2-Way Radio Talk at the Avalanche Safety Event

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | October 9, 2017      

Before we begin… Backcountry Access might actually have more 2-way radio content than we do! Check them out.

CSAW 2017 was a full day of snow.

CSAW 2017 was a full day of indoor snow.

Throw away your snowpit thermometers! Include the Taliban in your hazard assessment! Rational choices versus naturalistic decision making process!

Well, the first two presentations were fun. I learned something. As for rational choices, otherwise known as decisions, that one went way over my head. But I figure no one person can understand all the avalanche experts — all of the time.

Yes, attending CSAW (Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop) a few days ago was interesting as always.

The event goes for a day, with a dozen presentations. My favorite? Engineering the bomb trams at Arapahoe Basin nearly won me. But a down-to-earth talk about 2-way radio culture in the backcountry of Telluride Colorado held the most interest. I like radios, and I like being safer. Good combo.

For those of you in Colorado, I don’t need to tell the story of how Telluride resort provides ski lift access to an abundance of uncontrolled backcountry terrain. Nor do I have to go through the history of how that terrain has been the focus of private property disputes and controversy about allowing public access from a resort to avalanche terrain. We did cover some of that a while back as I found the private property issues to be interesting from a land use perspective (private vs public rights, search WildSnow for related posts). Apparently, enough of this has been resolved in recent years to make skiing Bear Creek pretty much a done deal.

Result is one of those “watch out what you pray for…you might get it” situations. Scores of skiers (if not hundreds over a few days during good conditions) dropping into prime avalanche terrain. Next to each other. Above each other. Needing to lend a hand in rescues of each other. And so on. All scenarios subject to the adage that more communication equals enhanced safety. Begging the question: is shouting an effective form of safety communication in avalanche terrain — especially between various groups? Clearly, no.

Thus, in a perfect storm of technology and need, the use of FRS/GMRS radios came into play here in a big way, a positive development that should be an example for other heavily used backcountry zones. A non-profit, Telluride Mountain Club, has played a big part in this. They’ve spearheaded the standardization of radio “channels” and done a good job of communication via their website.

According to presenter Matt Steen (heli ski guide and avalanche forecaster), the use of radios by skiers in Bear Creek has gone upwards of 50%. He offered that taking communication to this level produces a huge increase in safety, not only for your own group, but for the community as a whole when numerous skiers share a zone. I’d enthusiastically agree.

Matt's slide illustrating survey results.

Matt’s slide illustrating survey results.

Matt brought up a couple of radio use issues identified in an opinion survey of Telluride backcountry skiers.

“Too much chatter” on common “Group Monitoring” frequencies is in my opinion the most difficult to handle. Problem is, professionals are usually trained on radio protocols such as keeping transmissions short and subject specific, while the general public tends to use 2-ways more as if they’re chatting on a cell phone. Education and awareness are keys for this, as well as technological tweaks such as only having one person in a group monitoring the common channels (perhaps with a radio with features such as “dual watch” or configurable scanning that allow them to receive on two different channels).

Cost of radios was another pain point identified by Matt. That’s clearly solvable. While the BCA Link is obviously the rig for the job (made for snowsports, waterproof, high quality, dedicated speaker-mic with external channel selection), a skier on a budget can obtain a variety of FRS/GMRS radios for less money. While most budget rigs are not waterproof and require an add-on speaker mic, they’ll get you into the communication game.

(This is where I mention that BCA Link radios are available to Telluride Mtn Club members at substantial discount — perhaps you can arrange something similar with your own local retailers).

Another pain point in this, I’m all too familiar with, is what I’d call “technology overload.” Like many of you, I want my smartphone to do everything. Instead, I still find myself carrying a camera, GPS, 2-way radio, and yes, my phone. It’s sometimes all too much. More, radios add significant weight to a minimalist kit, and the controls can be less than intuitive.

By way of examples: It is not not uncommon for an HT (radio, handheld transmitter, handy-talkie) to lack a volume control, instead requiring you to jump through settings on the LCD screen to get the thing loud enough, or less than ear damaging (BCA Link thankfully has volume control on the speaker mic, sported outside your clothing). Also, for a reason that remains unknown to this day, many manufacturers choose to install a variety of maddening beeps and rings, all enabled by default. There’s almost always a way to turn those stupid “features” OFF, but digging through the menus is required. Most radios have a keypad lock that prevents accidental settings changes, memorize and use!

Matt also alluded to using effective language in radio communication. In his words, “Use plain English.” I’ll embellish that. Avoid 10 codes and cryptic slang. Remember to speak a split second _after_ you push the transmit button (doing so allows time for receiving radios to “open up” for your privacy code and keeps a quick finger from chopping your first word in half.) In terms of plain English, I advocate using the words “affirmative” and “negative” instead of yes, yeah, no, nah, etcetera. During a poorly received transmission, the longer words will remain much more legible.

If you want to get fancy, there’s a reason you’ll hear experienced operators do things such as shortening “affirmative” to “a-firm,” two syllables as opposed to three for the word “negative,” thus perhaps easier to differentiate. Many other considerations as well, this PDF from BCA gives an excellent overview.

Cliches to avoid, that make you sound silly and clutter up the airways:
— Redundant use of “10-4,” combined with other words that mean “ok, fine”
— “over and out,”
— “2,3,1,dropping.”

Beyond cliches, it is sometimes useful to incorporate a closing statement into your transmissions — especially when a larger number of people are using the same channel. Sometimes I prefer to simply say “over” when I’m done talking, meaning I’m turning the radio channel/frequency “over” to everyone else. Don’t get carried away with this, doing so sounds silly and is just an extra word, stopping your talk usually suffices.

Give some thought to directions as well. In the heat of the moment, not a few observers have screamed into their radio “GO RIGHT” when they actually meant for the skier to turn to her left, away from that enormous avalanche.

Perhaps you’re visiting Telluride or want to start your own local radio comm initiative. Below are the BCA Link channels and FRS frequencies published by Telluride Mountain Club. The BCA channels are preset in the BC Link radio, thus keeping it nice and simple for folks who don’t want to nerd out on technology. But you can set any consumer type “blister pack” FRS or GMRS radio to these frequencies (aka channels).

— Lower Bear Creek: FRS channel 1 with privacy code 0 – Channel A on BC Link.
— Upper Bear Creek: FRS channel 5 with code 10 – Channel B
— Wasatch: FRS channel 4 with code 20 – Channel C
— Ophir: FRS channel 8 with code 10 – Channel D
— Rescue Channel (for public use when a rescue is underway, official SAR will use their own non-public frequencies as well): 9-11 – Channel E

— BC Link channel F is set to FRS channel 20, privacy code off.

Oh, and by the way, my biggest takeaway from CSAW? If you’re talking to the US Forest Service, don’t call it a “bomb tram.” It’s an EDS or something like that. Anyone care to accurize my acronym?

Additional Reading

Human factors and radio use, from BCA
Our main 2-way radios article, curated and updated
WildSnow extended BC-Link radio review.



23 Responses to “2-Way Radio Talk at the Avalanche Safety Event”

  1. Crazy Horse October 9th, 2017 10:33 am

    I got a lot of giggles from this exploration of the logic of group-think. Particularly relevant when a herd of back country skiers are looking down on a perfect virgin powder field. I’m thinking of Steven’s Pass a few years ago.


  2. Bill Hoblitzell October 9th, 2017 10:46 am

    Funny you mentioned the EDS thing; Explosive Delivery System? I was thinking that seemed like an odd and lame USFS cave to some manager’s fear about having the term ‘bombs’ in permit and policy discussion… like perhaps ISIS might read A-Basin’s operating permit and come storming the mountain seize their pentax cache and impose the rigid straight-ski-and-blue-jeans-hip-wedel technique clearly called for in ancient Sharia texts.

    Maybe we could help to create some better acronyms centering around some more onomatopoe-tic words like ‘BOOM’ or ‘KABLOOIE”

  3. Lou Dawson 2 October 9th, 2017 11:05 am

    The scourge of politically correct speech crops up in all sorts of places, that’s for sure. It’s whack a mole, in a few years the word “explosive” will be bad, and they’ll switch it back to “bomb” and call it the BDS. It’s all such a waste of intellectual capacity, or proof there is a lack thereof? Lou

  4. Matt Kinney October 9th, 2017 1:12 pm

    I don’t carry a radio even when solo,, but I did in the USCG and sometimes as a guide, There is a “proper” basic communication format One could learn the full alphabet words Alpha-Zulu as they are the clearest means of saying a letter. Nine is “niner “and” One is actually “won”, Seven is pronounced with on emphisis on the S. I use a standard set of ski pole positions or pointing actions if my partner is in sight. Hollering works pretty good.. So yes proper radio comms is actually quite nerdy for good reason.

    Charlie this is Bravo over.
    Bravo Charlie did you see that avalanche? Over.
    Charlie Bravo yes I did, over.
    Bravo Charlie out.
    Charlie Bravo out.

    Test 3-2-1- 1-2-3, Test Out.

    If you have an emergency repeat everything 3 times. 3 is universal, indicating an emergency, ie..just three letters in SOS. or …—… Someone keying their mike three times with no verbal is indicative of an emergency. One click- yes, two clicks- no.

    While I see the need for radio around the operations of a heliski or snowcat program I’m not really sold on radios for backcountry skiing as necessary gear. Nice, but not necessary like a lot of things we “should” carry. There are a number of alternatives for communications between partners.

    My experience on the Pass is it’s a just a bunch of garbled overkill about “gopro-ing” logistics on the few available frequencies. It can be a distraction to those trying to ski away from resorts. Seriously nothing kills the stoke much more than being on a ridge (other than rotors) with another party that can’t take a step without telling someone about it or getting constant direction from a camera person.

    My point being minimize the radio. That saves on batteries should an emergency truly arise.

  5. VtVolk October 9th, 2017 3:14 pm

    As an East Coaster where 95% of backcountry skiing is in dense trees, can anyone provide tips on maximizing the effectiveness of radios when sight lines aren’t possible and terrain features seem to limit range? They seem like a great tool to use, especially when a group gets separated or trying to navigate out of a tricky spot, but the few times I’ve been part of a group with radios, they seem to never work when they’re needed most (e.g., when someone is one (or two?) drainages over and may or may not be at a dead end. Follow his tracks down to access the goods or wait for him to skin back up because there were no goods?)

    The default (not having radios) means my partners and I generally keeps close together, always stays within shouting distance, etc., but there are several zones where being able to explore separately out of earshot might more quickly help find the best snow. Yes, I should just move west instead, but short of that, any advice?

  6. afox October 9th, 2017 4:08 pm

    Paragliding/hang gliding offer good examples of how radios can be used to increase safety and communication. Typically one frequency is set per area and all pilots use that frequency. Most use UHF radios, there are several good cheap UHF radios available (baofeng brand for example). The UHF radios can be set to FRS frequencies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_Radio_Service

  7. Lou Dawson 2 October 9th, 2017 4:28 pm

    VT, that’s indeed the problem with low power radios using UHF band. You need a pretty good line of sight unless you’re lucky. My big blog post about radios has info about which FRS/GMRS channels default or can often be set to higher power (depending on radio model), at the least you’d all want to be using those. Also, it’s of prime importance that everyone do “antenna polarity matching” simply meaning the transmitting and receiving radios need to have their antennas parallel to each other. This is done be everyone tending to keep their radios/antennas in vertical orientation.


    The best solution is to use a different kind of radio, with more power, on either licensed frequencies or the MURS frequencies, see article above for more info.

    Radio hobbyists tend to scorn the FRS/GMRS radios for a number of reasons, but their low power and poor antenna quality are at the top of the list.

  8. kevin October 9th, 2017 6:10 pm

    I think Matt missed the part on speaking plain English. I work for major city fire department and that is our standard. Use plain English!

  9. GeorgeT October 9th, 2017 6:55 pm

    Lou, what FRS channel in Marble this winter? Over

  10. See October 9th, 2017 8:37 pm

    Politically correct speech is about being nice, in my opinion. Beyond that it’s a waste of time.

  11. Jong Dough October 10th, 2017 7:45 am

    As Matt said, radio traffic should be minimized also to save batteries. Transmitting uses the most battery power, while receiving uses very little.

    Another trick we’ve used is if you have spotters, using the morse code button to give a long beep as an alarm if something like an avalanche does occur. Being able to convey a quick, simple “GTFO” message if an avalanche starts above a rider can give them a few extra seconds to head to an island of safety. Obviously only relevant in extreme circumstance, and luckily we’ve never really had to use it, but I’d like to have a little warning if it was possible.

  12. Jim Milstein October 10th, 2017 8:05 am

    Agree with See. It’s good to be nice. Also agree with Matt K. I used to ski with a handheld, but the chatter drove me mad, and that was fifteen years ago. It’s probably much worse now. Another thing: when skiing with a group, radios make it much easier to separate. Sometimes that’s okay, sometimes not okay. Why ski together to ski apart?

  13. See October 10th, 2017 9:12 am

    Thanks Jim. Anyone have recommendations for good add-on shoulder strap (or waist belt) pockets? I’ve been looking for something that will hold a radio or similar securely and comfortably without flopping around but haven’t found anything that works well right out of the box. Speaker mic looks almost as big as the radio with the added complication of the cable.

  14. Lou Dawson 2 October 10th, 2017 9:14 am

    Agree about simply being nice, rather than obsessing on parsing out often imaginary meanings of words in the English language. As a writer, I do give thought to how my words might be perceived, but at the same time always considering context rather than wearing blinders as to the surrounding sentence or paragraph. Avalanche safety “bombs” being a good example. Lou

  15. Lou Dawson 2 October 10th, 2017 9:25 am

    George, for Marble, for now let’s stick with channel 7 (462.7125) with quiet code 11, as that’s one of the GMRS/FRS channels that many radios will transmit at higher power.

    That said, because 7-11 is easy to remember it gets used quite a bit, if it’s too clogged up by kids playing around in Marble town, we’ll try some other ones. We’ll promulgate to friends when we see them up there, as well as on Marbleski.org

    I’d like to see ever more radio use up there. I was glad to see last winter that some of the more active and experienced skiers were using radios effectively. Though several told me they were having problems with limited range. To that end, I’d suggest a good quality radio, use the higher power option, and keep antennas vertical or near vertical. Test radios often with short transmissions, such as “radio check from Lou to George…” We should all also experiment with doing test transmissions on channel 9-11, as that’s the one that those of us spending time in Marble could perhaps monitor using dual watch and scan features of higher end rigs.

    It’s an ongoing project, for sure. Telluride has the advantage of the Club providing leadership. We might need something like that for Marble eventually, but that’s probably in the future. Much depends on how the mine operates the road, as road access might be where a club would be essential.


  16. Lou Dawson 2 October 10th, 2017 9:29 am

    See, I’ve not found any commercial products that were functional, all need modifications. My most recent method of boring hole in pouch and shoulder strap then securing with wire ties has been working well, reversible in minutes.


    I find that in a group that’s not using radios much, but needs them occasionally, using a smaller radio without speaker mic is entirely practical — so long as it’s not buried in the backpack.

    Gold standard, however, is the BC Link.


  17. afox October 10th, 2017 9:53 am

    Here’s a commercial radio bag for backpack shoulder straps.
    Its expensive for what it is. It has two attachments, the one on top is vertical (needs a horizontal loop), the bottom one is horizontal (needs a vertical loop). Should work with any pack that has those two attachments, its mesh and not waterproof but many of the radios are water resistant or waterproof.

  18. Hacksaw October 10th, 2017 10:18 am

    “Think BEFORE you speak,” has long been a ski patrol saying. Plain English makes sense.

    Lou, I really don’t know if this backcountry radio thing would work in places like Loveland/Berthoud Passes. I think you’d hear a lot of bitching out, about get out of our way you wankers, etc….

  19. dewam October 10th, 2017 11:11 am

    I and 90% of my regular ski partners have been using radios for over 15 years. Well worth the weight and trouble to me.

    I have experienced interference problems with my beacon. Like all electronic devices, you should experiment and test all your equipment together. A little separation between devices fixes most problems, just good to be aware of what works for you. Den

  20. Bruno Schull October 10th, 2017 12:32 pm

    OK, I’m going to ask some really basic questions. I’m not trying to make points by seeming stupid, although I admit a certain suspicion and dread about more technology. What are the potential uses of radios for back country skiing? Let’s say you are in a group of 3-5 people. I assume that people will have a general plan (let’s cross that slope one by one and then meet in that safe area), and that at important transitions, changes in plan, and so on, everybody will come together to talk and make decisions. I completely understand that it’s better to travel through much terrain one-by-one, but I assume that most people stay within sight and sound. So what’s the use of the radio? For people who are not skiing to watch a skier on a slope and give them feedback and advice or alerts about a pending disaster as they ski? For the skier to talk to people who aren’t skiing? To facilitate communication over distances where shouting would not be practical? To communicate with rescue organizations? To build a community to share information in real-time on the mountain? What do radios do better than cell phones, sat phones, locator beacons, and so on, in search and rescue situations? OK, you probably get my point. Why are radios useful?

  21. dewam October 10th, 2017 3:20 pm

    Bruno, how about the first person down radioing the rest of the group:

    “You might want to keep right of my tracks, a little wind effected on the left”

    “Watch out for a shallow rock mid field, half way down”

    “Hold up, we have some asshole coming out of the chute and traversing below you.”

    Of course the most common message is “Where you at?” Usually followed with a conditions report. Den

  22. Bill October 10th, 2017 3:38 pm

    Bruno, it seems like you did a fairly good job of answering your own questions. It would be ‘yes to all of the above’ to most of your suggestions.

    Some useful situations:

    1) Many islands of safety’ that skiers tuck into mid-line in order to maintain continuous line of sight aren’t actually safe zones. On longer lines with multiple convexities etc., it may often be better to ski the entire line prior to finding a safe zone, in which case the top and bottom distance might rule-out verbal communication, as well as leave a lot of room for misinterpretation of visual communication. Easier and safer to use radios on complex descents with long vert.
    2) Skier on-slope isn’t aware of cracking/slide/major slough behind them; ski partner with eyes-on can give real-time feedback to the skier online (“slide! go right!”)
    3) Snow quality on long lines (“snow is less wind-affected/better left of my track”)
    4) A cell phone might only work on a ridge-line or prominence. While someone up top might get cell connection, the radios allow people performing patient care down at slope bottom to relay that information up to the person up high.

    On radios vs other coms: Sat phones notoriously unreliable, weather and terrain dependent; at any rate, I don’t think the selling-point here is that radios are better than sat phones or PLBs in a major SAR situation for communicating with ‘outside parties’, the sell here is that they greatly improve intra-group communication with your specific ski party, and potentially other parties in your immediate locale.

  23. Bruno Schull October 12th, 2017 12:12 pm

    @ the radio conversation, thanks, that makes a lot of sense. I understand. Radio seem like they could be vert useful.

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