The Torture of Beacon Reviews

Post by blogger | July 14, 2009      
Avalanche Beacons

Avalanche Beacons

If there is any indication that avalanche beacons have become too complicated, it’s how tough the technical editing is proving to be on our reviews. This morning I began working on the technical background info that reviewer Jonathan provided a while back. I’m whipping it into shape as the last part of our series of reviews. I kept getting stymied on issues such as how much to assume the reader knows, as in terms such as “coupling.” More, it turns out even something you’d assume was simple, such as range testing, is nearly as complicated as designing the navigation system for the space shuttle.

Publication slated for later today or tomorrow. Meanwhile, I’m thinking we’re in a phase of avy beacon development that will be looked back on as a dark time. A period hovering just past the simplicity of analog boxes containing little more than a battery and antenna — while we wait for the full potential of the digital world to actually make beacons user friendly. Sort of like computers? Only we’re at a stage that’s about the same level as the first PCs running on DOS (if you even know or remember what that is).



16 Responses to “The Torture of Beacon Reviews”

  1. Mark July 14th, 2009 8:41 am

    I think the complexity of beacons can be bad under the extreme stress of searching, yet one day many functions could be made quite user friendly. Until then, I’ll likely stick to simpler iterations such as the BCA Tracker. By the way, Jonathan is some sort of mad scientist in his testing of the things. Amazing!

  2. Dostie July 14th, 2009 9:38 am

    In time I think your perspective will prove accurate. Either airbag packs will become the norm and the beacons will be simplified for the extremely rare case where a skier still gets buried, and/or we will have devices that can “read” the snowpack and give a much better prediction which will minimize risk even further.

  3. Jonathan Shefftz July 14th, 2009 9:44 am

    My hunch is that the problem is with the beacon transmission standard: it was established with analog-only beacons in mind. I’m amazed that various companies are able to accomplish signal separation and other advanced features based upon a transmission that was never intended to convey such information, but if a new spec were designed today, it would look much different, and beacons would be far easier to use.

    And I agree with Dostie about “reading” the snowpack. A friend is a geologist at a large western university, and although his specialty is analyzing really (really) old rocks, he’s helped out on some field research for colleagues who are conducted fascinating research in snowpack analysis. I think that could really revolutionize stability assessment.

  4. Nick July 14th, 2009 10:25 am

    I look forward with eager anticipation to the day my beacon is as reliable and trustworthy as my pc. Just waiting for it to boot up….. why isn’t it doing what I want? oh the network has hung…. application not responding…. 😉

  5. Lou July 14th, 2009 12:31 pm

    One of my beacons simply quit during the middle of a trip. I’ve owned a lot of computers and never had one brick like that… for what it’s worth.

  6. Nick July 14th, 2009 9:39 pm

    Touche. My F1 Focus also died on a trip (fortunately resort based). Still transmitted, but I realized something was wrong when we did a range comparison when practicing and the tracker picked up the target before mine did.

  7. Randonnee July 14th, 2009 9:59 pm

    First of all, I appreciate that someone like Jonathan has the interest and drive to test transceivers and write about it.

    Torture is a good descriptor for the recent situation! What a huge distraction- these gadgets, all of this marketing that is questionable in its claims. If I misjudge the hazard, which has occurred in my experience one time in over 2000 days on avalanche terrain on skis, this gadget- transceiver- if utilized by a competent partner may help recover my body perhaps alive. Are you kiddin’ me- there is so much time invested into this topic of transceivers that would be better applied to learning about avalanching. I wonder if folks are after some feeling of immortality in the face of avalanche hazard by using gadgets to create a false, misguided, confidence. Get it wrong and you may just be killed or busted up in spite of the fact that one is wearing that fancy transcieiver.

  8. Mike July 16th, 2009 2:47 am

    Excellent comments by Randonnee. It bears repeating: a transceiver is not a primary safety device. Many of the details of transceiver design and operation are of little practical value to most users; especially when dealing with a large search area or complicated burials. The ability to conduct realistic practise searches remains the best “feature” associated with owning a transceiver.

    With respect to some of the comments about assessment of instability: current diagnostic methods are quite good, but wishful thinking and risk-taking ( both of which are unquestionably influenced by avalanche safety equipment such as transceivers ) is still state of the art for many recreationists.

    It is well-known that the results of slope side instability tests can have a helpful or harmful influence on perception of instability. Yet there is still this belief among many that better snowpack analysis or better equipment is the way to overcome simple denial. People are still capable of making poor decisions whether or not someone invents a device capable of stratigraphic analysis.

    I was skiing a few months ago on Mt. Rainier and we couldn’t help but notice that most east aspect slopes had released. Yet there was still talk by some members of our party ( all of us clad in expensive transceivers and other fancy mountain gear ) that perhaps some east aspects were safe for travel. Huh? The Nile ain’t just a river in Egypt.

    The fact of the matter is that ski touring remains an organic, non-cerebral event for many people. People go ski touring precisely because they don’t want their mind gnawing on problems all day. Transcievers and shovels may provide a means for some people to relax their minds for a few hours, knowing they’re safe in the invisible glow of the transceiver’s electrical field … but they certainly don’t make anyone safer.

  9. Lou July 16th, 2009 10:51 am

    Good points Mike! My approach has always been to look at alpinism as intense problem solving. If I want to relax my mind I go bait fishing.

  10. Randonnee July 16th, 2009 7:58 pm

    It remains apparent during my backcountry encounters with others at times that some do not want to think, test, observe, use care at the expense of turns. It seems that they just want a brief algorithm from someone else to decide go/ no-go and the best transceiver, shovel, and probe which perhaps supports their hero-dreams and their denial of potential death or injury resulting from their actions on avalanche terrain. My avalanche hazard evaluation for my favorite powder runs, aka avalanche paths, begins with the first snowfall that season and continues daily whether or not I am there on the snow. Data is available to do so.

    Last season I toured nice powder with a friend one day near Stevens Pass, on the crest (rare for me, too crowded). We encountered some ski tourers from the city who invited themselves along after deciding that perhaps I knew something. They followed us for two runs, and where I ski is clearly safe. Even after pointing out the slope where I nearly met tragedy in 1996 (Re: Wildsnow Guest Blog) , and pointing out that that slope did not have the crown from an avalanche (like contiguous slopes) therefore was still prime to go, one of these guys said he was going to huck 15- 20 ft onto that hanging slab. After skiing two runs where it was safe, in my opinion, this guy who had done no testing as I had, decided to jump on a dangerous sweet spot where I had refused to go near for safety reasons. Now that is some interesting psychology in my view. I skied off the other side, I guess he was ok, I did not hear of an accident.

    My views are from a decade of avalanche work long ago, my views seem to be old-school or something. Very little, it seems, has been gained in regard to avalanche avoidance. Ignorance and lack of sober consideration and self-control seems tragically common in regard to the avalanche problem, even with all of the formal classes now available and with all of the hyper-marketed avalanche gadgets.

  11. Jonathan Shefftz July 17th, 2009 12:28 pm

    As an economist, I feel that much of the debate/discussion boils down to two concepts:
    1. opportunity cost
    2. risk-compensating behavior
    That is:
    1. To what extent does time, resources, thought, etc. spent testing, reviewing, practicing, etc. w/ beacons (and other rescue gear) come at the expense of time, resources, thought, etc. spent on other aspects of avalanche safety?
    2. To what extent do skiers (and other backcountry recreationalists) take more risks b/c avy rescue gear makes them feel safer?
    These points could be debated/discussed forever, but I wish the debate/discussion would reflect more than just conclusory statements w/o any supporting evidence or even arguments (i.e., as opposed to just leaping straight to the unsupported conclusion).
    Personally, my take is:
    1. Opportunity cost is a big factor in avy courses, when any amount of time spent on one topic comes at the expense of other topics. For outside of that, I don’t think people have a fixed “budget” for time/resources/thought/etc spent on avy rescue gear.
    2. I feel that being reminded of my mortality and potential burial each time I go on a tour by strapping on my beacon makes me behave in a safer manner. Now, I suppose some skiers out there are so stupid and/or reckless that they take more risks because of beacons. But any skier that stupid and/or reckless is probably going to die prematurely anyway (whether by avalanche or car accident etc).

  12. Randonnee July 17th, 2009 2:12 pm

    Hey Jonathan,

    What matters is knowing with a high degree of certainty whether or not the slope one is about to enter will avalanche with a hazardous potential. Really little else enters my mind except briefly when on avalanche terrain.

    My conclusion (opinion) based on my own observation is that endless debate, avalanche education, and number crunching about avalanche accidents and equipment has not improved the avalanche avoidance skills of the clear majority of backcountry skiers that I encounter, including a couple of course instructors. There are hordes of ski touring folks remaining alive simply because the snowpack is actually usually stable! This is my observation and opinion and is likely difficult to prove or not.

    I think that marketing of avalanche gear has taken the important focus from understanding avalanching. I question whether most backcountry travelers are able to accurately identify many avalanche paths, as well it is my opinion that most cannot define why or why not did a certain slope avalanche.

    My opinion could be flawed, especially since I avoid the mainstream of backcountry skiers and vigorously protect my (and my parties’) solitude. In fact, because of previous encounters with idiots skiing above me on a potential slab, other’s behaviors, etc., I am pretty uncomfortable skiing around most folks if there is real avalanche potential. Because my opinions and hazard evaluation has kept me safe for three decades, and my methods, flawed or not, have offered near complete safety with one exceptional incident.

    Certainly, I applaud and enjoy the efforts of folks like you or others who engage and publish serious analysis or testing, thank you.

  13. Jonathan Shefftz July 18th, 2009 8:54 am

    I just thought of something: probably close to half the comments in the avy beacon review series have been about safety issues much more broad than just avy rescue gear. So, hah, avy beacons, the “gateway drug” to getting into other avy safety issues!

  14. Lou July 18th, 2009 9:11 am

    Indeed, in the days before beacon use and ownership was assumed, having one was a litmus test for one’s intention to practice avy safety. It’s still that way to an extent, as the mantra of “have beacon shovel probe?” is still recited by those doling out avalanche safety advice to the media. They never seem to mention how rare it is for a an avy beacon to save a life after an actual avalanche burial, nor how many times avalanche victims who survive still endure life altering injuries (though of course they do save lives on occasion, so don’t get me wrong).

  15. Lou July 18th, 2009 9:12 am

    I just realized I wrote a comment in response to Jonathan that was longer than his initial comment. Wow, he must be cutting back on the coffee or something (grin).

  16. Randonnee July 18th, 2009 10:31 pm

    Jonathan I do admire your interest and incredible energy invested. There is so much information from you that is valuable. Please don’t be discouraged by my words.

    My level of confidence and very conservative (believe it or not) exposure to uncertain hazard is what I trust. I trust those abilities more than a transceiver rescue. Actually I powder ski avalanche paths alone, and ski cut size 2 avalanches when alone, routinely. If there is size 3 potential (in my estimation), I am aware of that potential and will not be found exposed to it. From my AC days if I am able to reduce the hazard by ski cutting with results to the weakness, I gain confidence, and conversely if it does not go when I think it should I back away out of uncertainty. So for me personally, transceivers lack importance compared to the true life/death decisions about avalanche potential that I make routinely (even before ABS). From interpreting the data, there is only a slim improvement in my survival if I have a competent partner, anyway- it is practically the same commitment with a partner as when solo. No, I am not recommending solo travel, if I die in an avalanche that will be a lesson to be heeded…

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