Good morning Mike,
Anne is telling me she needs an avalanche beacon for a weeklong backcountry ski trip to Canada. We don’t own any because we retired from sketchy backcountry about the time beacons became ubiquitous. Given that I know she’s only going to have time to use this equipment one week this year, is it better to rent one? Or is this something I should buy, knowing I’ve got an active bunch and that someone might want and use it? I have other questions:
Are all transceivers on the same frequency so no compatibility issues with other systems? Anne’s current travel buddy has Ortovox.
Is it dumb to buy just one—should I buy two and prod my adult children into sharing one with their backcountry partner of the day?
Are there avalanches on slopes in Vermont/NY/NH?
I use and recommend the Pieps DSP Sport.
As you’ll see, this is a significant gear investment. You’ll want to be sure she or someone in your family intends to use it more than once or twice. I don’t know whether you can rent a beacon, and I doubt it because it’s safety gear with potential for human error (thus, insurance liability issues), but it’s worth looking into. Beacons only seem expensive when you’re buying one, not when you’re using it.
I’d never ski in virtually any Western mountains without a reliable beacon, or with anyone who wasn’t wearing a beacon. Only very old beacons have some compatibility issues, as far as I know, not modern beacons. I ski with friends who use different models without any problems. There are a few widely popular and respected models out there, including the Pieps DSP, BCA Tracker, and Ortovox Zoom+. Modern beacons are very user friendly and have similar features, but differ mostly in their user interface, range, and cost. This site has informed reviews that are useful to novices: beaconreviews.com.
Where will she be skiing in Canada? Will she be with people who have training in assessing avalanche hazard? I would assume it’s somewhere that she should have a beacon. Make sure she practices using it before her trip, because you want to be very familiar with it when you’re using it in a stressful situation, like knowing your friend is buried, or two or three friends. New England’s snowpack generally hardens within a day after new snow falls, so avalanches are not as serious a threat there as in the West; but the above-treeline bowls on the bigger peaks, like Washington, do avalanche in winter.
I wouldn’t buy a beacon for my kid’s friend, but I’d insist to my kids that they can’t ever ski or travel in avalanche terrain with anyone who’s not wearing a beacon, or is wearing one but hasn’t practiced using it many times. Nate started backcountry skiing with me when he was 12 and is beginning to learn about assessing avalanche hazard from me. I took a Level 1 course many years ago and a Level 2 course a few winters ago, and I refresh myself by re-reading the best book on the topic (an excellent and much more affordable gift).
Skiing with and learning from experienced friends (or a guide) who have avalanche training is a good way to start learning snow science, which is fascinating and complicated stuff. Having some basic introduction to it helps you understand what you’re being told and shown when you take your first Level 1 course. I’ll make my kids take an avalanche course if they start doing this stuff regularly. Before I took one, I relied on other people to evaluate the safety of a slope, and I’ve since learned it’s better to be one of the people who’s making those decisions. Taking a Level 2 course has enabled me to anticipate snow conditions before I even drive out to the mountains—although I’ll still always evaluate and test conditions every day I’m out there.
See avalanche.org to check daily avalanche forecasts anywhere in the country and find out where to take avalanche courses.
Thanks for this GREAT response. Anne’s had some avalanche assessment training, and her trip buddy is very experienced—he’s working in the outdoor industry in SLC and gets out a lot. She’s saying she needs one NOW because he won’t take her without it. I like him already.
Anne and Ryan are doing a hut-to-hut route somewhere in the general area of Revelstoke, west of Banff.
I don’t mind owning one because I’d like to do more backcountry and agree it’s crazy to be out there without one. Thanks again, and I’ll let you know what we go with.
He seems to have the right priorities. I’ll leave you with one last thought. The new focus in avalanche education these days is on “heuristics,” or decision-making and human error. Instructors are finding that avalanche courses do not necessarily reduce the number of avalanche accidents. Statistics show that experienced people with training have high rates of accidents.
Short story: Knowledge is good, but doesn’t produce the right decisions unless people take what they know and let it inform their decisions, rather than doing what they want to do, which is ski, ride, or snowmobile.
One of the common mistakes is for an inexperienced person to blindingly trust the experienced partner. Listening to that person is good, but ask questions like, “What are you doing and why are you suggesting that?” Tell Anne that being less experienced doesn’t mean she shouldn’t participate in making decisions based on what does or does not feel comfortable for her.
Here’s a series of stories on that subject that make for good reading: powder.com/human-factor/.
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