Walking the Tightrope with Bruno and Edge — Avalanche Safety at BCA

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | November 1, 2017      
Lou (right), Edge and Bruno at BCA.

Lou (right), Edge and Bruno at BCA.

A few days ago I sat down at their Boulder, Colorado corporate headquarters for a Q&A with Bruce “Edge” Edgerly and Bruce “Bruno” McGowan of Backcountry Access. Since 1994 when they worked with electronics genius John “Herf” Hereford to develop the world’s first digital avalanche rescue transceiver, Edge and Bruno have made a life mission of avalanche safety for all snow recreators. Below, enjoy our paraphrased conversation. Edge and Bruno’s words are combined under the title “BCA.”

Here at WildSnow.com we’ve been emphasizing a return to basics when it comes to avalanche safety. By “basics” I’m talking really basic — about being sure all avalanche beacons are enabled, or pulling your airbag without hesitation, or being sure you somehow will have your Avalung in your mouth in the event of a burial. Over past years I’ve learned that a significant percentage of avalanche deaths, worldwide, could be prevented by somehow insuring or incentivizing backcountry skiers to adhere 100% to the basics. I’m fully aware that designing fail-safe product design is often a tightrope walk between conflicting features, but surely the future is bright — are you guys working on “basic” solutions?

From the start, we’ve thought about ways to address the issue of basics. The avalanche beacon mantra of “put it on, turn it on, take it off, turn it off” is the first step of course — education. But yeah we’ve examined all sorts of things. For example, we looked closely at the Ortovox system that used a bayonet connector on the harness that switched the beacon on and off. At least that made sure your beacon was on if you were wearing it. But we viewed that sort of thing as too much of a failure point (and was as far as we know the most warrantied part on those Ortovox models). It was asked to do too much.

We’ve brainstormed things such as building an incentive program into our beacons, where you can try to outdo other backcountry skiers based on the number of hours you’ve worn your transceiver while activated (Lou note: “Perhaps with an ‘honesty’ function connected to a motion sensor?”)

It’s a depressing statistic, but we are sure more people have died due to their leaving their beacon in the car, having it switched off and so forth, than have died because someone couldn’t solve a 4-person multiple burial problem. If you get back to the basics, you’re going to get more “saves” for your efforts in pushing this kind of education to the masses than by promoting boutique multiple burial features that apply to less than 1 percent of beacon users.

Same thing with the airbags, we have run into situations where people don’t take the time to connect it properly — as a result they’re not actually wearing an airbag, while they think they are. Potentially tragic. Then there’s the basic of having your airbag trigger out and deployed rather than stowed. More, studies such as that by Pascal Haegeli suggest that ~ 20% of the times that a deployment is perhaps necessary, users have some sort of malfunction (not with ours, of course 😉 or simply don’t pull the trigger when they should.

I’ve certainly made most of the mistakes. At least once a winter I realize I’ve forgotten to switch on my beacon, for example. Luckily I’ve never had to pull an airbag for real, just in practice. It annoys the heck out of me that beacon companies expend so many resources on incredibly complex features, and do little to nothing about basics, often user errors, that cost lives. (For our readers new to avalanche safety, good to mention here that airbags are also problematic in that they don’t “float” unless you’re entrained in the flow of an avalanche. They’re possibly ineffective in small, short distance events.)

Again, in terms of basics, BCA sees education as the key, while we keep looking at technological solutions as well. There are several issues with airbags in terms of making sure it’s enabled: You need an easy way to disable (for situations such as helicopter transport or dense bushwhacking). Because of that, avalanche airbags are easy to “turn off,” which in turn demands thought and discipline about enabling them again.

More, in the old days it was always expensive to fire off a cylinder, and even now (though costs have gone down) you’re still creating a pain point, having to refill, swap, recharge or whatever. Making renewal of a discharged cylinder as easy as possible is important in terms of getting people to pull without hesitating. That’s why we have the extensive BCA refill network.

Airbag backpacks also need an easy method of practicing — we figured that out right away when we got into the airbag market. Just that tactile experience of pulling the trigger is so important, and needs to be repeated to develop muscle memory. Our foremost goal with the practice issue is to keep our design simple, so you’re not spending your airbag time configuring or otherwise maintaining the system, but have time to simply practice wearing it, enabling-disabling, and pulling the trigger.

It really all comes down to ease of use, so we keep that as our overarching design goal. If the pack isn’t easy to use in any way, you’re going to spend time on issues that get in the way of basics such as practicing with the trigger. Enhancing all that, we provide as much education as we can via our website, videos, and so forth. Those are the best ways we know of helping with the “basics” issues you’re bringing up.

How about trailhead beacon checks in terms of ‘back to basics?’ you don’t see many people doing trailhead checks. Myself and my regular ski partners try to make a rule of it but I have to admit to occasional failure in that regard. I wonder if some sort of electronic solution to this could happen, perhaps something linked to a motion detector that sensed when the beacon was powered up and moving, and required you to switch to search mode and back one time after the beacon was enabled.

As an example of that sort of thing, we’re constantly questioning whether getting people dependent on trailhead electronic beacon check stations (for which we are often responsible) is so great. Sure, check stations determine if you’re switched on, but you need more information than that, for example you need to know if your buddy is actually wearing their beacon, and if everyone knows how to switch to search mode. So your group’s hands on beacon check — at the trailhead — is what we continue to recommend. Same goes for getting your beacon tested with an electronic device in a shop setting.

Really, a simple range and activation test at home or at the trailhead requires you to put some thought into actually using, rather than just handing your rig to a guy in a ski shop or seeing a light flashing at a trailhead check station. You need to know your buddy is transmitting, that he at least knows how to quickly access their beacon and switch to search mode — whether you’re transmitting at EXACTLY! 457 Khz isn’t the point.

We just came up with a couple of trailhead test videos, reinforcing all this. They’re on our videos page at backcountryaccess.com/education.

Another syndrome is folks forgetting beacons at home and not telling anyone. I carry a spare in our vehicle at all times to remedy this.

I carry two with me on tour, one turned off of course. We’d add that the most common mistake we see is the “trailhead test” happening too late in the process — when you’re far away from the car. That proverbial “should we turn our beacons on now?” statement you really don’t want to hear.

Circling back to airbags, what could make them easier to pull? Lisa and I have found that grabbing some of the handle shapes, with bulky gloves and cold hands, is not highly reliable. We sometimes clip a length of sling material suspended in a loop from handle to the opposite pack strap, to make a much more available trigger. I learned that from a guide, who said he does this quite often for clients who obviously need a much more robust trigger configuration.

That’s another example of the design tightrope we’re constantly walking: easier to deploy on purpose most often equals easier to trigger by accident. We made one trigger that was shaped like a hook, super easy to grab but it frequently was accidentally triggered. Our trigger is cone shaped now, and it’s very easy to adjust the vertical position so it’s in the easiest place to grab, depending on your torso size. We did tweak our handle a bit for next season, it’s ovalized so it fits better in the shoulder strap sleeve when stowed. But that’s not a change to make it easier to grab. Interestingly, the new standard for airbag rucksacks places much emphasis on preventing accidental deployment, not so much on ease of triggering. In the end, practice is key, both in grabbing the trigger handle as well as doing a full deploy now and then. In either case, go through the motions while you’re skiing, not while you’re just standing there in your living room thinking things through.

What was the most challenging part of the airbag development process, back in ancient corporate history?

Part of it was (and still is) the European standards — stiff, and in the beginning the requirements were somewhat vague. Since we were so early in the game we had a set of different standards than companies doing this over the past few years. Early on, there actually was no “official” standard, instead you had to work with a sort of customized thing out with TUV — this resulted in our designing to a ‘mythical’ standard that TUV had developed while working with ABS. This “standard” was treated almost like a trade secret. One thing TUV wanted from us was TEN fully documented deployments in REAL avalanches. That was a huge project. We borrowed a couple of 185 pound manikins from Rocky Mountain Rescue. We drove those out to Snowbird, put them on the tram, positioned them in Mineral Basin in the avalanche starting zone. The patrol couldn’t get anything to go, so we had to Z-drag the dummies back up the mountain, then haul them to the tram and drive them back to Boulder. We did eventually get the manikins into avalanches — but we and ABS were the only companies that had to do this level of testing.

How about your new system, Float 2.0, challenges?

Float 27 open (with BCA Link installed). Not a ton of space, but enough for most ski days.

Float 27 open (with BCA Link installed). Smaller airbag system opens up more space.

Float 2.0 isn’t new science, it’s simply another few steps in development. The usual challenges such as balancing weight and durability are there. Here at Backcountry Access we’re still of the opinion that when people pay good amounts of money for a pack, it should probably be fairly durable even if it weighs a few ounces more.

The weight issue really is a tightrope walk. Technology wise we wanted to go to smaller cylinder, that packs in the airbag compartment, thus allowing us to get the last of the engine out of the pack’s cargo area. That’s a hidden weight savings as you don’t need quite so large a pack to carry the same volume of gear. The downsize required improving the efficiency of our engine (valve system) from roughly 65 percent entrainment (of ambient air) to around 75 percent. To accomplish that we now use 3,000 Psi pressure in the redesigned engine instead of the former 2,700.

Last questions, what’s your design philosophy behind the BC Link radios?

The radio (BC Link) is a classic example of just ‘making it easy to use.’ We started with what do you need a radio for? So we took the existing concepts of FRS radios and stripped it to bare necessities, added water resistance and a useful hand mic control, that’s it.

Indeed, using radios beyond basics can be intimidating and ultimately unsuccessful, due to menus that force you to step through all sorts of garbage. And those horrible beeps and blurts…

You can turn those sounds off Lou (chuckling).

I know, but…everything can be improved.

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32 Responses to “Walking the Tightrope with Bruno and Edge — Avalanche Safety at BCA”

  1. XXX_er November 1st, 2017 9:17 am

    when we do beacon check the group strings out > 50m apart on the trail, after about 10 min everybody is warm and maybe needs to stop/shed a layer so the lead guy stops and goes to receieve and everybody skis by him to have their signal checked. Each person in turn will leapfrog up to the lead position, stop go into receive and take their turn checking every signal in the group as they file past , so everybody checks their beacon transmitting and receiving with every other person in the group.

  2. Lou Dawson 2 November 1st, 2017 9:22 am

    When I’m being a good boy, that’s essentially the way I like to do it. Works best in a group that’s used to the procedure, that way it doesn’t slow things down much if at all. I’m not sure what could be improved in this, but there is perhaps some sort of technological solution that would help things along, or?

  3. XXX_er November 1st, 2017 10:19 am

    I like it ^^ and its good to stop after 10min, I think it fosters group cohesiveness as opposed to everybody starting off at top speed/overheating/ getting spread out/ not communicating and the key thing might be don’t forget to go back into send mode at the end !
    Doesn’t one of the brands ( Barryvox?) go into fine search mode , there was something wierd that happened concerning how far out I would pickup beacons coming towards me so I completely reboot after each search ?
    yes this method works well & seamlessly with the same group of old farts who are on the program, trying to splain it to a new group who are more worried if someone brought the spare lighter … not so much.

  4. Edge November 1st, 2017 12:39 pm

    Stopping ten minutes into a tour is always a great idea, so people can remove a layer if necessary and make adjustments. But it’s too late for a transceiver check. If someone forgot to put on their transceiver–or their batteries are dead–are they going all the way back to the car? Best to find those kinds of things out right there on the edge of the parking lot.

  5. Lou Dawson 2 November 1st, 2017 1:07 pm

    But, if Edge is along he’s got at least one extra beacon (smile). Lou

  6. XXX_er November 1st, 2017 1:17 pm

    well that kind of assumes you got yer working beacon, personaly I clip mine to a pocket leash and I turn it on when i put my pants on …batteries are pretty cheap

  7. DaveJ November 1st, 2017 7:18 pm

    Good stuff, Lou. I just sent the trailhead beacon check video to all my ski partners.

  8. See November 1st, 2017 7:53 pm

    Re. easy air bag recharging: I still want a reliable foot pump system.

  9. Edge November 1st, 2017 8:50 pm

    Have you tried the Benjamin Aire pump? It’s very reliable as long as you don’t let it overheat.

  10. See November 1st, 2017 9:15 pm

    Yeah. I have a little experience with it, but thought air humidity was an issue.

  11. Edge November 1st, 2017 10:11 pm

    Not if you use the Sun Optics desiccant cartridge they recommend ($25).

  12. Greg November 2nd, 2017 6:28 am

    ORTOVOX has a new airbag called AVABAG that allows you to practice deployments without discharging a canister or deploying the bag. No need to refill or repack.

  13. See November 2nd, 2017 7:22 am

    Excellent. Thanks, Edge. That’s what I wanted to know. Any tips about how to ensure the dessicant is effective? Blue means good to go?

  14. Edge November 2nd, 2017 7:29 am

    Is that Greg Mears (from Ortovox)? Hey buddy! Yes, that’s a cool idea. But just like a transceiver trailhead check, it’s better to test whether your entire system is working, not just the part you pull. A test device like the one you mention is very similar to an electronic Beacon Checker, which only tests transmit, not receive. (I know, we make those, but we don’t claim they’re thorough). Let’s take this offline and go grab a brew!

  15. Lou Dawson 2 November 2nd, 2017 9:47 am

    Scott Alpride is easy to set and trigger without canisters attached. But again, it’s not the complete “real” deployment. It’s stating the obvious, but the electric fan packs are easiest for full practice deployments.

    IMHO, all that’s required is doing a full deployment once a year (and doing subsequent swap or refill), beyond that do a few hundred practice pulls in different situations. Try pulling with your biggest gloves or mittens.


  16. Bruno Schull November 2nd, 2017 2:10 pm

    HI. Interesting discussion. Maybe the companies could set something up where you come into a store, disconnect the canister, hook up to an air compressor, and…fire away. Practice to your heart’s content. In fact, Lou, maybe you could rig that up? If you took the intake/Venturi from an air bag could you connect it in some way to an air compressor, or a take of compressed gas, and regulate the flow in such a way that you would get the burst that you needed? Then you could just practice….my thinking outside the box idea fo the night. My take away from all this is that I really might get airbags for my wife and I. You once predicted that air bags will become standard safety equipment…are we there yet?

  17. VT skier November 2nd, 2017 3:40 pm

    Speaking of airbags, in Europe you can buy (and I have handled) beautiful carbon canisters for ABS, ARVA and other Airbags.
    But not here in the US and Canada. We are still hauling around heavy , larger steel canisters.

  18. Lou Dawson 2 November 3rd, 2017 7:44 am

    Different sets of laws, as well as the cost and hassle of getting products approved for sale… both result in different products being available in Western Europe vs North America. Best example is the noticeable differences in available automobiles. The carbon canisters are beautiful indeed, IMHO they’re going to be essential if the electrical capacitor airbag packs system in development by Scott Alpride works as predicted, as they’re the only way the gas packs will be able to compete on weight.

    It’s possible to bring back a canister in personal checked baggage, I’ve heard of people simply keeping it in retail packaging and packing it, no problem.



  19. Lou Dawson 2 November 3rd, 2017 8:10 am

    Update: I used the wrong final balloon pressure in the calculations below, it needs to be about 1 psi above ambient, so for simplicity I’ll just calculate to 15 psi.

    Bruno, I tried to do the compressed gas math regarding using a lower pressure and larger compressed gas tank with a large diameter gate valve. Similar to tire seating riggs used in tire shops. It appears 100% possible to set up a practice device running at “consumer” air compressor PSI of around 150. In fact, it even appears possible to using a bulky tank in a backpack that would be easily refilled using a consumer grade compressor. Problem with my thought experiment was when I figured out a way to do the larger tank in a backpack, it was not easy to save weight as the surface area and amount of associated material rapidly increased. But yeah, for a practice rig at ski shops, some sort of large tank could most certainly be rigged.

    Note that such low pressure systems would probably not drive the venturi engine that entrains ambient air, it would need to perhaps bypass the engine in the case of practice, and would not use it in the case of an actual operating backpack.

    I tried some high school algebra on a standard formula, got this:

    Va = (150.0 psia) (.53 cu ft) / (15 psia) =5.2972 (cu ft)

    With 5.2972 cu ft = 1.5 cu liter, which is the BCA airbag volume.

    If my math is correct, what would be needed is a tank size of .53 cu ft (915.84 cu inches, which is something like a 11×24 inch cylinder) containing 150 psi air, to fill a 5.2972 cu ft (150 liter) balloon about 1 psi above ambient (depending on elevation, etc.)?

    Can someone check my math? Could that be right?


    Edge at BCA tells me that “… the positive pressure (above atmospheric) inside the Float airbag is 0.5 psi, hence you could use the number 15.2 psi for absolute pressure (14.7 + 0.5) in your formula…”

    What’s interesting is if one uses 175 psi for the tank fill pressure — not unachievable for a consumer grade compressor. That gets the tank size down to what in my opinion could be easily built into a backpack at .45 cubic feet (777.6 cubic inches), a cylinder at ~12×9 inches

    Just imagine, a balloon hooked up to a tank, with a gate valve. That is all, nothing more. I could make this thing with PVC plumbing pipe and a ball-gate valve. Maybee I will.

    Hint hint: Schedule 40 PVC has a 700 psi burst pressure.



  20. Lou Dawson 2 November 3rd, 2017 8:40 am

    Bruno, we’ve got a few more years to go till airbags are standard. I think 24 months will do it. It’s dependent on cost and weight going down below certain thresholds. A rig with carbon canister and a lighter pack hits the weight threshold in my opinion, but the cost is high and of course there’s the problem of carbon cartridge availability. I’m still optimistic about the electric packs. In fact, I have to wonder if BCA might be working on one, as they’re corporate culture is one of ground breaking electronics, as they invented the digital avalanche transceiver. Lou

  21. Bruno Schull November 3rd, 2017 10:20 am

    Hi Lou–awesome! I teach high school biology and geography, not physics, but I’ll try to check the math when I get home tonight (always fun to exercise the brain). My immediate thought is that this might need something similar to the refillable air cans used to rapidly inflate tubeless bicycle tires. See this link:
    But if just a regular old compressor would work, that would at least make practicing over and over easy. OK, more soon. Thanks again,

  22. the future November 3rd, 2017 12:30 pm

    It’s interesting when BCA says that airbag safety is dependent upon ease of practicing and repeatability when they are sticking with ‘one and done’ compressed air canisters. When I educate consumers about airbags and show them how easy it is to practice and repeatedly practice with battery operated systems, the buying choice becomes clear.

  23. Lou Dawson 2 November 3rd, 2017 5:40 pm

    Regarding the electric fan packs, they’ve been somewhat of a disappointment in that they are expensive and heavy. You can easily get into an Alpride, BCA or whatever for less weight, and in the case of BCA easily less money. I think it’s good enough to practicing once a year with a full deploy, and the rest of the time with dummy pulls of the trigger, so long as you get in the habit of grabbing aggressively and pulling hard. Lou

  24. Bruno Schull November 5th, 2017 12:11 pm

    Hi Lou–I admit, I didn’t do that math, but from looking at it quickly, it seems right to me. I would make a distinction here, between trying to figure out the volume of some kind of pressurised cylinder that could be carried in pack to practice, and the flow rate required to quickly and sufficiently fill an airbag. Volume vs. flow rate. Of course it’s also related to pressure. I also think it’s a question of the ultimate goal: do you want people to be able to go out, perhaps in an avalanche class scenario, and practice in “real conditions,” maybe even including skiing and pulling the cord? In this case, a pressurized cylinder small enough to fit in a backpack would be required. I can’t imagine that a small cylinder pressurized to 100 psi with a bicycle pump would not work. By the way, I’ve also seen small air cans that are pressurised with cordless electric drills–they are used my bicycle mechanics as mobile, small, air compressors. Maybe you could have one canister and one drill in a group, and recharge between runs? At the other end of the spectrum, it would be cool to be able to walk into a ski shop, hook up to a compressor, and pull a cord. You would practice the release function, but you would also practice re-packing the bag, gain an idea of how the bag actually functions, and so on. It might also be interesting from a sales perspective; shop staff could deploy several different packs, and talk about the differences, for example, bags that just add buoyancy (if that’s even the right word) vs. the bags that also add some kind of torso/head/neck protection. If I was going to spend the money that these bags cost, I would definitely want to deploy a few models and see how they function and compare. So, all that to say, the challenge has been set, and you are the man for the job! You no doubt have a compressor. I imagine the challenge of figuring out the valves, tubes, and bypasses, is the sort of tinkering that you dream about during doldrums with no snow. As you say, everything must be modified! Maybe we can look forward to a post about a easily rechargeable canister or compressor powered bypass to practice air bag deployment? If only there was enough time to follow all these ideas….

  25. Jasper November 7th, 2017 11:32 pm

    Why are tracker transceivers not satisfying the ICAR recommendations of printing the realistic maximum range on the transceiver as well as having a marking function?

  26. Lou Dawson 2 November 8th, 2017 7:15 am

    Or, why is ICAR not recommending the simplicity and effectiveness of how well the Tracker functions without those things?

    Or, just look at the Tracker specifications, see max range is ”
    55 meters” write that on your Tracker with a Sharpie.

    Seriously, range varies too much, printing it on the unit has little purpose. Marking functions can be ok, but in my experience with Tracker it works fine for multiple burials as it is. (Also, I’m told that the ICAR wants strip width, not range?)

    Sadly, multiple burial features have been a ridiculous distraction from basic beacon issues such as battery life, range, and the buggabear of making sure everyone has them switched on and knows how to use them.

    Frankly, if I hear the phrase “marking functions” one more time regarding beacons, I’m going to start screaming. Though I do feel the need to practice multiple burial situations now and then, no matter which beacon I’m using…


  27. Slim November 9th, 2017 12:58 pm

    Related to backpacks:
    Why do so many people pack their probe in the sack it came in from the store, inside their pack? I see this even with packs that have a dedicated slot for a probe, so it’s not a matter of needing to keep the sections together. These bags typically have a cord lock closure, making it a bit fiddly to remove the probe.
    This was driven home to me watching a GoPro video of a real avalanche rescue today. The slightly panicked rescuer took forever to get his probe out.

    Thinking a bit further, why don’t all ski packs have a dedicated probe sleeve in their safety pocket? (Open pack shown above being an example).

    What are thoughts on external shovel storage? This same video showed the rescuer with his shovel blade clipped in an dedicated external spot, and he mistakenly inserted the shaft first, then had to remove it again to remove the blade from its holder.
    Do you think that there is a secure and fast way to carry a shovel outside? Should BCA keep selling the shovel harness?

  28. Lou Dawson 2 November 9th, 2017 2:35 pm

    Slim, the whole avy rescue scene is a big mess, but it’s not as much of a mess as it was ten years ago, or twenty. I think in another decade we’re going to look silly, but people will know we at least tried and had some success.

    Remember that the vast vast majority of time spent in burial avalanche rescues is with actual shoveling. Perhaps in cases of shallow burial the time taken to fiddle with a shovel might be significant, but in deeper burials it’s not as big a deal. Though everything does of course add up. Personally, I think time taken with doing beacon search and probing, especially probing, are much more important.


  29. Slim November 9th, 2017 4:51 pm

    We’ll, I would say that even though ‘gear assembly’ time is smaller as a percentage of total time in deeper burials, all the more reason to expedite it!

    And how about the specific question then:

    For people who keep their probe in the little stuff sack, what are your reasons?

  30. Lou Dawson 2 November 9th, 2017 5:33 pm

    Rubber band over bundled probe, then just stick it somewhere in my simplistic stripped down rucksack. Works fine, shovel is in there as well. I can grab both things in seconds, assembly is easy.

  31. Jim Milstein November 9th, 2017 10:08 pm

    A further complication: In Colorado the airbags deployed in emergencies would by far be between 9-14K ft above sea level (that’s where the steep snow lies).

    At 10K’ the pressure is only 10.2 psi.
    So 11/15 x 0.53 ft^3 = 0.39 ft^3 = 672 in^3 at 150 psi
    Bump the pressure up to 175 psi and the tank needed gets proportionally smaller. 576 in^3 at 175 psi

    At neutron star density the volume is submicroscopic. That is our ultimate goal.

  32. wtofd November 10th, 2017 7:29 am

    Slim, I used to keep it in the bag with cord lock closure. I did this without thinking. Now, I leave the bag at home and just keep it wrapped in a Voile strap aligned with the shovel handle. Helps provide stability to the pack too. As Lou alludes to: systems are evolving.

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