Jim Young, NZMGA Ski Guide and Black Diamond Brand Ambassador, runs through his Winter WOF.
Its been a long hot summer of riding bikes, rock climbing and surfing, now its winter and the call of cold dry snow, bluebird days, and laying skin track is strong.
But before you head off, have you considered that your backcountry equipment needs inspecting to be safe in the hills?
Much like your car needs a WOF, we need to ensure all our equipment is up to scratch to prevent a breakdown and ensure it functions properly in an emergency situation.
This does not have to be a big deal and should only need to happen once a year to keep us safe while enjoying the backcountry. This is my quick guide to gear inspections.
This is a vital piece of life saving equipment and needs to be treated as such. Its either saving you or your buddies right?
Each manufacture has their own instructions for care and maintenance (remember that handy book that you lit the fire with?) and should be followed routinely, but here are some universal care tips for all transceivers.
Battery – Never store your beacon for long term with the battery in place (aka summer). Alkaline batteries can leak when discharged which causes corrosion on the circuitry and create a ‘short’. This is extremely dangerous as the transceiver may fail without warning in the field as changes in temperature or humidity around the device can trigger a failure. If your device allows, you should use high quality lithium batteries as they are less prone to leaking and can last twice the life of traditional alkaline types especially in the cold. Check the manufactures product information.
If your beacon has signs of a leaked battery or corrosion on the terminals it needs to be replaced immediately without question. In rare cases, the manufacturer can replace terminals but leave that for the professionals to decide.
Software and testing With all modern devices each manufacturer regularly updates the software for devices and its very important to keep them up to date. This often improves functionality and corrects and errors that may exist in the programming. To give you an idea, your average device contains enough computer code to fill a small library so it pays to keep it current.
Check online each season with your devices support webpage for the most current software version. Some devices such as the Black Diamond Recon and Guide have Bluetooth functionality so you can update and test your device in 60 seconds from the comfort of your own home.
Testing is part of this process whereby the manufacturer provides a ‘health check’ of your devices antennas in search and receive modes and function checks all features. Very important to do yearly because if your device has a reduced antenna output for example, you may not notice during routine use. This process should provide you with a testing document to show your device is functioning properly, useful for record keeping.
Case Inspect the casing for any damage or wear. Especially around the battery compartment, if the housing has been damaged and the battery become loose, this could be a death sentence in an avalanche.
NOTE: see this link https://beaconreviews.com/manuals.php for a comprehensive list of product manuals for all brands of transceivers. This will contain all device specific information needed.
Probe and Shovel
As basic as these tools are, they are lifesaving pieces of equipment and are critical in an avalanche rescue. Often neglected in your pack they need to be checked to ensure functionality.
Probe: Remove from storage bag / backpack and inspect closely all the ‘U’ bends of the cable while the probe is still bunched up. Its at these ends, where it’s not protected by the probe itself, the cable can rub and fray which causes the probe to fail when deployed. Deploy probe and check locking mechanism functions well. This is another area of failure as the locking tabs can break / bend and prevent the probe from staying assembled.
Shovel: Inspect the attachment between the handle and blade for cracks / damage, clip the hand and blade together and ensure the locking pins are functioning correctly, extend the handle and check the shaft is not bent and the pins all lock together. Inspect the handle to make sure its secure and not damaged. You would hate to find out in a rescue that your shovel doesn’t work!
Skis and bindings
Ideally at the end of each season, we should all de-tension the release setting on our touring and downhill skills to preserve the release values (and our knees!). Set and check your release values based on the manufacture’s specifications. Your release values are a determination of your weight, boot sole length and ski ability, not what your mate reckons it should be.
With “tech” type touring bindings maintenance is key to longevity and safety of the binding. To keep them in good working order they should be stripped down to the individual parts, inspected and greased annually. They all have small moving parts and get an amazing amount of dirt caught in them which effects reliable release and function. Use a high quality semi synthetic, low friction, low temperature grease and make sure to clean each part thoroughly as you go. If you are not game to pull your bindings to bits take them into your local ski touring shop and have them do it for you. It is the ‘oil change’ of ski touring, do it once a season and your gear will thank you for it.
There are a few key things to check to make sure you do not have a day ending problem in the field.
Most important is to check your boot soles for wear. As your toe piece wears away it can dramatically affect how your binding releases especially in traditional downhill binding. An easy way to tell is to fit your boot to the binding and apply lateral force (like if your skiing) to the boot and look for undue play between the binding and boot.
If you have a boot with replaceable soles consider changing them otherwise you might be looking for new boots sooner that you planned.
On touring boots with ‘tech’ type fittings inspect the toe and heal fittings for damage or wear. Fit to ski in touring and downhill mode and check for play, alignment and proper fit. Check your walk mode mechanism for correct function and wear, it’s not much fun to find out your stuck in walk mode at the top of a dreamy powder run let me tell you!
Check the cuff pivot (where the top and bottom of the boot join) for play or misalignment. Not as much of a problem as years past but on touring boots they are consistently moving and can wear or get loose and it’s a day-ender when your boots fall apart on the hill.
I have been caught out by this one a few times. Ideally during the summer months store your skins with the skin savers provided when you brought them. Personally I find them not worth the hassle during winter but for long term storage during warm summer months it pays to use the savers.
This prevents the glue sticking to itself and removing it from the skin surface. The problem this causes is twofold, you have a skin with missing glue (and won’t stick to your skis properly) and the extra glue that’s globbed up can transfer to your ski bases. This is a day wrecker as glue stuck to your skis will act like a very ‘helpful’ set of second skins (that you cannot remove) and makes downhill skiing not much fun at all, trust me on that!
Inspect the glue surface for coverage and test fit to your skis to check glue is still good before you commit to a day touring.
The Human Factor
Lastly let’s not forget ourselves. Much like our ski edges, our skills get rusty over time when not used often. when was the last time you did some beacon practice, did an avalanche course, read the weather forecast?
It’s all very well to have a bunch of nice gear but without the skills and knowledge its worthless. Even as a well-practiced professional I get rusty and need to refresh on things yearly. Invest in your and your friends’ safety and wellbeing in the backcountry and book an avalanche course with a qualified professional guide to endure you know the basics.
Keep sharp during the season with beacon drills with your friends (helps to gamble and put some beers up for the fastest times!) and stay current on best search practices (some online learning will help with that).
Do some probing and digging exercises to see how long it takes you to probe and remove a backpack from 1.5m of snow for example. Often times the these skills are overlooked and are critical to a successful self-party rescue.
Remember that no one is immune from failure or error and even the ‘experts’ make mistakes. It’s about consistently learning, adapting and improving your backcountry habits to have years of safe and enjoyable experiences in the mountains.
Follow me @skilinesnotruns and the @mtcookskiclub for all things backcountry from Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park
See you on the skin track J\