Early Friday, Black Diamond announced that some BD/Pieps Avalanche Beacons owners should perform safety checks to ensure their products operate correctly. According to Black Diamond’s statement, in question are beacons with “malfunctioning electronic components that may prevent it from switching between SEND and SEARCH modes.” The company asked owners to perform a safety test to determine if their beacon functioned properly. BD did not officially recall any beacons at the time of the statement.
I own a Barryvox S beacon and often keep a few older Ortovox 3+ beacons in my ski duffle if anyone forgets their beacon. I am only familiar with the BD/Pieps beacon line through my readings on WildSnow, or fiddling with my primary partner’s beacon; he uses a Pieps Pro BT. This model was on the list for a mandatory safety inspection. (BD cited nine beacon models, all listed below, in the press release.)
After snagging his beacon, I familiarized myself with the safety check. It was basic, which raises more questions. But first, here’s more on BD’s safety check, which I completed without using the PIEPS phone app.
The Safety Check Directions for the Pieps Pro BT:
“Move the slider lock to the left and the mode slider upwards in the position SEARCH.
1. Make sure the SEARCH symbol (- -) appears on the display
2. Move the slider downwards, until it locks in position SEND
3. Make sure the SEND symbol (X) appears on the display
4. Move the slider lock to the left and the mode slider downwards in the position OFF.
5. Make sure that beacon is turned off.
6. If switching between the modes is not possible, please enter your details below and we will contact you.”
This safety check was simple enough; the mode slider moved to search, send, and off seamlessly. All the appropriate symbols appeared. Test passed for now.
The first and lowest of the hanging-fruit questions that pop up is how do we know the electronics will operate appropriately for the lifetime of the beacon, meaning every day the beacon is in the field? Again, my primary partner uses one of these beacons. I suppose I have skin in the game.
When asked BD’s emailed response was, “A device check is sufficient to confirm whether the unit is affected in the manufacturing process deviation. This does not preclude the need to follow best practice and check your safety device prior to use.”
I’m also curious to know what the hard evidence was that some electronic systems are/were defective and, at the time of the press release, what did the company suspect might be the cause?
“We examined warranted/returned units and identified the electronic component failure, triggering the investigation. The root cause has been narrowed to material handling / assembly anomaly in manufacturing,” stated BD in the same email.
I don’t run a multi-million dollar company. Still, I know in terms of the outdoor community and peoples’ safety, it’s best to get in front of any controversy with 100% transparency. Most companies, and some people, rely on sassy branding. But the underpinnings of any good branding are reliable products. What makes companies like BD viable is consumer trust.
I’ll back up a bit. I’ve owned plenty of solid and cherished pieces from Chouinard Equipment (and from BD for that matter). Chouinard Equipment made a hard pivot after several lawsuits involving harnesses and eventually became the Salt Lake-based employee-owned Black Diamond Equipment many of us relied on for climbing and skiing goods. (For some great backstory on the first CEO of BD, Peter Metcalf, listen to this Enormocast episode. It’s solid.)
I switched from rigid stem Friends to original BD Camelots in, I think, 94′. Two or three of those well-cared for cams are still in the rotation when tripling up on sizes. But we’ve mostly upgraded. On his first trip to Yosemite during a crash course in cracks, my son took a sizable whip on one of those old Camelots. It held. Which is to say, I trust their stuff. I love that kid.
BD eventually sold to the Clarus Corporation in 2010 for a reported $90million. Clarus is currently a SLC-based publicly traded company, and it also owns PIEPS, which is based in Austria.
For those of you keen on following the backcountry scene, this is all déjà vu. Black Diamond and PIEPS have been here before. And recently.
10/20/20: WildSnow reports on social media posts regarding potentially flawed lock mechanisms on Pieps DSP Pro and DSP Sport beacons.
3/4/21: WildSnow reports on BD/PIEPS voluntary recall in Europe.
4/12/21: BD releases a statement titled “Black Diamond Recalls Pieps DSP Avalanche Transceivers Due to Risk of Loss of Emergency Communications.”
4/13/21: WildSnow reports on the details of the North American recall.
Noting the timeline above, it took many months for BD/PIEPS to lick some of their self-inflicted wounds. So if this is déjà vu for the backcountry community, it’s undoubtedly déjà vu for BD/PIEPS. The fury on social media over the first 24 hours of the press release cuts. The memes burn too. This is safety gear, after all. We’re now 72 hours into this, and the demand for recalls, refunds, and BD/PIEPS’ move away from beacon manufacturing altogether is playing out.
Noah Howell, a former BD pro athlete, posted this Instagram regarding his experience with past BD efforts to mitigate beacon problems.
I can imagine way back in time, maybe at the dawn of semi-intelligence, someone uttered their version of this: “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
Jason Albert comes to WildSnow from Bend, Oregon. After growing up on the East Coast, he migrated from Montana to Colorado and settled in Oregon. Simple pleasures are quiet and long days touring. His gray hair might stem from his first Grand Traverse in 2000 when rented leather boots and 210cm skis were not the speed weapons he had hoped for. Jason survived the transition from free-heel kool-aid drinker to faster and lighter (think AT), and safer, are better.