loveland Pass, Vail Pass – Black lakes Ridge, Big or Little Cottonwood Canyon, Cameron Pass, etc…) where at anytime you might have other touring groups above, below or next to you?

    I see PLENTY of multiple burial potential out there………

    Statistics are great for looking back at history, but when YOU go out into the backcountry, shouldn’t you be thinking “What Can Happen?”

    True you may use all of the “Smart travel protocols,” and may never have a single or even a multiple burial accident, but there are a lot of little things that lead to an avalanche accident. Or even that you may come upon an accident. Wouldn’t you want to have in your hands the proper tools to handle the situation in a quick and effective manner?

    Sure we all want to never be caught in an avalanche, but it does happen.

    I have taught thousands of folks to do single AND multiple burial transceiver searches in my courses. I will never just teach a Level 1 student ONLY single burial transceiver searches, as BCA has suggested. I believe in teaching my students to be prepared for the worst along with good decision making….

    To be very honest a student with an Ortovox S1 in his/her hands is far better prepared to take on a single OR multiple burial search then a student with only a Tracker. I have used both brands of transceivers a lot and I use an Ortovox S1 now…

    Halsted Morris

  20. Geof October 5th, 2008 10:44 pm

    I think the emphasis is a bit misguided in this discussion. Why not have it both ways? If your unit is capable of multiple burial scenarios, then it sure as heck can deal with a single burial. I have a Pieps unit and it works very well in PRACTICE… One thing to think about is the scenario where there ARE multiples and the one standing has only a single unit. Sure, one could argue that it is most likely a body locator in a situation like this, but at least it gives even the tiniest bit of hope that the victim could be rescued if a multiple is at hand. As mentioned above, if prudence in the BC is used, then a multiple scenario is much less likely, but can still happen. I think carrying a unit that can perform in either scenario is the best way to go. And training should reflect both possibilities with emphasis one a single victim.

  21. Fernando October 5th, 2008 11:33 pm

    Geof: “I think the emphasis is a bit misguided in this discussion. Why not have it both ways?”
    Because engineering is always about tradeoffs. We can rarely have it both ways. As I said before, simplicity is an important consideration in engineering safety-critical digital devices, especially devices for amateurs. In my admitedly very limited experience of two “burial” drills, I have been faster with a Tracker than several other amateurs with the latest Pieps and Ortovox beacons, and I was on one occasion slower than a very experienced searcher who was using an old Ortovox analog beacon. More complex devices are not only more bug prone, but they are typically harder to operate by anyone but a professional. I’m happy that my professional guide in BC is carrying the most sophisticated beacon, but in case of accident I’ld probably be much more useful with a beacon that matches my 15-20 days of backcountry/year. This is not so surprising. It’s why I wouldn’t drive a race car, and why most computer users use a graphical user interface while we pros can get a lot done very quickly with a Unix shell.

  22. Lou October 6th, 2008 4:24 am

    Indeed Frenando, it’s only if the technology is cleverly interfaced to the user that it can be piled on. If it confuses, then it is not useful in real life. I guess it’s time for us to start reviewing some beacons (grin).

  23. Matt Kinney October 6th, 2008 9:26 am

    As a side note to the ISSW, I found it interesting that enough data was accumulated by a professional AK ski guide watching a multitiude of his clients get swept/injured/buried in avalanches to produce a “scientific” paper on how to swim/survive a avalanche. I’m sure it was entertaining to some, but I wonder other things worthy of another discussion topic.

  24. Halsted October 6th, 2008 10:15 am

    “Indeed Frenando, it’s only if the technology is cleverly interfaced to the user that it can be piled on. If it confuses, then it is not useful in real life…..”


    I took my S1 with me on a heliski trip, when they first came out. One morning the weather was delaying our departure for skiing. I was in the main lodge getting a cup of coffee and talking with one of the senior lead guides about how easy and simple the S1 is to work.

    Bob said let’s see how easy it is to use, and proceeded to hide a transmitting transceiver within the dinning room. Meanwhile there were other transmitting transceivers in another room close by.

    Bob then handed the S1 to a dinning room waitress (Tania) who doesn’t ski and has never used a transceiver. Bob told her how to open it and ONLY to just move to get the little human icon on the cross hairs. Off Tina went to the closest transceiver that was the one in the dining room, and figured out the final pinpointing circle system on her own. Well, she found the “victim” within 60 seconds (in the space of 90′ X 70′). Once she arrived at the victim, I told her how to use the flagging/marking function, and she started off to search for the next transmitter. But, there was a solid wall in her way. Tania’s comment was “Boy that’s easy.”

    Clearly, Tania wasn’t a trained transceiver user, but the design of the S1 made the search totally natural. I don’t know of a better example of a simple “cleverly interfaced” (i.e., well thought out and designed) technology (i.e., transceiver), then the S1. I don’t care how experenced you are or not with any transceiver, an S1 in the hands of a expert or a newbie is a great way to go.

  25. Randonnee October 6th, 2008 10:46 am

    The concepts are what were discussed from my view. I have never objected to the concepts in the Strategic Shoveling Study, I object simply to conflict of interest,. The guy that sells shovels authors a study, which may have fine ideas, but there is a conflict of interest. Better research would be done independently of commercial interest.

    Halsted, congratulations on your impressive career. I use Randonnee because I feel that ideas (not my identity or resume) are what are required for intelligent discussion, although my identity is not at all hidden. Your responses to me on various websites unfortunately confirm some of my stated views about the “avalanche community.’ I am nobody important, I just discuss what I have done to show I have been around avalanches more than a little. My primary interest is discussion of the avalanche problem for the purpose of staying alive on avalanche terrain. I would enjoy attending ISSW again, it has great value. There are certain topics, clearly, that deserve attention and others do not, my opinion, and who really cares, it is just my opinion?

    Transceivers are very user-friendly these days and effective. It would appear that some independent tests of the equipment would be adequate presentations. Again, to allow a pointless hair-splitting debate to detract from the important discussion is the problem.

  26. Lou October 6th, 2008 12:52 pm

    I’d agree that all BCA’s research would be much more powerful if at least once removed from their organization, say by funding a study instead of doing it themselves. But they’ve got limited resources, e.g, they are not General Motors. While the statistics stuff is to be taken with care (just a normal caveat, not specific to BCA), the shoveling info is easy to verify during field practice, and thus I’d vote that it is very solid. It is also quite alarming and disconcerting, as I just can’t imagine being under that kind of time pressure and trying to do that much work.

  27. Randonnee October 6th, 2008 2:13 pm

    Great point, Simon, I like it.-“I absolutely refuse to believe that the answer lies in simply throwing more and more money at higher-tech instruments which make it easy” One’s time and attention to weather data and consideration of the avalanche hazard done properly makes moot the discussion of which gadget is best- do not get in an avalanche!

    “interesting that enough data was accumulated by a professional AK ski guide watching a multitude of his clients get swept/injured/buried in avalanches to produce a “scientific” paper on how to swim/survive a avalanche.” Matt, this and other reports beg the question ‘is it Guiding or negligence?’ Where is the discussion (not just description) and serious critique of Professional failures within the “avalanche community?”

    Yep, I have tried digging in snow deeply and it is a daunting task. The Study made sense. Has anyone checked the shovel studies done at the end of the 19th century by early management theorists? It was interesting, especially the conclusions about shovel size, meaning there is the proper size, a larger shovel does not necessarily equal more material moved within a period of time. I read about these theories in my Management 101 text a couple of decades ago. Some Patrollers in my past raced with the old GI steel shovels and aluminum commercial shovels and claimed that the smaller stronger GI shovel won the race.

    There are plenty of smart and logically-thinking folks without some certain resume or title who make pertinent contributions. Regardless of the source, solid ideas and pertinent comments have value in the discussion of the avalanche problem. Good quote, Matt.

  28. Matt Kinney October 6th, 2008 2:33 pm

    Thanks for noticing my “comment” on a questionable “science” paper. It was first submitted last year. Seem like it should have been submitted to OSHA by ISSW after the first read last year. Nothing like using real people for the data!!

    Anyway I am very interested in a paper presented this year on the incident that killed the forecaster over in Cordova, a fellow BC skier who I had tremendous amount of respect . If anyone knows where I can read that online I would really like to read it so I can learn what happened and learn from it.

    dirtbag skinner looking for answers……tks lou. you da man!!!

  29. Simon October 6th, 2008 8:44 pm

    I think there is a lot of emphasis on rescue gear because we are a society of consumers. Curriculum may be improving, but real interest will only be generated by advertising. We aren’t all sitting here, eagerly awaiting the ’09 line-up of “Turn-Around Time Alarm Clocks”. You can’t go out and buy some object that will make you a safer skier, or a better decision-maker. So, the real buzz will always be on equipment… beacons, probes, shovels… the stuff that you should be able to avoid using if you educate yourself, and make safe decisions. And that isn’t really a problem, unless you let it all give you a false sense of security.

    Enjoy the gear. Practice with it. Get excited about the new gadgets. But don’t forget to create a bit of your own buzz about the stuff that really matters.

  30. Michael October 6th, 2008 9:23 pm

    Not to send people to other web sites, but Steve Achelis did an EXCELLENT job putting together a lot of information about today’s beacon. Very Helpfull if you are in the market for a beacon and can’t test them all …

  31. Carl October 6th, 2008 11:41 pm

    The consumer point is well aimed.

    Beacon companies exist to sell beacons. Consumers have shown they will pay more for beacons with more “life-saving” features. First it was 457kHz standard, then digital beacons, now multi-burial features, next pulse like features (?). This is the innovation that drives beacon company bottom lines. Without it they’d be competing on price. Whether this development is practically useful is understudied but perhaps irrelevant. If people buy something how best to deploy it?

    Me? I review first aid more than I practice with my beacon, because that comes in handy in many more situations.

  32. Bruce Edgerly October 8th, 2008 5:23 am

    Bruce Edgerly here, vice president of Backcountry Access.

    It is always rewarding to see such spirited discussions about snow safety and transceiver use. So thanks all for the discussion.

    If you’re interested in reading what I had to say at the ISSW in Whistler last month, please read the paper at You’ll see that we’ve done our homework on the issue of multiple burials. Rather than just relying on statistics, I went straight to the special group of individuals that have actually done real, live multiple-victim beacon searches “in combat” on the debris pile. You’ll see what the real issues are (in addition to avoiding avalanches): owning beacons, learning how to use them, learning to organize a rescue, and learning how to excavate efficiently.

    This presentation was targeted at avalanche educators that we believe have been somewhat misled by beacon manufacturers–including ourselves–claiming that multiple-burial beacon searches are a huge issue.

    Originally, we took at face value the statistics coming out of Europe that 60 percent of avalanches involve multiple victims; this statistic was even in our video, “Take Charge: Leading a Companion Rescue” (until we re-edited it last summer).

    But these numbers didn’t seem to jive with the conversations we’ve been having for years with avalanche pros. After doing our own research, it has become clear that this emphasis on multiple burials was really a disservice to avalanche educators–who should be using their limited class and field time teaching skills that are more critical and likely to be needed by their students.

    Specifically: Terrain selection and routefinding are required 100 percent of the time that you’re touring. Organization and excavation are required 100 percent of the time in all avalanche rescues. Special transceiver techniques (and technology) for special-case multiple burials may or may not ever be needed, particularly in recreational groups.

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy an expensive beacon with lots of sophisticated features; these are great to have if you learn how to use them. But our opinion is that avalanche educators should not devote their limited time in recreational avalanche courses to training people for scenarios with little, if any, application to probability and reality in the field. They should focus on the things that really matter.

    For more details on this exhaustive research project, please read the paper on our website. Feel free to post feedback here, or contact me through Backcountry Access.

    Have a great (and safe) season!
    — Bruce Edgerly Vice President Backcountry Access, Inc.

  33. Lou October 8th, 2008 5:41 am

    Bruce, thanks for your input. In my opinion you make a good point about avy education. As for beacons, I think one of the best ideas engendered by this thread is that perhaps eventually all beacons will have highly sophisticated multiple burial features that are super user friendly, and thus the issue of beacon features will fade in comparison to what’s actually taught in an avalanche safety course.

  34. Randonnee October 8th, 2008 10:37 am

    This has been a great continuing discussion! Bruce Edgerly makes some important and pertinent statements: “Specifically: Terrain selection and routefinding are required 100 percent of the time that you’re touring. Organization and excavation are required 100 percent of the time in all avalanche rescues.” Distilled wisdom, indeed.

    Again, right or wrong, I will ask the questions and make the points that have not been raised in general.

    The concept that is problematic is the conflict of interest to independent research that would possibly exist when a vendor of the rescue gear writes about rescue.

    Secondly, it is tiring to continually hear the term avalanche “professionals” to attempt to add value or elevate the importance of a statement. Experience adequate to support a concept derived through scientific methodology would support theory. A memorable (paraphrase) statement of Ed Lachappelle was that one should not follow someone who brags about being caught in a lot of avalanches. Similarly, why is there not suspicion in regard to Guides who failed in their paid duty and teach from the perspective of “in combat, on the debris pile.” Clearly, there is value in reviewing the failures (accidents), but again why should those Professionals who have failed almost become elevated in status and admiration?

    Finally in regard to avalanche “professionals”, that concept in the popular vernacular includes an undefined multitude that renders the concept questionable. In my experience around that community for many years, I observed that well-known members of the “Profession” include brilliant scientists trained to PhD level, skilled bomb huckers, expert forecasters, skilled educators, but also some of the detritus derived from the ski industry including, to my amazement, persons with Titles who did not finish high school, and some who spent more time hungover than in serious scientific study and observation. The point of all of this is that experience, observation, and study will support theory, the cheap use of the word “professional” in reality adds little to an argument.

    To return to the main topic, rescue gear is important and those on avalanche terrain must be expert in rescue. However, the topic of rescue is an afterthought of the avalanche problem, actually a poor remedy for failure to soberly evaluate and make proper decisions in regard to exposing oneself to avalanche hazard.

  35. Steve October 8th, 2008 10:54 am

    Steve Christie chiming in as well. BCA Director of Sales. Live from our new satellite office in Seattle-land of the LATTE!

    1. I felt the two best presentations at ISSW were from Theo Miners and the two kids from Fernie. Theo spoke about how to get out of an avalanche if caught, what type of equipment he prefers, and why. Ian and Todd from Fernie talked about the importance of digging properly and how Ian was able to rescue Todd. Bottom line: these two presentations received more questions than any others at ISSW which leads me to conclude that practical knowledge and experience trump theory. Most people, even at ISSW, don’t know what it’s like to be caught in an avalanche or what it’s like to perform a rescue.

    2. A very productive discussion to have at Wild Snow would be this:
    A. How many people here have been caught in avalanches?
    B. How many people here have been caught in multiple burial avalanches?
    C. What techniques were employed that contributed to a successful/unsuccessful recovery?
    Learning from people who have experience is more effective than learning from theory and opinion. There may be knowledge among Wild Snow members that can help us all save a life someday.

    3. I have always felt that the term “multiple burial” is too vague. It always needs to be quantified and qualified: How many buried? How deep? How close together? How many shovelers to help? How large a deposition area? Bottom line: every avalanche burial is different; there are an infinite number of scenarios that can happen. We emphasize mastering single burials because we are in the field tons and notice that many “experienced” backcountry travelers are still having difficulties with single burials. This is not to say that we don’t practice multiple burials at BCA, we practice them all the time to challenge ourselves. And we learn something new with every scenario. It’s still all about practice regardless of what beacon you own.

    4. Some suggestions if I may: Know how your beacon works. Have and practice a back up plan if you depend on multiple burial features. There are COMMON scenarios that scramble EVERY beacon on the market regardless of how fool-proof you think it may be. Know how to cope with these so you don’t end up standing in the snow confused.

    5. Freezing level dropping here to 2500 feet today. Snow in the mountains!

  36. Randonnee October 8th, 2008 11:45 am

    Great points, Steve, you must be very successful in Sales.

    If you are adding up points, you may score me as yes to your questions (multiple entrainment., single burial) including one personal decision failure and one Professional. Fortunately, neither death nor injury occurred at either incident. My memories of actual involvement in several rescues are not happy memories and do not cause me to feel superior in regard to rescue topics. Frankly, as a former Professional avalanche worker and current backcountry skier, I feel shame- not superiority- at having survived avalanche entrainment after flawed decision.

    “these two presentations received more questions than any others at ISSW which leads me to conclude that practical knowledge and experience trump theory. Most people, even at ISSW, don’t know what it’s like to be caught in an avalanche or what it’s like to perform a rescue.” Wow, celebrating life-threatening failures in judgment, and is that narrative being used as a Marketing tool? The focus is skewed tragically.

    Again, I have the experience and all of the rescue stuff, and expertise in using it. I rely on none of it. Avoidance avalanche entrainment is the legitimate primary focus. Get it right, or die, perhaps one may die with the latest expensive gadgets attached.

  37. Steve October 8th, 2008 12:33 pm

    Randonee-thanks for responding.

    I have also been involved in two incidents and both were due to total neglect of current conditions and a younger, less experienced mind set. I look back on them now and in one situation I was lucky to have lived. I have nothing to share from my experiences other than “don’t get blinded by excellent powder skiing.”

    “Wow, celebrating life-threatening failures in judgment, and is that narrative being used as a Marketing tool? The focus is skewed tragically.”

    My point was that these folks shared from their real experiences and were very well received by the ISSW attendees since they were providing practical information that others could learn from. One of the best questions the Fernie guys received was from an avalanche educator who asked “What can you tell us from your experience that we can apply to our teaching efforts that we already do not?” The Fernie kids had taken a Canadian AST course 30 days prior to being caught in the avalanche so it was pretty interesting. And they made a lot of good decisions that day (presentations will be available on DVD soon).

    The last two sentences in your last paragraph: SPOT ON. We cannot stress education enough so people can learn how to avoid avalanches. Having to actually use a beacon means that something has gone wrong that could have been avoided!

  38. Dave October 8th, 2008 12:39 pm

    Getting a little hot headed there Randonnee? I think Steve’s points are really good. You don’t have to feel superior from getting caught in an avalanche. However, you do have experience that most others don’t. Learn from that. You said “I rely on none of it.” regarding your experience. That’s awful. What did you do right? Wrong? Was there group panic? Teamwork? Who led? So much to learn and you seem unwilling to share.

    Of course you should practice avalanche avoidance first. But, I don’t see any of us avoiding all snow on any angle all winter. Sadly, a beach is the ultimate avalanche avoidance 🙁

    Just my 2 cents.

  39. Randonnee October 8th, 2008 5:39 pm

    Dave, my friend, not at all, just interested in this debate, and prone to overstatement. Your 2 cents are a good contribution.

    As I like to state online and now in print (Backcountry Magazine Letter), I do not agree that the avalanche problem is mysterious or beyond forecasting within a near-certain probability. Again I ask that you believe that I have no intention to brag, but I have taught two partners to ski cut by directing them “cut there, and it will avalanche”, and it does, and my skill is matched or exceeded by many in the field. There are a many skilled and knowledgeable individuals who can forecast avalanche probability with great accuracy. It is not necessary to stay on the beach, but on some days in the backcountry one may need to choose areas with greater safety over others. There are also a few days with so much hazard that one just must stay completely away from avalanche Ierrain. As an example, I have found a few long runs that I snowmobile out to to ski when the hazard is high that are just steep enough for powder skiing but without avalanche potential.

    Some reports also illustrate that even some very skilled and avalanche-educated individuals fail to exercise proper discipline in travel on avalanche terrain and are caught. Self-discipline is necessary along with understanding of the terrain, weather, and snowpack, and the resultant avalanche potential. My observation is that daily Northwest Avalanche Center Forecasts will keep skiers out of trouble if they are heeded, in comparison to avalanche Incidents and the Forecast for the day of the Incident

    Again, I have the gear, dog, ABS, and expertise for rescue, but rely on none of it, I rely on my evaluation of the avalanche potential alone- get it right or die. That is because, as I have stated, there is an easily defined significant probability of being killed outright or injured seriously if caught in an avalanche, regardless of the rescue that is mounted. Your team-mate with the latest gadget may very well just witness the horror of your death in an avalanche, and then quickly locate your body using the latest technology.

    I believe that the focus in the “avalanche community” is off target from the important topics. I believe that “avalanche education” has not had the proper effect on the knowledge, skill, and behavior of backcountry travelers. Since I am nobody of importance, but have had considerable experience and training and ongoing recreational backcountry avalanche hazard evaluation practice, I speak up in the hope that if what I say makes any sense, someone of importance may speak up. My interest is in staying alive as I randonnee ski several days per week on avalanche terrain all season. I no longer have any “avalanche community” association or title, my interest is academic. Only a few depend directly on my avalanche decision-making, including my family and a small collection of ski partners.

    Best, Rob

  40. Matt Kinney October 8th, 2008 8:42 pm

    I got the report on the Cordova Incident (thanks to this thread) and dove in to it last night. Very humbling and one of best avy white papers one could read who make their living playing in avalanche terrain . Thanks a bunch Mike Weber of Valdez!! Everyone should read it. It’s better than science and hope its available on-line sooner than later. If you e-mail I can send(pdf) it to you.

  41. Paul October 10th, 2008 10:10 pm

    I have to wonder with all these comments regarding high tech beacons – why isn’t there more talk regarding using ABS airbags? It always astounds me how low the number of skiers who wear them is. I don’t want to hijack this thread but if you are not buried then you don’t need a beacon to dig you out.

    Disclaimer – I purchased a Vario 30 ABS pack last year. I hope to never pull the ripcord but from all the reseach I have done it sure seems like a good backup plan. Plus – an S1 is just about as expensive…

  42. Randonnee October 11th, 2008 1:27 pm

    Right on, Paul. I think that the cost of the ABS causes many to hesitate in getting one. I also think that marketing $$ and the off-target conversation in “the avalanche community” keep transceivers, probes, and shovels at the forefront.

    I watched a demonstration of the ABS at the 1994 ISSW and found it impressive. As soon as I found the ABS to be availble in the US, I bought one. I lug that ABS around when there is seasonal snow hazard potential, and feel like I am floating when I leave it behind in the spring! My buddy Jim got an ABS soon after I did (read about Jim and I in an avalanche on my Guest Blog). I will bet on my pulling the ABS handle easily over anyone rescuing me from burial- if I am not killed outright in an avalanche.

    The research that I have read for the ABS, and even amateur videos of successful ABS deployment and a “save” clearly and logically make tha case for ABS. Never get caught, but if you do use your floatation device!

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