WildSnow Beacon Reviews Intro and Index
The Axis is a full-featured avalanche beacon from the French company ARVA, which is well-known in Europe yet has never had strong distribution in the U.S., although the Axis and ARVA’s other new models (the 3+ and Link) have a new distribution arrangement in the U.S. for the 2011-12 season. The Axis’s higher-priced Link sibling in “Novice” mode is almost identical to the Axis, so throughout the review I’ll sometimes refer to the Link/Axis for shared elements, although a separate Link review will be available.
Interface and Controls
To switch the Link/Axis to Transmit, press the small red button on the top edge of the housing. How to tell at a glance if the beacon is transmitting? Look for the flashing green light near the top right corner of the housing. This light unfortunately is unable to be seen at all when the Axis is in its neoprene pouch. Furthermore, the pouch and its overlapping flap opening is simply too small for the Axis. Removing the beacon with bulky winter handwear and/or numb fingers could use up some valuable search time. (The Link by contrast ships with a completely different pouch, which is rather stiff, though adequately sized, and with the blinking light clearly visible if the Link is inserted right side-up into the pouch.)
To turn the Link/Axis to Off, press that same small red button again, and then to confirm press a small red triangular button in the center of the front face of the beacon housing. A Group Check function with reduced one-meter range is available upon start-up, as is a configuration menu.
To switch the Link/Axis to Search, simultaneously depress the small red triangular button and then slide down its small black triangular base, all of which is a one-handed operation . . . if that one hand isn’t encased in excessively bulky winter handwear and/or excessively numb. To revert the Link/Axis to Transmit, simultaneously depress that same small red triangular button and then slide up that same small black triangular base, which once again is a one-handed operation with the prior caveats.
Once slid back into Transmit, the black triangular base is supposed to lock back into position so that it can be switched into Search only by depressing the red button and sliding down the black triangular base. However, on one of my two Link/Axis test beacons, the black triangular base consistently would not lock back into Transmit when I slid it back up into place by pressing only on the red button. Instead, I would achieve the locked position only when I additionally pressed upon the black triangular base (instead of just on the red triangular button). Even so, the switch stayed in Transmit, yet then the potential was there to inadvertently bump the beacon back into Search by moving only the black triangular base instead of also depressing the red button as intended.
Another issue with the small red triangular button is that often when I pressed it in Search mode to mark a beacon, while I was doing so I also inadvertently pressed it up ever so slightly, which had the effect of moving the black triangular base out of its locked position. The black base still stayed in Search mode, yet it was no longer locked in place, so a subsequent nudge (which admittedly never happened) would have been able to unintentionally push it back into Transmit mode.
The Link/Axis can also be programmed to automatically revert to Transmit after four or eight minutes in Search after no large motions. Or, while in Search you can select to go into Standby mode by twice pressing the small On/Off switch on the top edge of the beacon housing and then pressing that small red triangular button to confirm. This mode essentially means the Link/Axis will be On but in neither Transmit nor Search mode. If the Link/Axis detects a lack of large movements during four minutes, it will go back into Transmit. The goal is to allow diggers and bystanders to avoid beeping away in Search yet have a way of going into Transmit if buried in a secondary avalanche.
In addition to the previously discussed controls, each lateral edge of the Link/Axis beacon housing also has a button: Up on the right edge and Down on the left edge. Each button has a little raised section on the membrane for a directional arrow, but these are hard to distinguish even with a bare hand indoors, and would be hard to distinguish visually in stormy outdoor conditions. Fortunately the front face of the Link/Axis housing has an up arrow on the right and a down arrow on the left, although the arrows are printed on circular protrusions that at first look like yet another set of controls.
The Axis search interface conveys lots of information on its full-text LCD screen. The top right corner displays “N” as the Axis is essentially behaving like the “Novice” mode on its Link sibling (which also offers an “Expert” mode that is signifies by an “E”). A 180-degree rotating arrow appears in the center, with distance readout below. The second digit displays in a reduced font size when it signifies tenths of a meter (i.e., when below 10 meters). The rotating arrow is replaced by an attention-grabbing “U-Turn” graphic if the distance readout is increasing (instead of decreasing, as it should).
The left side of the screen displays a victim list. The victim currently being searched is filled in, along with a square outline around the symbol. A victim not being searched will appear in outline form (i.e., not solid black). A marked victim will become a flag.
The firmware can be upgraded and currently ships with the 3.00 version.
How It Works: Initial Signal Acquisition > Secondary Search Phase > Final Search Phase
Initial signal acquisition is via a combination of the 180-degree rotating arrow, distance readout, and digitized acoustics. Alternatively, by simultaneously pressing both the Up and Down buttons, the Link/Axis will go into analog acoustics, with sensitivity control and distance readout (upon which the “N” in the top right corner of the screen will be replaced by an “A”).
The directional indicators disappear at 3.0 meters, and the distance readout goes down to a minimum of 0.1 . (Distance shown is not necessarily the actual distance to the victim, as is the case with all beacons.)
How It Works: Multiple Burials
As described previously, the victim list appears on the left side of the screen. Once within three meters (or five meters if so selected via the configuration menu), the small red triangular button in the center of the beacon face can be pressed to mark the beacon. The beacon will then lock onto the next-strongest signal.
How Well It Works: Initial Signal Acquisition > Secondary Search Phase > Final Search Phase
In suboptimal alignment (i.e., the victim’s antenna is perpendicular to the searcher’s direction of travel), the Axis falls short of almost all other three-antenna beacons. How far? In my latest round of range testing, both the Axis and its sibling Link were about six meters shorter in their initial signal acquisition range than any other beacon. Those other beacons had a 17 meter difference in range among them, but still, the Link and Axis felt like outliers.
Once a signal had been acquired, the combination of digital acoustics, rotating arrow, and distance readout was straightforward to follow.
In the final search phase, the third antenna eliminates all nulls and spikes. And the box size (i.e., the area over which the distance indicators are unable to differentiate the remaining distance to the target) is very small (essentially zero).
How Well It Works: Multiple Burials
In a close-proximity three-victim burial, the victim list was usually generated in a reasonably timely manner, though not as fast as some other competing signal separation beacons. The marking/masking feature worked reliably. But the rotating arrow was somewhat erratic (although more accurate than the ARVA Link, which differs in this function from the Axis on account of the more expensive beacon’s internal compass).
This scenario is a tough test for any beacon, since first the beacon has to decide which of three signals to lock onto. Then, once the first beacon is marked, suddenly the beacon has to decide which of the other two remaining signals to lock onto, and one or even both signals are just as equally likely to be behind the searcher as they are in front of him. (This is in contrast to a single-beacon search starting outside the initial signal acquisition range, which typically ends up being far more straightforward.)
In this difficult context, sometimes the Axis would point me off to one side, and then suddenly off to the other. Then once I thought I was following the flux line, the Axis would not correct the arrow sufficiently for a beacon off to my side, and I would then end up following in a much more circular route, or even receive the U-Turn prompt. The end result was generally longer search times than for other beacons (although better than with the Link).
In my new “5-25/5-20 Walk-the-Line Test” (as described more fully in my test notes), the Axis did reasonably well for a beacon that marks/masks so reliably. That is, although the Axis locked onto the Near Target and then the mark/mask function worked instantly (as it should), the subsequent strides and time needed for the signal of the Far Target to be acquired was typically just a few seconds.
Overall: To What Kind of Person Does This Beacon Appeal?
The ARVA Axis definitely appeals to the user who appreciates additional features, especially the user who wants the option of an analog acoustics mode at this reduced price point. Furthermore, the ARVA Axis is barely distinguishable from the “Novice” mode on its more expensive Link sibling, and in turn the Link’s “Novice” mode is very similar to that beacon’s “Expert” mode. (By way of comparison, the ARVA “Axis” > “Link Novice mode” > “Link Expert mode” hierarchy is much more compressed than that for the Barryvox “Element” > “Pulse Basic profile” > “Pulse Advanced profile”.) The Axis shares many features with the similarly priced Element from Barryvox, while both the Axis and Element are direct competitors with the Ortovox 3+ and Pieps DSP Tour, as well as sharing the same newly popular price point with the BCA Tracker 2.
Overall: What Thoughts Go Through My Mind If a Partner Has This Beacon
“My partner should be a whiz at solving a close-proximity multiple burial, although the directional arrow might be somewhat jumpy.”
“My partner should either be aware of the potentially confusing nature of some of the additional available features while also being familiar with the different controls and capable of manipulating them with bulky winter handwear and/or numb fingers (and ditto for even removing the beacon from its excessively tight neoprene pouch).”
“My partner should be prepared to cope with the relatively short initial signal acquisition range in suboptimal burial alignments.”
(WildSnow guest blogger Jonathan Shefftz lives with his wife and daughter in Western Massachusetts where he is a member of the Northfield Mountain and Thunderbolt / Mt Greylock ski patrols. Formerly an NCAA alpine race coach, he has broken free from his prior dependence on mechanized ascension to become far more enamored of self-propelled forms of skiing. He is an AIARE-qualified instructor, NSP avalanche instructor, and contributor to the American Avalanche Association’s The Avalanche Review. When he is not searching out elusive freshies in Southern New England and promoting the NE Rando Race Series, he works as a financial economics consultant.)