Avalanche beacon durability questioned

Following the early February death of an experienced skier (skiing out of bounds in a very dangerous area known as avalanche-prone by locals), an article triggered discussions on-line and via email around the country about the durability of avalanche beacons.
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Following the early February death of an experienced skier (skiing out of bounds in a very dangerous area known as avalanche-prone by locals), an article triggered a discussion on-line and via email around the country about the durability of avalanche beacons.

In short, Tom Burlingame survived a 600-foot ride in an avalanche, one that took him through a rock-strewn area and over a cliff near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. His partner, Steve Haas, was not so lucky. Burlingame told news reporters that his transceiver was broken by the impact of the avalanche and as a result, he could not use it to find his friend.

According to an insider report, Burlingame actually took a significant fall over the cliff, landing on his beacon with the beacon between his side and the rocks he landed on. The impact broke ribs and the beacon -- a 2002 Ortovox M2.

When another skier arrived with an older Ortovox, the buried skier was quickly located, but it was then too late. Despite the fact that it has later been revealed Burlingame was wearing the beacon incorrectly, and that because the beacon strap snagged rocks right above the cliff it might have saved Burlingame's life, the discussions into beacon failure started. How durable should a skier expect his or her beacon to be?

SNEWS researched the matter, and could not find one other case of a beacon failing as the direct result of an impact. We then went to the ASTM, the standards governing body for the United States, and the only requirement it places on the manufacture of avalanche beacons is that they conform to a 457 kHz standard. Beacons must also meet FCC guidelines, but neither of those speaks to durability.

So we headed across the ocean to Europe and the only body issuing durability standards at all -- The European Telecommunications Standards Institute website -- www.etsi.org.

The guideline -- ETSI EN 300 718-1 V1.2.1, section 7.2.2 -- establishes the standard that all avalanche beacons must meet to be sold into the European marketplace. Each beacon must be dropped once onto each surface of the beacon (for a total of six drops) from a height of 1 meter onto a piece of solid wood. The unit must be in the on position in transmitting mode.

Clearly, that test isn't about determining how solid the casing of the beacon is. It is the standard that all beacons must meet, however, and as such Ortovox and Backcountry Access (manufacturers of the Tracker DTS) do.

According to Bruce Edgerly of Backcountry Access, they go beyond the standard and test their beacons by dropping them from a height of four feet -- about chest height -- onto concrete. They also hand-smash the corners of their beacons to stress the most vulnerable part of the beacon.

Still, even Edgerly acknowledges that a fall like Burlingame took stood a good chance of kicking the tar out of any beacon currently on the market. Edgerly stressed to SNEWS that consumers need to be made aware that beacons must be treated with the same care as a climber would treat his rope. Each is a lifeline and each can and will break if subjected to extreme stresses not designed for the application.

Various avalanche experts SNEWS spoke with told us that retailers should be sure to inform consumers of the following when making any avalanche beacon sale:

1. Beacons can and will break under severe impact so treat them with care.
2. Always conduct a trailhead test on the transmit and receive functions of a beacon before heading into the backcountry to be sure battery life is adequate and that all systems are working at a perfect level -- a life may depend upon it.
3. Be sure that the antennae orientation is parallel to your body to make it easier to find should you become buried.
4. Always wear your beacon under a layer of clothing so it is less likely to be torn off, but also be sure you can easily access your beacon in an emergency.

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