With the arrival of some real snowfall and wintery conditions, the ski conditions have drastically improved. But with the new snow came plenty of avalanches in the backcountry around Crested Butte. If you are just now digging out your winter sticks and brushing the dust off your beacon, here is some recent news and important reminders about avalanche beacons.
John Barkhausen of Prescott College recently published his research about whether electronic devices interfere with avalanche beacons. You’ve probably heard rumors that having your phone turned on could affect your beacon’s performance. John tested this by systematically checking the effective searching range of a beacon and with different electronic devices turned on, such as cell phones, iPods, GPS units, radios, SPOT locators, and digital cameras. The good news is that these devices have very little effect on a sending beacon (i.e. the buried victim’s beacon). The bad news is that a number of electronics significantly reduce the ability of a searching beacon to pick up a signal. IPod’s and cameras were especially bad. However, when a searching beacon is held more than 40 cm away from the various devices tested, interference is essentially gone. This is about arms length away. So the bottom line is hold your beacon away from your body if you have any electronic devices on. It’s probably a good idea to turn off your cell phone and reconsider using a chest-mounted GoPro. If you’re listening to your IPod, then you probably didn’t hear the rumbling collapse that would have warned you of dangerous avalanche conditions in the first place.
Another recent study in Europe showed that novice/average users failed to find the last burial victim in a triple burial scenario in roughly 30% of rescue scenarios. This was attributed to failure of the marking function that most modern beacons are equipped with. While multiple-burial marking functions are a great addition to beacons and can save precious time, it is important to remember that they are not fail proof. The bottom line is that you need to practice backup search strategies too. For more information about these techniques, check out http://beaconreviews.com/transceivers/multipleburials.asp If beacon searches are a foreign skill to you, check out one of the many avalanche classes offered in the valley.
And lastly, some friendly reminders. Don’t use rechargeable batteries or lithium batteries in your beacon; they could cause unexpected loss of power while you’re out in the backcountry. Make sure to change your batteries when they get near 50% power; lower power can reduce effective search ranges. Make beacon checking part of your daily routine, and most importantly, Practice! Practice! Practice!