Sunday, November 27, 2011

Technology and Avalanche Beacons

As a society, we all want to run out and buy the latest and greatest gadgets—but sometimes the fanciest beacon with the most features isn’t right for a particular user. Bruce Tremper.

Recently, I've been inundated (at least it feels that way) by people telling me I should buy the (relatively) new Barryvox Pulse avalanche beacon. I have resisted this pressure; which is actually not that difficult given the almost $500 price tag, and the fact that my current beacon works well, and I can find multiple buried beacons in under 5 minutes.

However, I have been out on numerous occasions now doing various rescue scenarios with at least a dozen people who own the Barryvox Pulse - from novice skiers to CAA Level 1 tail guides, to cat-ski guides - and I have seen enough people having trouble with the Barryvox Pulse to convince me that, as Tremper says, the fanciest beacon with the most features is not necessarily right for a particular user, or, in this case, multiple users of varying levels of expertise.

Here is a short list of the problems I have seen with the Barryvox Pulse:
  1. Multiple people unable to find a single buried beacon in a small area when the beacon is not deeply buried (the simplest scenario there is);
  2. Instances of Barryvox Pulse users walking right past more than one buried beacon (under 30 cm) but not being able to locate any;
  3. One relatively skilled operator unable to mark beacons and move on the next in a series of buried beacons in a timely manner;
  4. Instances of the beacon "seizing up" completely and having to be rebooted;
  5. Multiple instances of users becoming confused by widely swinging direction indicators in simple single burial scenarios such that they have been unable to find the beacon;
  6. Multiple users who choose to use the "group check" function without understanding what the group check does and wrongly supposing it checks all functions of all beacons.

These instances are disturbing as, they suggest to me, that a searcher with a Barryvox Pulse is NOT a reliable searcher in either simple single burial situations or more complex multiple burial situations. In fact, it seems likely to me that Barryvox Pulse users will be worse than other beacon users in multiple burial situations as they are unlikely to have practiced/learnt any other methods (such as micro-grid searches) to resolve multiple burials and are more likely to be reliant on technology.

I am unable to determine whether the beacon is at fault or the searcher. But, at this point it seems to me to be a moot point. I no longer trust the beacon, so I'll no longer trust anyone using one - unless I have documented evidence that a particular user is skilled not only using the special features of the beacon, but also in search strategies (such as the micro-grid) that do not rely on technology.

So, I'll continue to ski cautiously relying on avoidance rather than rescue, expertise over technology, and I'll have an extra $500 in the bank.

 Better to not get caught.  Skier below a size 2.5 in 
Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park

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