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Where you beeping?
All of us beep in the backcountry. Even ice climbers these days have begun carrying avalanche transceivers, so whether or not we’re beeping is no longer the question. Rather, we’ve moved on to where to beep — pocket or harness? The question may not elicit as passionate responses as skin track angles or shoveling techniques, but it has become a topic of debate in some circles … so here we are.
Most of us, for our first couple seasons with a transceiver, just unbox the thing, read the directions, chuck ‘er in the harness and away we go. This is probably the smartest approach, as most manufacturers recommend this.
Many harnesses, like the ones included with the Mammut Barryvox and the Pieps Micro, build in safety features that often go overlooked. For example, we routinely see guests and students wearing their beacons with the digital display screen facing out, or away from the body. This exposes the screen to impacts, which could mean taking a ride or a tumble, then needing one’s transceiver only to discover it’s much less helpful.
The Mammut/Pieps harnesses will not accept the beacon with its screen facing out, so even if the user is unaware of the potential for breakage, the manufacturer’s harness avoids it and builds in safer usage. Many harnesses prevent an accidental switching to search while stashed as well.
These days, with so many high-quality beacons on the market, it’s difficult to know the “ins and outs” of every model. Teaching companion rescue courses, this becomes quickly apparent, as six students could show up with six different beacons. Point being — the safest option is to simply use our beacons the way the manufacturer recommends and call it good.
Who Follows the Rules, Anyway?
But … you anarchistic savages rarely follow the rules anyway!
I’m as guilty as any of you, so I’ve put my high horse out to pasture on this one. The reality is, there are legitimate reasons not to use the chest harness that came with your transceiver.
Add to this, skiers and riders eventually see somebody pocketing a beacon, or purchase ski pants with a “beacon pocket” and then they’re left to decide for themselves. It’s not rocket science, but there are pros and cons to each approach.
“Whether to wear (your transceiver) in your pocket is a personal decision after a fair bit of forethought and doesn’t mean a recreational user should emulate that decision,” says Colin Zacharias.
Zacharias is a full mountain guide (IFMGA/ACMG) with more than 40 winters under his belt working in nearly every capacity as a snow-safety professional. He’s been a lead guide at Canadian Mountain Heli, a technical director for the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) and the American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), a ski examiner for the ACMG and the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), in addition to skiing just about everywhere on the planet that has snow.
He adds, “Depending on the beacon, the leash attachment, the pants, and which side you also wear your radios on, it could be an error in judgement.”
Word to the wise: When it comes to all-things-ski, listening to Colin is a pretty good strategy. That said, lots of us are using pockets, so it’s a conversation worth having.
The case for the pocket carry
Why complicate things, you ask, by stashing your beacon in a pocket?
I first used a beacon pocket after I started guiding. Not because I’d seen anybody else do it, but because the first couple times I’d Kiwi-coiled a rope around my body and had an airbag pack on, the bulk of the trigger, rope coils, and transceiver combined to give me an uncomfortable “guide boob” on my left side. Rocking the transceiver in my beacon pocket solved this.
For some, pocketing the beacon is simply more comfortable.
For anybody skiing in a warm environment — springtime in Colorado, for example — they’ve probably experienced one of those bluebird days where skinning comfortably means stripping down to a base layer … and if we’re stripped to our base layer, that means our harness is exposed. In the event of an avalanche or even violent fall, the likelihood of one’s beacon coming off is pretty high. Pocketing the thing solves this.
“My biggest reasons for preferring the pocket are accessibility and distance from a chest mounted radio,” says Doug Workman, a professional ski guide based in the Tetons and a Mammut consultant.
Recall that transceivers need to be 20cm from any other electronic device when sending and at least 50cm away when searching. Guides and patrollers often have a radio strapped to their chest, which makes carrying the transceiver in a harness problematic.
Mammut’s Dave Furman is also a pocketer: “Maybe someone would flame me for it, but I find this much more convenient, comfortable, and provided you don’t keep any other objects in the pocket, it seems perfectly reasonable to me.”
Some worry about losing one’s pants in an avalanche. To that, Workman says, “I know Manuel Genswein has researched Swiss accidents and was not able to find any cases of pants being removed in avalanches. I know at least one case locally where pants were pulled down to the knees, which to me emphasizes the need for a solid belt.”
Having taught dozens of avalanche courses and practiced with students and friends, I also think running a rescue with a pocket beacon is more efficient. In the event we are coordinating a team search, everyone will take out their beacon, but my experience has been at least several team members will leave their beacon on search, but store the beacon while probing and digging. This is much faster, easier, and secure with a pocket, rather than fumbling with the chest harness.
Why not pocket?
Before we decide to pocket our beacons, though, we need to make sure we’re making a smart, responsible choice.
Colorado guidebook author and die-hard backcountry skier, Fritz Sperry, has been considering drawbacks with the pocket.
“I worry about the increased distance to a skier’s airway, especially if the pants get stripped in an avalanche,” he says. “It worries me, too, that someone might lose their beacon in a fall or avalanche if they use a ‘regular’ pocket. The beacon might also be more prone to an impact there. My pockets collect dirt, too, so exposure to more debris could be an issue.”
I know I’ve certainly had students in courses show up with beacons stashed in a non-dedicated or “regular” pockets. This is an absolute no-no, as Fritz rightly worries that some pockets simply aren’t secure enough. More on what constitutes a secure beacon pocket below.
The distance from the airway thing hasn’t been systematically studied, as far as I know. If a skier’s pants ended up torn down in an avalanche, I could see how this might be an issue, although the situation appears unlikely.
Add to Fritz’s worries the potential for accidental electronic interference (a stashed smartphone in an adjacent pocket, for example) and it highlights the need for a conscious, intelligent method and choice for using a beacon pocket.
Beacon pocket best practices
So, if for some reason you do want to use a beacon pocket, how to do it safely?
Many manufacturers like OR, Arc’teryx, Mammut, and Rab to name a few, build pants with dedicated beacon pockets. This means:
— The pocket is sewn into the pant, not “welded” on the outside.
— It has a zippered, not hook-and-loop (“Velcro’d”), closure.
— There’s a dedicated point, to which one can clip their beacon’s wrist loop or tether.
— The best models use an internal pocket to further secure the transceiver, preventing it from bouncing around and reducing the chances it could sneak out of the pocket in an accident or if the user forgets to zip the pocket.
On top of a dedicated, quality beacon pocket, a safe method requires some discipline from the user. The beacon pocket should be for the beacon and only the beacon. This prevents opening/closing the pocket during the day to retrieve lip balm, a Buff, or those delicious mints when you encounter a desirable skier on the skin track.
As soon as my beacon goes in the pocket, too, my phone has to live above the waist, ideally in a chest pocket on my base layer. Not all my base layers have a pocket, though, so this can be tricky. We simply can’t risk having a smartphone within 20cm in a burial — if it glitches your transceiver in a burial, you are colossally hosed!
Take a minute, too, to study your beacon’s harness. What is it doing for you? The Pieps Micro, for example, has a small light sensor on it that prompts the beacon to switch to search when it comes out of the harness and senses light. The Barryvox case prevents the transceiver from switching to send when in the harness, while also forcing the wearer to keep the screen towards the body.
Backcountry Access’s harnesses, in contrast, are less engineered and require less thought. They’re lighter, less expensive and demand the user remember to stash the transceiver “face in.”
Whatever the case, make sure you are not overlooking a safety feature of the harness. Are you more likely to accidentally switch your beacon back to send during a rescue if you’re not using the harness? I’ve watched this occur repeatedly during courses and most practitioners waste several minutes trying to figure out why they can’t get close to the buried “victim” — nine times out of 10 it’s because their fellow searcher is actually transmitting 2 meters away while trying to probe or dig. It’s chaos!
In short, identify what your harness is and isn’t doing for you, and account for that if you’re using a pocket.
Again, the safest thing to do is use the beacon in the way the manufacturer recommends. Consult your manual, do what they say.
You and I often have reasons to use our gear slightly differently than our manufacturers recommend. We do it climbing, skiing, and plenty of other places in life. Ask yourself, though, am I missing something by eschewing the instructions? For beacons that generally means, electronic interference, protecting the beacon’s screen, battery compartment, and function switch.
If you choose to depart from the manufacturer’s instructions, have a legitimate reason for doing so and do not invite other problems into your life.
Rob Coppolillo is the author of The Ski Guide Manual, an IFMGA mountain guide, AIARE recreational course instructor, and splits his transceiver time between pockets and harnesses.