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Beacon Blues

Pro guide and avalanche instructor Karin Pocock outlines the biggest transceiver mistakes and how you can avoid them.

American Avalanche Association pro instructor Karin Pocock leads Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), courses and has worked as an operational avalanche forecaster and ski patrol and guide in Canada and the U.S. since 2006. No surprise then she is also lead backcountry guide at Colorado’s Irwin Guides. She knows all too well that modern technology can be incredibly intuitive, but avalanche beacons are often not. Studying a transceiver manual, truly understanding the functions and honing burial drills are essential for success in the field. To help demystify all that work required to properly use one, here are the most common beacon user errors Pocock has observed and how to fix them.

1. Stay Calm
Take a second, a deep breath, slow down. “The biggest overarching problem is when people rush,” says Pocock. “Natural concern for someone being under the snow, even during practice drills, can cause us to move too fast, skip steps and use poor technique. This complicates the situation.”

2. Know your Beacon
“Not learning how to use the beacon you have is a common bad practice,” says Pocock. “Recently, a friend encountered someone who thought his new transceiver’s audio was broken—then my friend peeled the plastic off the screen. There are too many brands and proprietary technologies to assume they all work the same,” she adds. Do the homework: Read your beacon’s instruction manual.

3. Stay Current
“No one expects their old iPhone 4 to work well, but people will pull out beacons from 10 years ago,” says Pocock. “You need to update your product—whether that’s buying a new unit or sending it to a manufacturer for a diagnostic check. As your beacon ages, it has potential for antenna dysfunction or signal drift. And many modern beacons need updates every one to two years.” Beacon owners can send used transceivers to manufacturers for check-ups (for a fee of about $25-$30), which is recommended every five years.

4. Pace Your Search
Most people struggle with shifting modes during a search, which blocks them from effective beacon rescue. If they move fast the whole time, data from the beacon isn’t as accurate. The biggest piece is to decrease your speed as you get closer to the burial,” she says. Technique is key: First, move fast. Ten meters from a burial, decrease speed. At around three meters, significantly slow down, fix beacon orientation and get low to the ground. “The process exists because of how the beacon is built. We would see better results in beacon searches if we all followed the correct techniques at the right time.”

5. Manage Multiple Burials
“Commonly, only one or two people are buried under the snow in avalanche scenarios. But if more than one person is buried, take pause as you enter the scene. Make a mental map of where you think people are buried: What is the big picture? For instance: The beacon throws arrows 40 meters to the right and 15 meters to the left—one subject is closer to your left,” described Pocock. Stop, digest the data, create a targeted search or “mental map.”

6. Find The Best Beacon For You Choosing the right beacon hinges on which one you interface with the best. “Some people are more visual or auditory while others are distracted with both. What user interface works better for your brain?” says Pocock. Test beacons from friends, instructors and backcountry travelers at beacon burial meet-ups or backcountry skills courses at ski resorts across the country.

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