Sometimes it’s fun being indoctrinated. At least that’s so when the subject is avalanche survival, and when the purveyor is an innovative company that’s been at the forefront of avy gear development for what, about a hundred years? (Truth, Backcountry Access came to the front of the industry with the first truly digital avalanche beacon, Tracker 1 they released 21 years ago in 1997. Yeah, that’s the BCA, whose first product was the Alpine Trekker (“Day Wrecker”) ski touring binding adapter. Check out our old Alpine Trekker Review for historical amusement.
The opportunity was too good to refuse. Spend a day with BCA and a small group of guides, retailers and writers. Location was up high in the Colorado mountains near Loveland Pass. No snow yet, but the vibe of coming winter was strong in the breeze.
I got some history on the Day Wrecker binding adapter. Bruce Edgerly of BCA told me that he and his founding partner, Bruce “Bruno” McGowan, were basically looking for something to go into business with. Bruno had been in Europe trying to use the Secura Fix touring adapter, which never worked well. He and Edge got their heads together and figured they’d make and market (literally) a better mouse trap. Thus BCA was born. After that, the two Bruces got together with electronics wizards and created the world’s first digital avalanche transceiver. That was a big deal, as having a microprocessor in your transceiver enabled directional “flux line” searching that was fast and easy compared to the voodoo we’d been dealing with for decades prior.
And guess what? A few days ago BCA sold their last Alpine Trekker. Which begs the question, who bought it? Drop by and leave a comment, but don’t expect me to go easy on you.
So, a few highlights from our morning of learning the way of B-C-A. Straight away, we all wanted to know if the 2013 sale of their company to Jarden (K2 etc.) has made much difference in the day-to-day. Bruce Edgerly and Steve Christie assured us the main effect was they didn’t have to worry about the bank owning their houses. I asked if that was because K2 owned their homes now. They laughed, but also mentioned that they’d been staring at spreadsheets way more than they used to. Such is life in the corporate, I guess. In my business, my wife stares at the spreadsheets. Then says something like: “Honey, %^&**$$$#*(&*()*()__)^$%^&*/.” I usually stare at ski bindings.
Next up, radio frequency interference. It’s safe to say that probably the majority of people using radio transceivers, including avalanche beacons and cell phones, have little to no idea how they work. Fine, do you have to know how the lithium atoms in your Prius function? On the other hand, any avalanche beacon user should memorize a few simple facts that apply to ALL avalanche transceiver (not just BCA):
1.) Just as the power of your cell phone signals are regulated by the FCC and sometimes too weak, so too your beacon signals can be meager. Result is if other similar radio waves exist near your beacon, and they’re fairly strong compared to your beacon “beeps,” your electronic search can get messed up. This is known as “RFI,” Radio Frequency Interference.
2.) Things like electrically heated gloves and cell phones can indeed produce RFI that messes with your beacon search reception, IF the items are close to your searching beacon. Solution? First, do practice searches with your electric items turned on and close to your beacon. Switch devices on and off while searching, to ascertain problems. Ultimately, in a real life search simply switch any electronics off, or simply store at least arm’s length from your beacon. Helpful techniques: Get in the habit of beacon searching with your arm extended, holding the beacon out from your body. Store RFI emitting electronics in places where they’ll be as far as possible from your beacon if you’re searching.
According to BCA, informal protocol for distancing avalanche beacons from electronic devices: 20 cm spacing at all times, 50 cm during search — and yes, turn off easily accessed devices.
Operative concept: Any normal consumer electronic device farther than about an arm length from you beacon simply is not going to be a problem. Closer, problems are still quite rare.
3.) No avalanche beacon transceiver is immune to RFI — e.g., no beacon is immune to physics! As stated elsewhere but bears repeating, a stronger “beep” signal could be effective in mitigating problems with RFI, but the strength of avalanche beacon signals is regulated by law, so that solution is off the table.
4. NOW THE BIGGIE: If you’re buried, so long as electronic devices (or sheet metal such as Gu packs) are not pressed or otherwise piled against your TRANSMITTING beacon like the beef, cheese and sauerkraut in a ruben sando, you have nothing to worry about. If in doubt, simply put some of these objects near the transmitting beacon in a practice arena. You’ll rarely if ever find a problem. Where RFI challenges is when present NEAR THE SEARCHING BEACON. Why? See brief expo below.
Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) problems are analogous to trying to converse in a noisy party. Guys, you’ve been there. Your shouting in that interesting girl’s ear is the beacon signal. The noise you’re shouting over is the RFI. It is no more technical than that. “Noise floor” is even the technical term. Searching beacon (the girl) has to be able to distinguish “beeps” (your shouting) from the party noise. If she can’t understand you, then you’ve got a challenge. So does a beacon.
(I’ll refrain from jokes about guys beeping at girls, but hey, there is always the comment thread — just be careful not to bring the noise floor up too high.)
Solutions: Shout louder, or get Maria away from the party where you and her can talk. Beep beep. Human yelling volume is limited by genetics (or poor taste). Beacon signal strength is limited by law. So escaping the noise is the solution. CORE CONCEPT here is that avalanche beacon RFI is a problem for the LISTENER, since transmitting beacon “volume” is limited. (Caveat: this concept is why you want fairly fresh batteries in your avy transceiver so it’ll always be transmitting at top strength.
All this begs the question, are there ways the talk/shouting can be limited? In other words, could some sort of frequency blocking or RFI reduce the power of the transmitting avalanche beacon? Perhaps by stacking your camera, phone, Gu packs and shovel blade all on top of your beacon while you’re buried in an avalanche? Worst case, could happen. But pack those items so they’ll stay a good 8 inches or more from your beacon — even during a tumble in a slide — and no way in creation will you end up blocking your signal to the point where you can’t be found.
So, enough of the seemingly endless OH MY GOD MY CELL PHONE IS GOING TO KILL ME avalanche beacon yammering.
Of more importance, what is the current BCA beacon design philosophy pertaining to search? For single victim searches reality has not been rent. As with any other digital beacon, acquire signal, follow the arrows, do a fine search when indicated, probe, dig like there is no tomorrow.
Multiple burial searching, however, continues to be the point of contention in the avalanche beacon industry. Well known international guide Joe Vallone was in attendance, and pointed out that in Europe they continue to get a large number of accidents with multiple burials — perhaps more than ever. With that in mind, he wondered out loud if BCA’s emphasis on simplicity over multiple burial bells-and-whistles might not change a bit — based on new statistics.
Joey got me thinking. Perhaps in Europe, where you might very likely run across seven people buried at once in an avalanche, you’d want a beacon with sophisticated yet easy to use multiple search functions. On the other hand, the fact remains that for the average skier in North America the likelihood of needing to search for more than one, or a pair of buried individuals is highly unlikely.
But wait, does any of that matter? Turns out that with the BCA Tracker 3’s awesome signal sensitivity and fast continuous processing, you can solve some pretty complex multiple burials with a simple modified “strip” search. To do so, you just narrow up your signal acquisition grid search pattern, then each time you key in on a strong signal you ignore everything else and follow the arrows. No buttons, no muss, no fuss. No need to practice using a screen full of voodoo icons (I’ll never forget that weird hourglass in one unit, of which I’ve forgotten the brand-model but well remember the frustration of paging through a tiny booklet looking for what-the-heck-does-that-mean? only to forget the whole process eight weeks later.)
Yes Virginia, BCA Tracker 3 has a few features to help with multiple burials. You can suppress your strongest signal for 60 seconds, or hold the suppression button down and “break squelch” to see every beacon around you in “big picture mode.” Whoopie! Thing is, as demonstrated by BCA and practiced by us willing Coolaid sippers, “button free” searching is viable — for one victim or many.
Whew, I ran on at the keyboard a bit there. I guess I’m excited, having been intimidated way too many times by confusing screen icons and beacon reps telling me I had to practice for hours so I could dig up 16 buried corpses at a time. Otherwise, I was not worthy.
Lastly, a core concept: Survivor accounts and practice sessions show where the real challenge is in beacon design. Can you guess? Durability? Signal strength? Audio feedback? Size? Battery life? Gender friendly colors? Built in cell phone? Anti gravity? Hand warmer feature?
None of the above.
The challenge is in dealing with “rogue signals” from survivors and rescue team members in the debris field. If you’re good, you can work with this using mark/mask features or the signal strength “no button” searching I allude to above. But get one person wandering around inside the search area with her beacon transmitting, and it gets very confusing very quickly for all but the beacon champions. Add several people wandering — the situation quickly becomes a joke.
While distracted by their focus on multiple burial features, as far as I know not one beacon maker has specifically dealt with the problem of rogues. Sure, if you can accost the rogue and be 100% certain about masking his signal (or smash his beacon to pieces with your ice axe), that’s a theoretical solution. But in any good sized avalanche rescue scenario with dazed victims and bystanders wandering around, that ain’t gonna happen. Honestly, I have no idea how electronics wizardry could be created to cope with rogue signals. I’d definitely include this in my wish-list for the next evolution of avalanche beacon tech, along with stronger signals.
So there you go. The future of beacon design is still ripe for improvement. They can get smaller, lighter. Rogue signals can become a non-issue. And gender specific colors could perhaps become the norm.
Shop for BCA products here.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.