You No Longer Need An Avalanche Beacon!

That’s right, you no longer need an avalanche beacon to travel in avalanche terrain, there are newer, cooler, shinier options available and even better that some of these options are free and use your Smartphone! I am so lucky to live in an era where technology is making my life more convenient. I no longer need to check my beacon at the beginning of the season, replace batteries, practice beacon searches with my buddies, get to understand how beacon technology works and refresh on basic probe and shovel skills. Thanks to recent advances in technology (or is it the brilliant new video advertisements saturating Twitter, Facebook and other social media?) all my backcountry buddies and I need to do is download an app and un-clutter our minds with those old-fashioned basic skills. Technology Rules!

Then the Canadians had to go and ruin my new state of blissful ignorance, thank you.

On October 24, 2013 the Canadian Avalanche Centre, issued a warning that Apps marketed as transceivers give a false sense of protection (click on the quote to read the bulletin);

We are warning all backcountry users to not use any of these apps in place of an avalanche transceiver.”

There has been a recent growth of Apps that imply they turn your Smartphone into a tool that can find a person buried under an avalanche–this really sounds like it does the work of an avalanche beacon. They are popping up on Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media. I tried to search iTunes for these Apps and to my surprise, I was unable to find anything when searching for “Avalanche Beacon”, “Avi Beacon”, “Avalanche Transceiver” or “Avi Transceiver”. Below is a summary of my observations after reviewing the web sites and video on the 3 Apps mentioned in the Canadian Avalanche Centre bulletin.

A sampling of the Apps:

It should be noted that nordicpatroller has not downloaded any of these Apps. All comments are based solely on review of the App’s web-site or App store discriptive material. Bold type quotes came directly from the sites.

SNOGSnøg Avalanche Buddy Limited

Below are excerpts from the Google Apps Store:

“Snøg is a “missing person tracker” tool. A tool designed to quickly locate and find a victim, buried under an avalanche”. “Get your FREE Snøg Limited Edition now and help us improve this technology!

Why would I want to use a technology that needs to be improved? Hey wait, what needs to be improved? Could this mean that “this technology” may not work in finding me or letting rescuers find me in the event I am caught in an avalanche?

“(By installing and using this app, you agree to the disclaimer, found at www.piranhastuff.nl/snog-disclaimer)

Are we surprised at the small print?

“Snøg Avalanche Buddy does NOT meet the international standards of avalanche beacons (for example European ETSI-EN 300 718-3 family). Snøg Avalanche Buddy is NOT a replacement for an approved avalanche beacon. Beacons that for example meet the European ETSI-EN 300 718-3 family standards have the ETSI status as “lifesavers” and do succeed a broad scale of tests and are subject to various properties according these standards. Snøg Avalanche Buddy does NOT have an ETSI status as “lifesaver” or via another international standard. Snøg Avalanche Buddy is therefore NOT in any case a “lifesaver”. A telephone with Snøg Avalanche Buddy does not meet the same properties and standards of real avalanche beacons. The ETSI organization and almost any other organization that is involved with snow safety (“the avalanche community”) decline any type of device that combine functions like Snøg Avalanche Buddy and a telephone”.

Does the “fine print” state that the Snøg Avalanche Buddy is not a real avalanche beacon?

SnoWhereSnoWhere

In reviewing their web site, it appears the App was tested to depths of only 2 meters, unfortunately there is no mention of how the testing took place. Accuracy for the “best” results is reported at +/-5 meters on the iPhone 4 & 4S and +/-10 meters on the iPhone 3G & 3GS. In my opinion, accuracy of 16.4 to 32.8 feet is unacceptable as an avalanche search tool.

“SnoWhere has a range of 40m and has been tested in depths up to 2m. SnoWhere’s ability to identify your location is dependent on variable GPS accuracy. In our tests, the best GPS accuracy was +/-5m on iPhones 4 & 4S and +/-10m on iPhones 3G & 3GS. Signal strength display helps determine the distance between iPhones with greater accuracy than GPS”.

Who is SnoWhere NOT for? Let’s let SnoWhere tell us;

“If you ride outside the bounds of ski resorts or hike into non-lift served backcountry then SnoWhere is not recommended for you. Riding outside the bounds of controlled ski areas should only be done in the company of professional mountain guides or by avalanche safety-trained, experienced skiers/snowboarders with appropriate safety equipment”.

iSisiSis – Intelligent Rescue System

This is an Android App. The iSis web site provides the below language under the page “The mountain and its dangers – Survival Guide”;

“If you are venturing out onto unsecured terrain, in all cases, you must have a DVA, (Avalanche detector device) a probe and a snow shovel. The probe ensures that digging is not conducted too closely to the casualty. The snow shovel allows subsequent extrication of the casualty. Depending on the quality and quantity of the snow, this stage can be very difficult and tiring. Localisation of avalanche victim training is essential and available in specially provided DVA parks. Probe use and shovelling practice are equally essential and should be conducted regularly. In addition an airbag can avoid burial. It will not avoid trees or rocks. It is equally recommended to equip yourself with RECCO system stickers”.

iSis states a DVA or Avalanche detector device is required. What is a DVA? What is an “Avalanche detector device”? Does it detect avalanches or assist in searching for buried victims?  I used Google’s Advanced Search/this exact word or phrase; “Avalanche detector device” and came up with 7 hits. Just for giggles, I tried a similar Google Advance search but this time the phrase “Avalanche Transceiver” and Google returned 102,000 hits. With Avalanche Beacon, Google returned about 95,400 hits. I have concern with a marketing campaign that does not present a product using standard and accepted industry terminology.

Click here to see a video of the iSis product.

2 minute, 10 second video of a group of 3 skiers at a resort. Two of the three in red jackets with packs, third in grey without a pack. One person turns on his iSis phone App at 0:20 (what about the other 2? No Buddy check?) Avalanche at 0:40 (the one in a red jacket that activates the app). At 0:49, the other red jacket gets an alert on his phone (we never saw him activate his iSis phone App). At 1:08 2 friends (red jacket and grey jacket) are carrying probes & shovels (did they both come from the pack on the red jacket?). 1:18 Digging begins—watch digging technique, digging directly on top of the buried victim, a technique not recommended by any Avalanche educational organization. 1:26, dig-out friend and thumbs-up.

The growth of Backcountry Skiing:

Now for any of you who have a few seasons of experience traveling in the winter backcountry my sarcasm is evident. My concern is not for those who know how to travel safely, but the onslaught of newcomers to winter backcountry adventure sports. Spotlight on backcountry business responsibility at Denver’s Snow Show was published by The Denver Post in February 2013. This brief article discusses the unprecedented growth in the business of backcountry sports and touches on the responsibility of education; for individuals venturing into this new experience as well as the “Business of Backcountry”.

“The sudden growth – backcountry travelers spent $40 million last year on avalanche beacons, probes, shovels and skins despite less-than-ideal skiing conditions – is challenging both the retail and resort industry as more powder-seekers venture beyond boundaries”.

 “More than 60 percent of the $40 million worth of avalanche accessories sold last year was done through the Internet”.

Let’s face it, web-based retail is here to stay. Finding an independent local mountain or ski shop where you can discuss with a professional who actually spends time in the outdoors, gear and its proper use, has become a challenge to most. So where does a newcomer to backcountry skiing turn to learn about safe travel practices?

For the most part, outdoor manufacturers are doing a good job of sounding the trumpets of safety and education. Retailers are right behind them and mountain resorts are sponsoring many types of outreach and education activities to foster safety and education. The industry is doing well and the public is learning—but the net is not catching everyone and unsafe practices are being learned and perpetuated.

“Most of the accidents we see, very simple pieces of information would have helped people,”

What are these very simple pieces of information? Knowledge & Experience.

As a newcomer, how do I set myself on a safe course?

My suggestion is simple, read at home and seek out those with experience. Take classes, hire professional guides, travel with experienced mentors and spend time in the snow. Learn the basics and learn from experience. Practice your craft.

Below is a suggested course of getting started. It is not the end-all list nor will it introduce you to all that you need to know. It will however get you in touch with accepted industry norms and set before you many paths to choose. Paths that will take you to your desired destinations.

  1. Read a few books. #1 is required reading by anyone spending time outdoors, be a weekend hiker or climbing the world highest mountains. #2 & #3 are both outstanding reads and equal in their coverage of the topic.
    1. MOUNTAINEERING: THE FREEDOM OF THE HILLS, 8TH EDITION. “If there is only one ‘how to’ book to read for the aspirant and expert alike, it is Freedom of the Hills. In fact, it is fair to say that Freedom is the definitive guide to mountains and climbing and has influenced pretty much every climber.” — Conrad Anker
    2. STAYING ALIVE IN AVALANCHE TERRAIN, 2ND ED. “The new edition of Bruce Tremper’s seminal book is organized according to the structure of American Avalanche Association classes and all chapters have been updated and reviewed by peer experts”.
    3. THE AVALANCHE HANDBOOK, 3RD EDITION. “This is the text used by search and rescue professionals, ski patrol groups, and outdoor education programs”.
  2. Take an Avalanche I course. Most Avalanche I courses are 8 hours of classroom and 16 hours of field work.
    1. Start with the big North American organizations like American Avalanche Association, AIARE, or the Canadian Avalanche Centre.
    2. Search out local organizations such as your regional National Ski Patrol (many NSP Level I Avalanche courses are open to the general public) or local guide services. Being in Southern California, Nordic Patroller recommends So Cal Snow Avalanche Center for their link to “Getting  Educated“.
  3. Hire a local guide. Backcountry regions in North America (and just about anywhere in the world) have numerous experienced guide services. Many are affiliated with American Mountain Guides Association or the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides. Inquire with your local ski resorts. Many now offer “Backcountry Centers” and have education and rentail programs.
  4. Befriend a Mentor. Seek out and become friends with others who share your desire to spend time in the backcountry. Connect with those more experienced than you are and learn.
  5. Make sound choices. Be aware of what you are doing & the risks involved. Don’t forget that sometimes it may be better to stay home or even turn back if conditions are not right. A change of plans–to a day of bowling?–ensures YOU have the opportunity to return to the mountains another day.

Time to choose an Avalanche Beacon?

choose_the_right_beaconBefore parting with several hundred dollars, take the time to review beaconreviews.com. The reviews are unbiased, informative and quite helpful in deciding which product may work best with how you process information. Remember, the best beacon is the one that you know how to use.

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4 responses to “You No Longer Need An Avalanche Beacon!

  1. Effectively immediately, PIEPS is recalling all PIEPS VECTOR avalanche transceivers due to functional issues that may not be readily apparent to the user. This RECALL affects all PIEPS VECTOR transceivers.

    PIEPS has discovered that the functionality of the VECTOR does not conform to our quality standards and strict requirements for “Premium Alpine Performance”. Safety and reliability have top priority! In order to prevent any risks to users, PIEPS has decided to implement this recall. Please stop using the PIEPS VECTOR immediately.

    This recall applies to the PIEPS VECTOR only. All other PIEPS transceivers are not affected by this recall.

    http://www.pieps.com/en/inhalt/pieps-vector-recall

  2. Thanks for the comment Jim!
    Pieps makes some great transceivers and is one of the top 5 brands out there. It is important to know the model being recalled is really a cross-over device introduced in 2011 that incorporates a GPS device–making a complex piece of electronics even more complex. This may become standard technology in the future, but for now, I will be sticking to a standard avalanche transceiver. Here is a good review of the Vector (pre-recall); http://beaconreviews.com/transceivers/Specs_PiepsVector.asp

  3. Hi Nordicpatrller,

    Great letter!
    My group, within the Canadian Ski Patrol, have been creating a biannual test of all the major Avalanche Transceivers since 1999 and will be publishing a transceiver test paper this year. This will include the isIS App. It will be presented at the International Commission of Alpine Rescue (IKAR) meeting, this year at Lake Tahoe. Then published in the Ski Canada Magazine in November. The past tests are on the Canadian Ski Patrol web site at click ‘English, then ‘Knowledge Base’. There is lots of good backcountry rescue info here.

    stay safe, Doc

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