Discover ways to use your avalanche transceiver
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If you’ve spent $ 500 on the fanciest avalanche transceiver but don’t know how to use it, it won’t be of much use to you. In the event of a slide, this little beeper is your lifeline – the only form of communication between you and your potential rescuers when you are separated by layers of snow. Also known as a beacon, a transceiver is just one part of a complete avalanche safety kit that should also contain at least a probe and a shovel.
Another essential part of avalanche safety is education, which we will go into in more detail below. A course by a qualified instructor is the best preparation for excursions into the changeable snow conditions of the backcountry. This article is a basic introduction to using beacons. It is not intended to replace formal avalanche training.
When and how to wear a beacon
If you venture into the backcountry or sidecountry – anywhere that is not groomed or controlled by professionals, even outside the gates of a resort – everyone in your group should wear a transceiver. If you or your ski buddies are buried in an avalanche, the devices send out pulsing radio signals within a certain radius (usually between 40 and 80 meters) and communicate with each other to transmit their position.
Holly Walker, an apprentice ski guide with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides and a former ski patrol at Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort, also carries her device off-road. Though unusual, inbound slides do happen. “Ski patrols work very hard after storms and snowfalls to carry out comprehensive avalanche control, but they cannot control every small piece of micro-terrain in a ski area and predict every danger. I wear the beacon for extra security, ”says Walker. “There is an inherent risk in just being in the mountains. If we have all of these tools, to be sure, why not use them? “
A transceiver comes with a strap that is usually strapped around your waist and over one shoulder. It should be worn under jacket and insulation layers so that you do not have to remove the device when it heats up – and offer the device extra Safety in the event of a slide. “I apply a base coat and then directly apply my transceiver,” says Walker. She uses the Mammut Barryvox S ($ 500), which also measures vital signs like heart rate and chest expansion and contraction – another reason she keeps it close to her body. Always carry your Beacon with your body in view to protect the screen, Walker says.
The only other acceptable place to carry or carry a beacon is in a sewn, beacon-specific pocket. Outdoor Research Skyward II AscentShell Pants (Women’s and Men’s, $ 299) and Helly Hansen Men’s Sogn Cargo Pant ($ 200) are two pairs with these designated pockets, and both have internal loops for you to attach your device to. If you carry your Beacon in your jacket or in an externally sewn bag strap, there is a chance the bag will tear in a slide and you could lose the beacon – which happened during a 2018 incident in British Columbia. Still, Liz Riggs Meder, the Recreational programs director at the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), wearing hers in a harness and advising students to do the same.
Do not carry your Beacon near other devices that emit signals or run on batteries, such as telephones, radios, GPS watches, and electric glove and trunk heaters. If you need them with you, turn them off or put them on airplane mode. Pay attention to the location of snacks with foil packaging, magnets on bags and even season tickets with RFID chips, as they can all lead to passive interference as well. Riggs Meder says you should keep these items in your backpack or in bags on the other side of your body, at least 10 inches from the beacon, to reduce interference.
Choosing a beacon
There are a few things to consider when purchasing a transceiver. Make sure you get a digital model with three antennas; any device with only two is out of date. The third antenna, included in all models currently on the market, provides an additional set of data to more accurately triangulate a buried person. “A modern beacon is the basis for reducing search times as much as possible,” says Riggs Meder.
As long as your device is a current brand, digital and has three antennas, the rest is preference. A few have Bluetooth for software updates and setting tweaks. Something have a way to mark a found person before moving on to another burial if multiple people have been trapped in the slide. Very few use lithium batteries as they tend to lose their life suddenly. “You don’t have to buy the most expensive, top-of-the-line professional equipment,” says Riggs Meder. “The best is one that you can afford to buy new and that you practice with regularly.”
If something goes wrong – for example the beacon in your pocket turns off unexpectedly – contact the manufacturer. If you want to know when to shut down your beacon, read the manual. The recommended time frame is usually around five years. To protect others, don’t resell old transceivers; recycle them. Ortovox is running a retirement exchange program and Backcountry Access is updating old transceivers to create training checkpoints.
The power switch varies from model to model, but when you turn on your transceiver it will likely beep initially and then flash a small LED throughout the day to let you know that it is still transmitting. Whenever you turn on your device at the bottom of the hill, it will start in transmit mode, regardless of which model you are using. It is a good idea to speak to your group before heading out to make sure all devices are turned on and working properly. A beacon check includes evaluating the battery power and switching between search and transmit mode.
Your device’s screen will show the remaining battery life. Both Riggs Meder and Walker are replacing batteries at home before they drop to 50 percent. REI recommends replacing 75 percent. This is important because you want to have adequate battery life for all the time you are in uncontrolled terrain, especially if a search or rescue mission is long. However, as always, check the manufacturer’s information to find out how often the batteries of your respective model should be changed.
Avoid mixing the type (lithium with alkaline or old with new) or brand of batteries used in your device as their voltages can vary, which can cause battery leakage and corrosion. Carry a set of spare parts in your backpack to keep things safe. When the season is over and you stow your Beacon away, it’s a good idea to remove the batteries to prevent corrosion. Even after a particularly wet tour, it is worthwhile to let the battery compartment dry.
get an education
Developing your mountain feeling is a lifelong pursuit and there are many levels of learning. If you are a complete beginner, start with some online resources and books. Avalanche.org, you know before you go, and Avy Savvy from Avalanche Canada all offer a free introduction to avy security. Bruce Tremper’s Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain and Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering books are both full of helpful information.
You’ll also need to work on the basics to stay safe and comfortable while efficiently moving through mountainous terrain. If you don’t have a trusted mentor to show you the ropes, consider signing up for an introductory ski touring course, a few days of guided skiing, or some other training that’s not just limited to snow safety.
Then register for a personal course. A good start, says Riggs Meder, is AIARE’s avalanche rescue course – a type of CPR course for backcountry travelers. “It’s really about getting to grips with the basics,” she says.
Once you know the basics, you can apply your new knowledge in a controlled manner. AIARE offers two levels of industry standard avalanche preparation courses – AIARE 1 and 2 – that teach everything from hazard management and snow patterns to rescue techniques. AIARE 1 is a stand-alone course for beginners in the backcountry who want to start touring, while AIARE 2 is for more experienced travelers who want to deepen their skills.
If you’ve already taken a course and want to brush up on broadcasting and probing on your own, several avalanche safety groups, such as the Utah Avalanche Center, Taos Avalanche Center in New Mexico, and the Summit County Rescue Group in Colorado, may have beacons buried at public training sites for training Practice in model rescue situations.