OUTDOORS: Beacon play makes for winter safety

With up to 9 feet of snow having fallen in the southern Rockies in an eight-day period last week, avalanche potential has forced closures even in some of our region's Nordic skiing areas, as shown on the sign above. (John T. Unger/Special to the Montrose Daily Press) 

With the daily avalanche report last weekend showing terms such as “high” danger in the backcountry, “likely”, and “very large” sized slides, a group of us chose to skip the backcountry skiing and instead go to a groomed Nordic ski area.

Since cross-country skiing and the speedier skate skiing courses involve just rolling or rather flat terrain, they are typically not at risk for potential avalanches.

As it turned out, so many feet of snow fell in the valley around the Crested Butte Nordic Center that even some trails on that valley floor’s groomed area had been closed due to risks of avalanches that could possibly cross the highway and pose a danger to skiers on trails.

The same situation holds equally true for north of here to Grand Mesa, east to the Gunnison area, or south to Red Mountain Pass. Whichever way you go, in just over an hour’s drive from downtown Montrose, the snowpack in these differing regions currently presents very similar hazardous conditions.

Dense slabs of snow several feet deep are now resting on top of collapsible, weak layers.

So says the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (online for free at avalanche.state.co.us), and they ought to know. Their morning report includes some quick, straightforward, critical details to allow outdoor users to raise the odds of having fun while lowering the chances of a tragic end to their day.

Hence, all backcountry skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, or snowshoers will benefit by having each member of their party carry an avalanche rescue transceiver (a.k.a. beacon), probe pole and shovel, and be aware of and practice how to use them.

Especially in this season’s snowpack, practice with an avalanche transceiver is very necessary, by members of each of these types of users. Unfortunately, many outdoors folks do not know how to quickly switch their brand of beacon from “transmit” to “search.” And they could hardly be expected to know how, since they almost never use the “search” function.

Picture this: in the middle of a day on the snow in the backcountry, a boarder hustles to the top of the slope ahead of her group, puts her beacon (still on “transmit”) into a ski glove, and sticks it 6 inches below the surface of the snow. As the others top out and are catching their breath or drinking water, they all turn their beacons to “search,” and start following the beeping sounds and flashing signals.

Counting the seconds or minutes until the beacon-in-the-glove is located, everyone then switches back to “transmit,” and the practice is over. Off they all go, carving turns in the deep powder.

Quick enough and easy enough. For the many of you who have beacons and who play in the backcountry snow, add this to your next outing. Deceptively simple, this brief exercise can reveal much valuable information to both the novices and the experienced members of the group.

Every member of the party benefits by having the chance to refresh their experience and search skills and confirm their familiarity with their beacons. It is a great feeling to know that your traveling partner can find you quickly if worse comes to worst.

The members who are new to backcountry travel and are just getting familiar with their recently acquired beacons also benefit. They figure out how to operate their beacons, while seeing how the successful searchers behaved, moved, vocalized, focused their attention and found the target beacon.

Importantly, most people now happen to commonly carry other digital devices when we are adventuring in the snow, and these can interfere with a search for someone buried.

Basically, anything with a battery can create active interference with the signal from your transceiver. A smartphone (even when in airplane mode), GPS devices, iPods, communication radios, helmet mounted video cameras, snowmobiles, the keyless entry fob on a keychain, and even headlamps can mess with your signal.

Passive interference with your signal, although less severe, can occur if your transmitting transceiver is within eight inches of any metal, including the following items: avalanche shovel blade/handle, pocket knife, or aluminum foil (around your sandwich or also in the lining of an energy gel packet).

When in search mode, whether practicing or in a rescue situation, keep your device 20 inches away from any metal. This can easily be done by holding it at arm’s length during searching, which takes just a bit of awareness and forethought.

This rather important, odd and underappreciated phenomenon of active and passive interference is illustrated in even more depth on the websites of some of the most common manufacturers of avalanche rescue transceivers, such as BCA (backcountryaccess.com, under the sub-headings Support, then Resources, then Manuals).

Preparation, and a measure of beacon practice made into a game, may pay off in a better outcome in the deep snow of the backcountry one day.

John T. Unger is a diplomate of the American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians, with an active practice in Montrose. He applauds everyone who is starting this winter with an outdoor exercise plan. Ideas for future columns are welcomed at sportsdocunger.com.

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