This post sponsored by our publishing partner Cripple Creek Backcountry.
I’ve been intending to post this up… finally got to it. Info for folks new to avalanche beacons and companion rescue. And fodder for discussion.
Throughout my years of beacon practice drills that involve an actual rescue simulation, one thing has stood out: Involve more than a few people, Mr. Chaos will pay a visit. And a big contributor to the melee will probably be non-victim beacons that remain transmitting (or are accidentally switched to transmit), or have an automatic revert-to-transmit (AR) mode that kicks in at the worst moment. The latter, AR, is what this blog post is about, but we’ll touch on the other issues as well. (Accidental switching is a very real problem.)
Let’s call this the “Third Law of AR.” Definition: In an avalanche beacon search involving more than a handful of experienced and immediate companions, confusion will grow with the number of searchers like an exponentially blooming bacterial soup, often due at least in part to AR, (and perhaps due to poorly designed mode switches that too-easily trip over to transmit mode, not a subject of this post).
A moment with Goog The Great brought me to the Pieps website, and a good list of ideas and concerns about AR. Paraphrased below, with a few extra from me.
1. Pieps is of the opinion that AR is for pros only, apparently it’s disabled by default.
2. The easiest to imagine negative scenario is that of a beacon in search mode being lost during a search. If AR is enabled, on it goes and confusion commences. It’s not far fetched to figure beacons can be lost, or placed aside by under-trained individuals in the heat of battle. (And don’t depend on transceiver leashes, the CE standard requires them to hold up to five kilos, no more.)
3. If the rare event happens and a searcher depending on AR gets buried, spotters outside the avalanche area must wait for the timeout to begin searching. Sometimes eight minutes! (Thus, with the current state of beacons, perhaps it’s best to just keep your fingers on the transmit switch if you do feel under threat, and even then, you’re going to depend on the lanyard to prevent the white cyclone from taking your beacon? Sounds far fetched — typical untested theory of avalanche safety, actually. More, let’s keep in mind it’s rare to do a real-life beacon search under threat of secondary avalanches. Sure, could happen, but so could rockfall, or a lightening strike, or falling aircraft. So, to be clear, I’d simply prefer all beacons physically locked in search mode, and had AR disabled by default.)
4. Rescuers and bystanders, especially those inexperienced, may deliberately set their beacon aside and forget about it.
5. If AR is enabled, it often triggers with a loud and confusing warning signal. Confusion already rules, do you need more?
6. Sinners will sin and everyone is a sinner… it’s not uncommon for skiers to carry their beacon in their backpack, especially when they feel they’re at no risk of slides. Set your backpack down, leave it, invoke AR.
7. Untrained individuals may not even know what the AR warning is. And they’ll definitly not know how to turn it off.
8. Yes Virginia, most beacons have a “marking” or other type of function you can use to cut unwanted signals. Nice when needed, isn’t easy to use for moving, disappearing reappearing signals,takes extra time, and often requires training not everyone has the time or motivation for. More, it’s horribly confusing when you’re homing in on a search, then bam, an AR signal comes in when you think you’ve got things handled.
So, in my opinion, sport a beacon with AR disabled. Enable it if you feel you need it during a specific search, or just keep your finger on the trigger.
From what I could gather, here is the state of AR you’ll get if you buy a new rig in a few representative models. Whatever you buy, check the specs, and be sure AR is default disabled, or easily user disabled. And if you like AR, do dagger eyes my way and enable.
BCA Tracker 3
Disabled by default. If you want AR, you enable it each time you power up. In my view, it sounds like AR in the case of Tracker is something you’d _rarely_ want to enable. (By the way, note the Tracker mode switch does not lock in search mode and is in my opinion easily bumped or otherwise accidentally switched to transmit mode. This is not a unique issue, other brand/models may present that way.)
Here is how BCA specs it out. Again, sounds like something you’d pretty much not want:
“Auto revert mode will make your Tracker3 automatically revert to TR (transmit) mode if the device does not move for one minute — or if there is movement, but the searcher remains in search mode for more than five minutes. An alarm will sound 30 seconds before the unit returns to transmit mode. This can be avoided by pressing the Options button or turning the dial switch before the 30-second warning period has elapsed.”
Same with Barryvox. The following indicates you’d only want AR enabled for truly bad situations. Official word:
“1) The auto-revert needs 50-seconds of motion to stop the timer. This means if the auto-revert is set to 4 minutes, that 3:10 of no motion is the “point of no return,” after which it will revert regardless of motion.
2) Barryvox auto-revert is the default, though it can be disabled in the setup. [Bummer]
3) Auto revert time can be set to either 4 min or 2 min.”
Pieps & Black Diamond
The Pieps and Black Diamond, BT & Powder (and equivalent BD models) have AR disabled by default. It can be enabled via a Bluetooth connection and app. Once enabled, the AR is based on the now ubiquitous time/motion algo. It’s said the Pieps AR acts with a “short switching timeout with a long warning phase.” Sounds like all the more reason to forget it.
(Note regarding Pieps/BD rigs with the slider switch: As with BCA, it’s probably by design that the switch does _not_ lock in search mode, thus allowing you to slide it back to send mode in the event of a secondary avalanche. Thing is, if you handle the beacon roughly it’s theoretically possible to accidentally slide the switch to transmit. Knowing your rig, and training with it, should obviate any possibility of accidental switching, as the slider on current BD/Pieps models is adequately stiff. If you have an older vintage, check your slider switch, I’ve heard of some that move perhaps too easily.)
We recently reviewed that new, sweet, little Evo5. Unfortunately, this guy comes with default AR of eight minutes, no movement. Apparently the time buffer can be increased, or AR disabled — but doing so requires some kind of settings input we could not get clear on. As stated in the review, we’ll revisit that when I get more information. I inferred from the skeletal info on the Arva site that their other rigs are similar. Happy to be corrected. (Again, slider switch does not lock in search mode and slides easily into transmit.)
Whatever beacon you own, do determine its AR flavor, and disable unless you feel an over-arching need. Test AR by setting the beacon on your desk, in receive mode, and see what happens. Then test with the beacon in your pocket, while walking around. Also test the switch, so you’ll at least know how easy it is to accidentally bump from search mode to transmit (again, most move too easily in my opinion).
There you go, beware the Third Law of AR!
(I’m not sure what’s appropriate for institutional situations, such as a guide passing out beacons to day clients. Any guides have a comment? Do you keep auto-revert enabled for all your clients? Disable? Don’t pay attention to it?)
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.