Check your avalanche safety equipment

Check your avalanche safety equipment

By Jim Young, NZMGA Ski Guide & Black Diamond Brand Ambassador

Every two years the NZ Mountain Safety Council hosts the Southern Hemisphere Alpine Conference in Christchurch. The event covers three days of training, key speakers, workshops, new gear from wholesalers and the infamous Gala dinner…

This year one of the key note speakers was Manuel Genswien, a Swiss avalanche rescue revolutionary, who imparted his knowledge to a select group of trainers around rescue techniques, equipment and studies. Other key speakers were Ilya Storm from the Canadian Avalanche Association and Kevin Fogolin from Dynamic Avalanche Consulting, both speaking on the topics of avalanche forecasting and public engagement.

There was a good mix of kiwi speakers (including myself for the first time) with a wide range of topics from weather forecasting, Milford road avalanche control, avalanche victim hypothermia management and much more.

Of interest to the wider retail ski industry is some common standards emerging for equipment that should be used when directing a customer towards purchasing avalanche safety equipment. (Note that none of these points are brand specific and can be fulfilled by any manufacturer based on specs.)

Professional industry equipment ideals:
Transceivers
Digital 3-antenna transceiver including a ‘Mark’ function to isolate an individual signal. Note that some beacons have a ‘signal suppression’ function, this is not a true mark function and should be avoided by all users. For high end users (guides, ski patrollers) an ‘alternative search mode’ is also required to fulfill correct multiple burial search technique.

Probes
240cm length MINIMUM! For professional users, 320cm is required to correctly apply Slalom Probing at two search patterns at 150cm and 250cm probe depths. Choosing between carbon and aluminium is user preference but consider diameter closely with regard to breaking strength.

Shovels
It’s been shown that bigger does not equal better in the world of avalanche rescue. Given that your average person is not a high level athlete, expecting them to be able to quickly and efficiently remove snow with a large blade is unrealistic. Rather studies have shown that a person with a smaller shovel blade is able to move snow more quickly and reduce access time to airway in avalanche rescue. More importantly, all shovels should have a two piece telescopic handle to provide better ergonomics for diggers in a rescue.

The other key take home point for consumers is transceiver maintenance, something most people can be guilty of being lax on at least once, myself included. The two key areas to be vigilant on are batteries and firmware.

Batteries The most likely reason a transceiver will fail to transmit a signal on a buried subject is due to battery disconnect. This is commonly caused by faulty terminals effected by leaking batteries.
Always remove batteries at the end of the winter if being stored, never run your batteries below 50% (alkaline batteries are more likely to leak at low voltage) and do not use if you have battery acid on your terminals – send it back to the manufacturer for inspection and repair. No more ‘she’ll be right’ and cleaning with a tooth brush!

Firmware Ideally each winter your transceiver is updated with the latest firmware from your beacon manufacturer and has a function health check. This is not supported enough by most manufacturers in NZ, some are known to charge for this service which creates a barrier for people and it’s not commonly promoted in retail stores. Think of it like changing the oil on your car, it needs to be done regularly to ensure correct function of your transceiver BEFORE you have a problem!

New Black Diamond Transceivers
SHAC 2019 marked the release of the new beacon range from Black Diamond. Both the Guide BT and Recon BT beacons are essentially re-badged PIEPS units which means they come with a good design pedigree.

The Guide BT ticks all the boxes for the high end user including a ‘Scan’ function with the ability to switch the transceiver between 3 closest beacon signals, analogue ‘alterative’ search mode and a ‘pro group check’ mode.

Both the Recon and the Guide contain the ability to be end user tested and updated via Bluetooth and the PIEPS device app (no more excuses for out of date software), ability to use Lithium batteries (must be activated on the PIEPS app BEFORE USING) which fare much better in the cold and have double the lifespan.

This is only a small taste of the many take home points of this year’s SHAC. There was a lot of learning to be had by all, catching up with friends, old and new, and an inaugural, covert, late night Lime scooter race with an unnamed visiting avalanche professional around Latimer Square to round things up for the next 2 years. See you at 2021!