Tools For Ski Touring Communication – BC Link Radio

Post by blogger | November 1, 2016      
The nature of skiing terrain so close to the resort boundaries mean that there are often a lot of other people. How do we get on the same page?

The nature of skiing terrain so close to the resort boundaries mean that there are often a lot of other people. How do we get on the same page?

WildSnow is a strong advocate of using 2-way radios to enhance safety while backcountry skiing. BC Link radios are tried and true, and as the winter season approaches, I like to remind myself of how important communication is in the backcountry.

As a young, and aspiring avalanche educator (currently an AIARE Level 1 instructor) I am constantly thinking about how people acquire and use information regarding avalanches and how it impacts group and individual safety, and decision-making. Communication always tends to rise to the top. Whether that is communication the night before a tour, throughout the day as various conditions present themselves, or while in the thick of a high consequence terrain. How do we maximize our communication in an activity that is founded on freedom and non-verbal expression?

At the risk of getting too existential and wordy around the fundamentals of communicating in groups of varying dynamics, I at least want to fuel a conversation. Those of us who have the fortune of being able to learn from other people’s mistakes in the backcountry must utilize the opportunity as a means of furthering our own safety and the people we choose to recreate with.

It’s far too easy to exploit accident reports and say, “Well, it sounds like poor communication was the problem, and I’ll never do that.”

I’ll absolutely admit that I’ve been in several situations where communication in the group was poor or inconsistent, and we may have lucked out with conditions. I am very in tune with the visceral feeling (specifically a bad one) of when group dynamics are off and I am not able to voice my concerns.

Maybe I’m hyper-aware because I have been working with Outward Bound and teaching the importance of communication with groups on multi-week expeditions. I notice myself “over-communicating” when I am with an unfamiliar group of people (I may be doing that now!). This could be an attempt to gauge where everyone is at, or to be a voice that other people will be empowered to speak from. I am not an expert, or always good at it, but that is a lifelong journey.

So how do we apply “effective communication” in a practical sense? Well, we decide to ski with people we know are easy and enjoyable to work and make decisions with in our “normal” lives. Informal conversations can be an indicator for how real decision-making and communication will go in avalanche terrain. How are individuals talking about the mountains, or specific objectives? Go with your gut if someone’s perspective is putting you off, and make that assessment prior to being involved in real consequence terrain.

Some of this may seem basic, but I like to remind myself of this all the time. It can be far too easy to fall victim to the excitement of a moment, or the prospect of skiing a dreamy line with loose acquaintances who you know get after it.

This day I went out with two people that I have never toured with, but with a solid baseline of communication it went down as one of the most memorable days of the season. Yes, radios accompanied us every step of the way.

This day I went out with two people that I have never toured with, but with a solid baseline of communication it went down as one of the most memorable days of the season. Yes, radios accompanied us every step of the way.

The last two winters I have been living in Telluride, Colorado and I have noticed a lot of these decisions becoming largely present in my time in the backcountry. Focusing on group dynamics more has been a result of leaving my core group of partners in the Pacific Northwest, entering into an entirely different snowpack, and being constantly surrounded and tempted by some of the most inspiring terrain I have ever seen. Finding partners and establishing norms in a new group requires work, and is often put on the back burner when other factors are at play such as: keeping up with a group, appearing knowledgeable, gaining experience, and having the best gear. Communication can seem like a low priority in a tour, but alas it is the foundation for true success, and not just dumb luck.

The backcountry around Telluride, as with most places, is becoming increasingly crowded (and I am a contributor to that). There is a lot of talk around how the backcountry should be managed, if at all, in order to promote user safety. Again, I am not an expert on this, but do have my own observations, and this is where two-way communication can be a useful tool. The issue in the Bear Creek Drainage bordering the resort is not necessarily poor communication within the group, but lack of communication between user parties.

The Telluride Mountain Club began an initiative in conjunction with BCA to get more radios into users’ hands by offering discounts to members for BC Link set-ups. They have identified that the three steps to get this to be more effective are to:

  • 1) get everyone using radios
  • 2) establish a common channel
  • 3) develop a common language around communication.
  • This is a place to start, and I look forward to seeing how this will impact accidents in the future. One example of a recent incident in the Bear Creek drainage that may have been mitigated with more accessible communication tools is this. I hope to strike a balance by sharing this, as to not exploit the situation. I know a couple of the people involved in this, but not the author personally. This encounter seems to be more and more common, and I am truly thankful the results are not more tragic. I also want to thank the author for sharing this situation, as it serves as a learning opportunity for the community at large. There are obviously other factors than just the lack of 2-way radios for all parties involved, but it does seem to be a central point.

    The convenient shoulder strap location for the BC Link. I’ve found this super useful when receiving/giving information about which way to go on a blind face. It’s always there, even if I have de-layered for the uphill. Highly recommended.

    The convenient shoulder strap location for the BC Link. I’ve found this super useful when receiving/giving information about which way to go on a blind face. It’s always there, even if I have de-layered for the uphill. Highly recommended.

    The BC Link is an excellent tool for touring, straight up. The mic, push to talk button, and channel/power dial is housed in a small compartment that attaches to the battery pack, antennae, and channel programmer with a long coiled cord. This allows the microphone compartment to store conveniently on your pack strap, while the rest is tucked out of the way in your pack. This design really addressed the problem of keeping the tool convenient, so that it is actually used. Our previous BC Link review goes into more details on the radio’s other features.

    When I use a more common 2-way radio, like a handheld Motorola (which work well), I find myself having to either constantly move it from pocket to pocket as I change layers, or it stays stuffed in my pack because I don’t want to take the time get it out. Convenience dictates usefulness, and BCA is doing a superb job at making this tool user friendly.

    I do sometimes gripe about the bulkiness of the BC Link, especially when I am overwhelmed by how much stuff I end up bringing. When this gripe comes to the surface, I will always take a moment and remember that the ability to communicate effectively is the foundation of a safe and successful day in the mountains. It’s always worth the weight.

    The BC Link is not only useful for the lift accessed backcountry terrain that sees a large amount of user groups. We used them on a trip to the remote Monarch Icefield where we were actually surprised to run into another group. I remember I remember a specific moment while I was attempting to tetris 75lbs of gear into my pack
    I was attempting to tetris 75lbs of gear into my pack for this two-week trip and I did not want to put another darn thing in my backpack, of course that thing was a radio. I said to myself, “well it’s going to suck a lot worse to not be able to talk to each other out there”, and in that same moment the radio went into my pack.

    We were glad to have radios when navigating this complicated face.

    We were glad to have radios when navigating this complicated face.

    BCA has made a few quality documents that help to provide a baseline set of rules for using 2-way radios in the backcountry. I think these can be applied to the Bear Creek situation, as well as ANY time you’re out with friends. Have a read here.

    All in all, as we ramp up for another winter of fun in the mountains, take the time to think about how you yourself, and the community at large can be safer out there. I would love to hear your thoughts, opinions, or ways that you have improved your communication in the backcountry.

    Shop for BC Link.


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    11 Responses to “Tools For Ski Touring Communication – BC Link Radio”

    1. Denis November 1st, 2016 9:48 am

      Radio use among my ski partners became common a long time ago after having a partner not show at the car on time. Since then we have found many uses for radios to enhance the safety and better use of terrain. One benefit I never see mentioned is the ability of the Garmin Rhino to be setup to auto respond with your position. I ski solo many days of the year. If I should become injured or otherwise unable to respond to a radio call, my radio is set to automatically respond with my GPS coordinates when polled by another Rhino. Among snow machiners and hunters this feature is used to locate friends. In my case, if I do not return to the car, friends know exactly where to look. Den

      To poll another Rino’s position, press the Call key, located above the Talk key – this sends out a call tone as well as a request for a position update on the other user’s position.

    2. Al November 1st, 2016 10:32 am

      I got some water resistant Motorola walkie talkies at costco. Lightweight, small, cheap, work well, useful for many situations and if u don’t talk needlessly, not v intrusive in the bc.

    3. Mark Donohoe November 1st, 2016 12:16 pm

      AcK! Another device to carry!? I can see how it is useful, but at some point one must say STOP. Should I also carry my goal zero solar panels ‘just in case’. let’s see now, I need a gps, a phone, a spot and now a radio…. starting to get a bit silly.

    4. Scott Allen November 1st, 2016 12:39 pm

      Tell me more about the GPS location function since I ski alone frequently as well.
      Could one unit be at home and still contact the other unit in the backcountry to determine location?

    5. denis November 1st, 2016 3:31 pm

      Scott, unfortunately this feature is limited to the range of the radio reception and also the ability to get GPS reception. I have never had a problem getting GPS reception (even works in my house), but there are often areas of poor radio reception. below is a good description by Lou in the article linked in the first line of this article.

      “Sadly, all FRS/GMRS blister pack radios are nearly useless for calling help in an emergency (as in most areas the channels are not monitored), and they’re usually restricted to line-of-sight unless you get lucky with your signal bouncing around and projecting into a nearby valley”

      I find that they are not limited to line of site in most cases. but won’t work well valley to valley.

      Perhaps a SPOT or InReach is more of what you are needing.

      We have learned to use radios for quite an advantage in the back country, the “Come Find My Ass” feature of the Rhino just adds another tool that I rarely see discussed. Den.

    6. Jim Milstein November 1st, 2016 4:02 pm

      InReaches can be “pinged” via the internet or another inReach. It won’t work though if the device (and the person carrying the device) is buried. Best to send an inReach text just before doing something sketchy. But, don’t do anything sketchy. And, don’t fall. If you simply don’t fall there are only few ways to get hurt, such as lacerating or impaling yourself on dead branches. Wear helmets and armor to avoid those sad events. Or, stay home. Or, take your chances.

    7. who listens November 1st, 2016 4:47 pm

      Radios are over hyped, an excuse for yet another bit of gear to be sold to us.

      A seemingly neat idea at first glance. But bad planning, bad communication and poor terrain understanding will not be solved with long distance communications via handset. It just gets worse with chatter and confusion. This is why military and emergency people etc are specifically training in radio use. It is a gong show otherwise.

      Most recreational avalanche groups hardly even know each other prior to a tour, let alone have a chance to train with each other using radio.

      Radios in the end serve to promote groups getting split when they shouldn’t. And allow poorly planned tours to squeeze through terrain they shouldn’t have been in anyway.

      And, how many avalanche fatalities would be avoided with radio use? BCA tells us transceiver multiple burial functionality is not needed, but radios are? It is all product marketing.

    8. Andy M. November 1st, 2016 9:55 pm

      I love my BC Links. Once my wife and I got used to using them, they have stayed in our packs. My hearing is deteriorating, so it’s not hard for me to have a hard time hearing partners not very far away when there’s trees and wind, especially with a helmet on. They’re also great for groups with different skinning paces, or if a group splits up into pairs (2 people want to go “warm up the car”, while another 2 want to go for 1 more lap).

    9. Thom Mackris November 1st, 2016 11:47 pm

      I don’t know what to make of this, other than to be a big fan of clear communications and understanding irrespective of the medium.

      I have a climbing buddy with whom we’ll collectively arrive at a plan/decision. He’ll repeat it back to me (face to face). I’ll quiz him to verify the communications. Five minutes later, it’s as if the conversation never occurred. No electronics will solve that.

      I can see a great use for communication technology when a group has to split up – especially to handle an emergency or some other unanticipated event.


    10. Jim Milstein November 2nd, 2016 6:20 am

      Some years back I used a handheld radio because my companions were using them. The chatter drove me mad. I stopped skiing with them because of it. Just read the BCA piece on radio protocol via the link Lou provided. They stress the disciplined use of radio communications. Would that skiers complied!

      Radio use facilitates groups breaking up, as you can read in previous comments. When necessary, good. When not necessary, it might be bad.

    11. Lou Dawson 2 November 2nd, 2016 7:58 am

      I’d agree that if the radio use inspires too much group separation, that’s terrible. On the other hand, they are wonderful when it comes to preventing inappropriate gang skiing.

      The chatter problem can be real, depends on the group. People new to 2-way handhelds sometimes end up toying with them, making “10-4” jokes and such. After the juvi stuff is out of their systems the chatter situation usually settles down. If not, some group discussion can help.

      On the other hand, it is very important with 2-ways to make regular but short transmissions to stay in the habit of using it, and to test that’s it’s functioning. I usually do ok with that, but made a bad mistake when we were doing our last day of exit from Denali in 2010. Louie and I moved slow down the glacier (due to me), while the rest of the group had made it to Kahiltna Base the day before. They expected to hear from me that last day, keep calling me, but my radio was accidentally turned off for most of the day. Louie was operating the GPS so we’d decided I would be the one with the radio.They were thinking of mounting a search back up the Kahiltna when we finally showed up.

      In the end, effective use of 2-ways is not a trivial skillset. For example, just knowing how to speak briefly, but clearly and effectively, is learned behavior. Example, using the words “affirmative” and “negative” instead of yes and no can be extremely important if reception quality isn’t good. It’s easy to mistake a quickly spoken yes or no, while the multisyllabic “affirmative” and “negative” are better. Some people use “afirm” or “roger” for yes and “negative” for no, that way you have a two syllable word vs a three syllable. Just avoid using CB slang “negatory” so you don’t sound like an idiot (smile). That said “10-4” has become the universal synonym for “ok” and is much easier to understand in a poor reception situation. Use when you actually mean “ok” and avoid extended redundant phrases such as “10-4, that’s ok, yes I’ll do that…” And if anyone says “that’s a big 10-4 good buddy” please confiscate their radio.

      I learned years ago in SAR and HAM that closing my transmission with the words “standing by” was nice, as it indicated I was done talking, as well as leaving my radio switched on to receive.


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