“On at the car, off at the bar,” is a simple mantra to remember when it comes to using your avalanche beacon, but the pre-tour beacon check often is done improperly and, in many cases, it is not done at all. Thankfully, most backcountry travelers know they should have a beacon, shovel and a probe before heading out. Unfortunately, just owning and carrying rescue equipment doesn’t mean you will be ready in the event there is a rescue scenario. Rescue and safety conversations can quickly fall into the buzzkill category. At the risk of sounding like the hall monitor telling you to stop running, having a solid understanding of avalanche rescue protocol and doing a regular check of your rescue equipment are important steps to being a backcountry skier.
Avalanche educators talk about “the human factor” and how our egos and interactions play a significant role in our decision making while traveling in the backcountry. Adding a pre-tour beacon check and rescue equipment check to your ritual is an easy way to assess the functionality of everyone’s rescue equipment prior to setting out. Taking the time to address safety needs takes helps guard against the negative effects of the “human factor” by setting the tone of positive group communication. With regular practice, your group will be able to buzz through this check process in as much time as it takes to put your skins on.
It should go without saying, but the best way to avoid a rescue scenario is by building the necessary knowledge to avoid avalanches all together. Take an avalanche course from a local professional and develop the necessary toolbox for safe backcountry travel. As far as rescue goes, mountaineering experience and rescue experience do not necessarily go together. Regardless of your mountain experience, you need to take time each year to practice your beacon and rescue skills. Even if you and your group are making good decisions to avoid a rescue scenario, you never know when you might be called on to help with a rescue. The best partners will have an understanding of equipment and be comfortable with the necessary rescue skills.
Even a novice backcountry traveler knows how important it is to carry a beacon, probe and a shovel, but not all pieces of equipment are created equal, and technology is always evolving. Each year it is a good idea to take a look at your current equipment while doing a little research, either at your local backcountry retailer or online, to see if it might be time to upgrade any pieces of your rescue kit. Regular checks of your equipment can also indicate if there has been any excessive wear or damage to your rescue gear; a quick check will save you the headache of finding out at the trailhead that your kids broke your probe by using it as a javelin in the backyard over the summer. It is also good practice to keep your rescue equipment as rescue equipment. Admittedly, an avalanche shovel is the perfect size for kids playing in the snow, and it is great to keep in your car in the event someone gets stuck, but we want our rescue equipment to stay in tiptop shape, so use retired shovels for everything else.
When choosing a shovel and a probe, there are a number of options available and a few key parameters to keep in mind. Because we will be carrying this equipment with us, the first reaction for many people is to choose the lightest and smallest equipment possible. Unfortunately, lightweight materials and design don’t always stack up against rock hard avalanche debris. Focus on a lighter pair of boots or skis instead of skimping on a saving a few grams for a flimsy shovel or probe; your partners will thank you for carrying quality rescue equipment.
For a probe, you should carry one with a minimum of 220 centimeters of length. While a longer probe is not a bad thing, probes over 300 centimeters long are usually reserved for professional rescuers and special circumstances. Most reliable probes break down easily and are made from a lightweight aluminum. Really do your research if you are looking to buy an ultra-light, carbon probe. These probes are great if you are showing off your pack weight to your partner, but your partner will not be that impressed if your carbon probe has a greater likelihood of deflecting and breaking during a rescue.
Do your research to make sure the carbon probe comes from a trusted manufacturer and has been effectively tested for avalanche rescue. Understanding how your probe assembles is key, and having a probe that comes together quickly and locks into place solidly is critical. Also, it is important to find a probe that is easy to operate with gloves or mittens. Finally, having easy to read centimeter markings is very nice when checking snow depth and the distance of layers within the snowpack. Our recommended probe is the ORTOVOX 240 PFA, as pictured.
As for the shovel, you want to avoid plastic or carbon-built shovels. They are lightweight, but they do not stand up to avalanche debris. If you have one of these, stick it in the back seat of your truck or let your kids build a kicker with it. A rigid, aluminum shovel with a minimal number of welds is important. Choose a shovel with a good-sized blade and one that can be easily and quickly assembled. Additional features include extending handles and options for a “hoe” mode, which can greatly improve efficiency while digging. As with assembling the probe, it is a good idea to make sure to test the functionality while wearing gloves or mittens. Our recommended shovel is the ORTOVOX Kodiak, as pictured.
Of the essential rescue equipment one should carry, choosing a beacon/transceiver can seem like the most complex of the three. The technology and functionality of the beacons on the market can all be a little different and sometimes confusing, but the ultimate goal of all beacons is to transmit a signal and detect a signal in the event an individual is buried. In addition to understanding the different beacon technologies, purchasing a new beacon is usually one of the larger ticket items a backcountry user will make, and many people try to skimp and save money on a beacon. The bottom line is to spend the money necessary for a quality beacon; a beacon is designed to improve the chances of saving your life or the life of the individual you are searching for. If you are not willing to spend money on a quality beacon, then you should choose a different activity.
The second consideration is the age of your current beacon and/or the age of a beacon you are about to purchase. Analog 2.275 kHz single antenna avalanche transceivers have been sold since the early 70s, and while we are thankful for this technology, if you have an analog single antenna beacon, it should be donated to your local backcountry museum.
There is a ton of information on the different technologies and functionality of beacons that are currently on the market. Do your own research on what works best for you and your budget. At the bare minimum you should have a digital beacon with a minimum of two antennas, and it is preferred to have three antennas operating on frequency 457 kHz. With these basic features, beacons will provide sound indicators matches, a distance read-out while searching, and battery life indication.
There are many excellent resources available, but www.beaconreviews.com provides comprehensive reviews that include a detailed look at the different beacons and beacon technology available. Take the purchase of your beacon seriously, and if your beacon is five years old or more, it is time to consider purchasing a new one. Once you purchase a new beacon, take the time to learn how it works by practicing with it. Our recommended beacon is the ORTOVOX 3+ Transceiver, as pictured.
Now that we understand the necessary equipment, let’s review a proper safety equipment check at home before we head out. Once done a few times, this quick yet efficient check will ensure everyone has the properly functioning equipment prior to heading into the mountains.
Developing a pre-tour ritual in the parking lot is a great way to establish good communication and make sure everyone is ready to go with necessary and functioning equipment. Here is a basic outline to help you and your group establish a routine that you can complete every time you're at the trailhead.
Once practiced this is a very efficient way to check to make sure everyone’s beacons are functioning properly in both transmit and search modes. It also ensures that everyone knows how to turn their beacons to the different modes. Establishing a check protocol doesn’t have to be laborious or kill the energy of getting into the mountains. Checking your rescue equipment regularly will ensure everyone is on the same page, and it will only add to the backcountry experience.
Since the company was founded in 1980 in the south of Munich, ORTOVOX has stood for the highest possible protection during alpine activities. As pioneers in the avalanche safety field, we have played a key role in the development of emergency equipment for the mountains. Innovations such as the double-frequency avalanche transceiver and Smart Antenna Technology, and also targeted training measures, continue to be valuable contributions to making mountain sports a little bit safer and to saving lives.