Avalanche 102: Beacon tests
by Adam Riser
The deafening roar of the avalanche rolling down the slope sounds like a freight train charging through the snow-covered wilderness. It's been a great day of skiing: bluebird sky, cool temps, and knee-deep freshies at every turn, but you aren't thinking about any of that right now. All you want is to make it out of this slide alive. You tumble down the slope, fighting to stay on top while your skis and poles are ripped away. All that's left is you, your pack, and a few thousand pounds of moving snow that's beginning to slow down and settle around you. When everything comes to a rest, you find yourself with only your left leg buried, but it still takes over a minute to dig it out of the concrete-hard debris. You stand up and scan the slope for your two friends, but all you see is an 80-yard-long slide path, dotted with pieces of lost gear: a ski, goggles, two bent poles, and a glove. You see no wide-eyed friends and hear no cries for help, so you pull out your beacon and switch it to ‘search'. The next half hour will likely be one of the most stressful, scary, depressing, and hopeless-feeling times in your entire life. If you have practiced regularly and have the right gear, it will hopefully end with a "we almost bought the farm" story. If not, it may end in a funeral.
The raw data for avalanches are staggering: About 150 people worldwide die in avalanches each year. The United States has seen 13 deaths this season alone, and the season's not even close to being over. Around 15% of avalanche deaths occur from trauma during the slide while the remaining 85% die from suffocation because they were not found fast enough. If someone lives through the initial slide and is found in the first 15 minutes, chances of survival are around 90%. After 20 minutes the survival rate drops quickly; only 35% survive if the search takes over a half hour. Live burial tests have shown the Black Diamond Avalung II can increase survival time to about an hour, and real-world victims have used it to survive as long as 45 minutes. Black Diamond is also integrating the Avalung into packs which will be available soon. Despite its compact size, regrettably few people use this device. Even if you ski with an Avalung, you need to be very proficient with a beacon. The right combination of technology, training, practice, and a calm head helps you recover your friends faster, greatly increasing the chances that you'll all be throwing back a few in the pub at the end of the day.
The Voice of Experience: Two of our testers are very experienced with avalanche beacons and rescue procedures. One was a guide and the other an avalanche instructor. Each practices beacon searches on a regular basis and spends several days evaluating snow conditions in the backcountry. These guys know enough to actually use the fancy features on each beacon.
The Greenhorn: Our third searcher had never touched an avalanche beacon before the day of the test. We showed him each beacon's basic functions, and told him to follow the arrows and numbers. He walked around until the numbers on the display got really small, then he would begin probing randomly. He also got his car stuck in the parking lot.
The Greenhorn tester (identity concealed to protect the innocent)
Wet, heavy, waist-deep snow and poor visibility made our testing process miserable—though it was perfect for practicing our avalanche skills. We performed a series of tests on each beacon to determine its maximum reception distance, single- and multiple-victim search functionality, and general usability. Because of the amount of variables and human errors that occur in a search, we will not provide the exact times of each search. This test is not designed to show you which is the fastest searching beacon. It is designed to highlight the good and bad points of each beacon and to help you buy the most important piece of backcountry gear you carry. Do not use this article for information on how to perform a search. This is not the place to relay information on how to cover a large grid, or carry out a fine search to pinpoint the victim when you're within a few meters of their signal. The three testers conducted the searches with all five beacons. The ‘victims' were beacons buried in 40L backpacks under three to four feet of snow. Time was started with the beacon in search mode and receiving a signal. Time was stopped when the searcher successfully probed the backpack.
In a world where everyone exaggerates the ability of their product, we were surprised to find the reception distance for each of these beacons to be within a meter or so of their advertised ability. In the couple cases where there was a very small discrepancy, our tests actually showed a greater range than published. The ranges listed below are numbers published by the manufacturers.
In single-burial searches, all of the beacons performed very similarly. Times ranged from around 50 seconds to about 2 minutes for individual searches and averaged about 1.5min after several searches were done with the same beacon. It's important to keep in mind that this time did not include all the other tasks necessary for recovery: turning off other's beacons, finding a signal, digging, etc. Average time for a single-burial recovery in real-world cases is a depressingly slow 20 minutes.
Now where do I go?
This is where the differences between beacons really showed. Digital beacons have become the norm because of their easy-to-read distance and direction displays. Analog functions remain very helpful for advanced users (especially in multiple-burial searches), and some of the beacons combine digital and analog to get the best of both functions. This was also where the difference between skill and luck became evident. Experienced searchers used a regimented method for locating two separate signals. This created consistent times that hovered just under five minutes for two-beacon searches. The beginner just walked to one signal, probed it, and started walking downhill until he found the other. If he was lucky enough to have another signal downhill, the search time was very fast. When the other beacon was to the side instead of down the slide path, it tended to be missed completely, and search times climbed through the roof. In a couple cases, it took over 20 minutes to find the second beacon.
Mammut Barryvox – 4 out of 5 Goats
Voice of Experience: "The Barryvox was a joy to use. The ability to switch between digital and analog
was great for multiple burials."
The Greenhorn: "This thing beeped and had numbers and arrows flashing on the screen. I just followed them and was usually in the right place when they got really small."
This is the smallest and lightest beacon currently available, and everyone liked it. The Barryvox is a digital/analog beacon with several programmable features for users who have enough experience to use them correctly. Times for all searches fell right into the norm, and the Barryvox was found to be relatively easy to use by everyone.
Range: Digital 40m, Analog 60m
Single Victim: 4 Goats. Both experienced and beginning searchers found this beacon a little jumpy if you move too fast in the fine search. It really forces you to slow down and take your time to get accurate readings, but it works very well when you do.
Two Victims: 4 Goats. The Barryvox has an icon to let you know it's receiving more than one signal, and it locks on the strongest. It can be switched over to analog mode with the push of a button; a welcome feature for more-experienced users. The first-time user tended to do pretty well with this beacon, but it's hard to say how much luck played a role.
Features and usability: 4 Goats. Programmable features on this beacon allow experienced users to fine tune its functions to their taste. Out of the box it's set up on all-digital mode, which is best if you are heading out for the first time, but those with experience liked to switch back and forth between digital and analog. It has a ‘revert to send' mode which starts transmitting again if you do not interact with it for a specified time (programmable to 4 or 8 minutes). This allows others to find you if you're caught in a secondary avalanche while searching. Among the programmable features is the distance within which the direction arrows disappear. We strongly recommend setting it to 3 meters, as the 0.3-meter setting tended to be confusing in fine search.
Ortovox X1 – 3 out of 5 Goats
Voice of Experience: "This beacon was a little confusing. It's like doing an analog search with numbers
instead of sound. We got used to it eventually, but why not just use our old standby analog beacon?"
The Greenhorn: "Where do I go? There's just numbers. Wait, they're getting smaller. Oh, now I see some arrows, I'll follow them. Okay, I found the first guy. Now what the heck do I do?"
Technically, this is a digital/analog beacon, but we initially found the way it conveyed information to be a bit confusing. At the beginning of a search, it gives you distance information with a number display and tone, but it has no volume adjustment. Once you're within a relatively small distance of 10 meters, the X1 provides a direction indicator. Other than the short range of digital function, the X1 was pretty easy to use for all searchers.
Range: Digital 10m, Analog 60m
Single Victim: 3 Goats. Though times were average, all testers found the short digital range of 10m to be annoyingly small. Numbers accompany a non-adjustable analog tone, so you watch them count down instead of listening to beeps. The lack of direction reduced some of the advantages that digital beacons have over analog ones, but those who have used analog before got used to it and adjusted their search methods. In fine search mode, we also found the final grid box to be larger than with other beacons. The transmitter was still in the middle, but it was a little disheartening, none the less.
Two Victims: 3 Goats. Again, times were in the norm, and we actually found that the no-direction feature was not as hindering as we expected when we moved onto the second victim. Perhaps it was because the experienced users tended to ignore direction information when looking for another signal anyway. The first-timer routinely produced surprisingly fast times with two victims, though his inability to say why suggests beginner's luck.
Features and usability: 2 Goats. The X1 is pretty bare bones as far as digital beacons go. It has no programmable features and no multiple-burial functions other than the fact that you'll hear two beeps if there are two signals. As with most digital beacons, it locks onto the strongest signal when you search. Though it is technically an analog beacon as well, there is no volume adjustment, so you have to read numbers instead of reacting to the volume of beacon.
Life-Link Arva ADvanced – 4 out of 5 Goats
Voice of Experience: "This beacon's ability to switch back and forth between digital and analog functions
was really nice on multiple burials. It was easy to use, but the return-to-send switch always got clogged
The Greenhorn: "This thing is just like those Star Trek radio things, except way bigger and with numbers and sounds. Whenever I followed the arrows, the numbers got smaller and I ended up on top of the buried beacon. It was easy."
All searchers found this beacon to be pretty easy to operate, and it had some nice features for educated users. However, none of us found it to stand out in any category. The ability to change from digital to analog and back during a multiple-burial search was definitely a plus for experienced searchers.
Range: Digital 40m, Analog 60m
Single Victim: 4 Goats. Basic search was pretty straight forward with this beacon, and the times for the first-timer fell in line with those for more advanced searchers. The 40-meter digital range got us on track quickly, and fine search time was about the same as with other digital beacons.
Two Victims: 4 Goats. When the Arva ADvanced receives two signals, it gives you a small icon to let you know, and it locks onto the stronger one. The beginner fell into the same routine of sometimes lucky, sometimes not. More-experienced users found the ability to revert to analog mode great for multiple burials, especially if they were close together. The analog mode provides distance estimation in addition to the adjustable audio signal. This combination was well liked.
Features and usability: 4 Goats. The two key features on this beacon are the digital/analog switch and the multiple-burial icon. Both were well received by experienced users and ignored by the beginner. If you're trapped by a secondary avalanche while searching, the Arva ADvanced has an easy-to-push switch on top that you just slap down to send it back to transmit mode. However, on the heavy-snow day that we experienced, this switch often got clogged and became useless. We also found that you cannot read the screen if you're wearing polarized sunglasses, but since most goggles are not polarized this should not be a problem.
Backcountry Access Tracker DTS – 3 out of 5 Goats
Voice of Experience: "This is the beacon that I would hand to a first timer who was going with me and say 'if something happens, do what this thing tells you to.' However, I am not super psyched to get one for myself."
The Greenhorn: "Finding one victim was really easy, but it was pretty confusing with two of those beep things happening."
Backcountry Access pitches this beacon as the easiest to use, and we would have to agree—as long as there is only one victim. The Tracker DTS turned out super-fast times for single burials and regrettably slow times when more beacons were buried. If you're a first timer and usually ski with one other person, this would suit you well.
Single Victim: 4 Goats. The Tracker DTS scored some of the fastest times in single-burial searches. Its display is very straight forward and easy to understand. The beginner was usually within a few seconds of experienced searchers' times.
Two Victims: 2 Goats. While this beacon was great for single burials, it was the least liked when there was more then one signal coming from the snow. Its multiple-burial function is used by standing above the first victim, selecting the 'advanced mode,' which ignores all signals not coming from the front of the receiver, and turning slowly until you get another reading. Those who were really good at large grid searches often found this feature to be slower than just doing the basic search they've always practiced. The beginner found it to be a sometimes-works, sometimes-doesn't issue. This, of course, could be overcome with more practice.
Features and usability: 2 Goats. It was the simplicity of this all-digital beacon that put a smile on our faces, not the fancy gizmos. Except for the search-in-front-only button used for multiple burials, the Tracker DTS was pretty plain. Its plainness, however, was found to be its strong point when it came to inexperienced users.
Pieps DSP – 5 out of 5 Goats
Voice of Experience: "The three-antenna system will take over the market in a couple years.
Mark my words. This thing was so easy to use that even the Greenhorn was doing well."
The Greenhorn: "I followed the arrows until the numbers got really small, then I pushed the flag button thingy and it pointed me to the next victim. It was really easy."
We were all blown away by this beacon's speed, efficiency, and consistency. It was without a doubt our favorite. This is the first three-antenna beacon to hit the market, and the new technology impressed us greatly. Though its single-burial functions were pretty standard, comparing this to other beacons in multiple-burial searches was like racing a Ferrari against a Pinto. The Pieps DSP has an initial scan feature to let you know exactly how many people are in the ground and how far away they are, but it was the capability to mark a found victim (and eliminate the interference from the signal) that made us grin ear to ear.
Single Victim: 4 Goats. The Pieps DSP was definitely among the fastest in the group, but it wasn't blowing the competition away for single-burial searches. Both the experienced and beginning searchers found it easy to read and understand.
Two Victims: 5 Goats. When more than one beacon was under the snow, this beacon was leaps and bounds better than the rest. Times were almost always faster than other beacons, often by several minutes. The key to these super-fast searches was the marking feature which stops receiving a signal once that victim is found, so you can move onto the next victim without interference. This completely eliminated the large grid search, and also assured that the beginning searcher found a second signal even if it wasn't down slope from the first.
Features and usability: 5 Goats. Before you even begin your primary search with this beacon, hit the question-mark button to get a layout of the scene. The display then shows you how many victims are buried within 5, 20, and 50 meters. Now that you know how far away everyone is, the Pieps DSP locks onto the closest signal. When the victim is located, press the flag button to cancel it out, and this beacon automatically hones in on the next signal. It's that easy. If you're caught in a secondary avalanche, slapping the search button down reverts it to transmit mode, so your friends will be able to find you. This is also the first beacon to offer upgradeable technology. As Pieps comes out with new features, you can send your beacon in and they'll upgrade them for you.
|Beacon||Single Burial||Multiple Burial||Features|
|BCA Tracker DTS||4||2||2|
This chart is for quick reference, not an actual rating or comparison of the beacons tested. Use the article to find the beacon that best matches the features (or lack of features) that you want.
No matter which beacon you select, practice is still the most important component to consistently fast search times. All the technical gizmos in the world don't make up for experience when the unthinkable happens. You need to be able to keep a cool head when your friend's life is in your hands. As we found over and over during the course of this test, lucky people sometimes search faster than those with more experience, but in the long run it's far better to be experienced than lucky. If I'm under the snow, I want the experienced searcher looking for me. The lucky one can carry the shovel.