Does Your Avalanche Transceiver Work? Are You Sure?

I saw something very disturbing on Facebook the other day. I know what you’re thinking—that there’s something disturbing on Facebook every day—but this was disturbing and potentially life threatening. My friend, a backcountry skier, posted that she was advised to send her avalanche transceiver back to the company that made it, to be tested. Her transceiver was pretty old, and even though it seemed to be working when she checked it, she sent it back. Here’s the disturbing part: itwasn’t working—the antenna was completely shot.Cricco_Helitrax_2013-118.jpg

If there’s one piece of equipment that you really need to work properly, especially in the high avalanche danger in the San Juan Mountains in February, it’s your transceiver. Ideally, you don’t ever want to be caught or buried in a snowslide, but if you are, you’d better be wearing an avalanche beacon. And it better be working. I know two people who are only alive today because they were wearing an avalanche transceiver and because their friends were quick enough with a shovel.

The guide that advised my friend to send her beacon back was Angela Hawse. Hawse is sort of a superhero, at least around Telluride. Hawse was the sixth woman in the U.S. to become an IFMGA/AMGA Mountain Guide. She is a heliskiing guide and does snow safety for Telluride Helitrax in the winter, trains and examines guides for the AMGA, and works for Peak Mountain Guides and Exum Mountain Guides. I asked Hawse about avalanche transceivers.

Q: What are some of the issues you can have with an avalanche beacon, especially ones that might not show up during a quick check before you start hiking up?

Hawse: Avalanche beacons/transceivers are fairly fragile pieces of life-saving equipment. Drops and hard knocks can de-tune antennas and compromise accuracy for both transmitting and searching. They should not be left in cold cars overnight. Leaving them in cold cars or outside overnight can cause slight de-tuning of the antennas that are all on a specific 457kHz frequency.  Small deviations from this frequency can compromise their performance.

Recent tests and research have brought to light interference issues with electronic devices and some metals. Phones with data transmission should be carried in Airplane Mode, ideally kept in the pack but a minimum of 8” away from the avalanche beacon. Other devices that cause interference issues that should be avoided are: hand-held radios, any blue-tooth or wireless enabled device such as Go-Pro or other cameras, electrically heated gloves, clothing with magnets, wristwatches with GPS capability, heart-rate monitors and iPods or other music players.

 Q: What sort of routine do you follow with your own beacon Do you have a brand preference?

Hawse: I carry extra batteries in my pack. I don’t ski with someone who does not have a transceiver (e.g. they forgot it at home). I take the batteries out over the non-use periods. Serious issues are known with corrosion and the beacon is likely not functioning as it should, if it even works, with battery corrosion. Lastly, I update the firmware regularly anytime a new version comes out and I send it back to the manufacturer every 3-4 years to have a full diagnostic check.  This is relatively cheap and only takes 2-3 weeks at most, so I make sure to do it well before I need to use it.

My favorite is the Barryvox Pulse.  It’s a good all-around beacon with a lot of user functions that can be personalized. It also has a very good basic function and is intuitive. For multiple burials it works very well. Mostly, this is the beacon I am familiar with and use regularly. The BCA Tracker 2 is probably the easiest to use overall. Original versions of the BCA Tracker should be sent back to BCA to be tested if you are still using them—the location of their antennas is more vulnerable than other beacons. BCA will be happy to test it for you and they have a discounted replacement policy that is very generous. At Telluride Helitrax we are now using the Barryvox Element for our guests, and I think this is an excellent beacon—I would highly recommend it for most folks. It doesn’t have advanced features you can choose from, but the basic function is fast and user friendly.

womens adventure, beacons, snow safety

Angela Hawse, in her element.

Q: How often do you practice with your transceiver? How comfortable should you get with it before you go out?

Hawse: I practice every 3-4 weeks throughout the season and 2-3 times at the start of the season.

Q: What do you carry in your backcountry pack?

Hawse: My pack is an avalanche airbag. Although I don’t like the extra weight, it’s a piece of safety equipment that is proven effective. When I’m guiding I carry quite a lot to be prepared for anything. When on a backcountry tour: Shovel and probe that are easy to assemble and robust. Small first aid kit to deal with trauma. Small repair kit (extra batteries for beacons, Leatherman, zip ties, ski straps, duct tape, wax for skis and skins—and more for longer tours or overnights). Extra gloves or mittens, goggles and sunglasses, puffy, buff, food, H20 and or thermos of ginger tea. Headlamp, map, compass and sometimes a tour plan and/or GPS. Snow safety kit, usually pretty basic (loupe, crystal card, pencil, small notebook for observations).

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