Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
A few years ago, in the halcyon days of the first digital/directional avalanche victim locating beacons, common wisdom said they’d soon be “point and shoot.” Dreaming was fun — but reality was different (Bill Gates, are you listening?).
While in ideal circumstances you can easily follow the arrows on a digital beacon and locate a buried person in minutes, what happens during a real accident while backcountry skiing is frequently another matter. With all but the smallest avalanches, the device’s limited range requires a careful search pattern designed to acquire a signal without missing it, and once you get close you should switch to a non-intuitive search method known as “bracketing.” Also, don’t get more than one person buried at a time, as searching for multiple beacons requires even more practice (by “practice” I don’t mean throwing a couple of beacons out in the yard then playing hide-and-seek, but rather setting up complex scenarios with beacons buried more than a few feet deep). And in the end, even though you’re holding an expensive and complex electronic device in your hands, you’re relegated to jamming a probe pole down in the snow to get a pinpoint location.
Yes, we (sort of) have the technology. But do we have the skills to use it? And since even the best beacon search still stands a good chance of finding a dead body, are we taking enough care with accident prevention? BCA’s new DVD “Tracker 101: Mastering your Digital Transceiver” is an excellent effort toward improvement in beacon technique, and includes a fair amount of safety and prevention info.
The DVD is organized in six parts, with the meat being an eighteen minute “Single Victim Search Tutorial” (with emphasis on BCA’s Tracker product, but applicable to all digital beacons). Also included is an explanation of electromagnetic flux lines, a 2-part treatise on multiple burials, and a preview of Teton Gravity Research’s latest ski flick (TGR helped produce the vid).
I was impressed by the concise and well produced basic tutorial, done by filming TGR’s “head guide” Jim Conway giving a lecture and demonstration. It’s obvious that Conway has taught this many times — he does a great job. His tip about when to turn beacon on and off was excellent: “put-it-on-turn-it-on, take-it-off-turn-it-off.” (How many times have you been a couple of hours into a backcountry skiing adventure and heard someone say “should I turn my beacon on now?” — even though they’d gone to the trouble of strapping the thing on soon after breakfast.)
Downsides? As the demonstrations on this DVD show, the best digital avalanche rescue transceivers are still not “point and shoot,” but instead require specialized knowledge and a number of different techniques for reliable and effective searching.
Including an “Electromagnetic…” segment on the DVD is a case in point, as is the continued trend of calling these things complicated names such as “digital transceiver.” By definition, good technology shouldn’t require the user to learn electrical engineering, and names should be simple, (e.g., “avalanche beacon”), so I’d say avalanche beacons still have vast room for improvement. (Sure, you can operate a beacon without knowing about flux lines, but you’ll be better at it if you do.) Also, along with all the shots of hot skiers and tumbling avalanches, the DVD should have had some grim rescue shots to bring it all into perspective.
This excellent effort receives a two-thumbs-up from Wildsnow world headquarters. If you’re a newbie it will get you lined up on proper technique, while seasoned vets can use this DVD tutorial as a reminder of just how important it is to stay on top of their game.
(2015 update: We’re not sure if this is still available, to check contact Backcountry Access.