Building a Loving Relationship with Your Special Little Friend
By Rob Coppolillo
Sure, she nags you and won’t quiet down, but it’s only because she cares. Ladies, he tells you where to go because he just wants you to get there faster. Your boyfriend or girlfriend? Hardly – we’re talking avalanche beacons, folks, and we’re here to help you get along with yours. Turns out they’re delicate and sometimes finicky, perhaps like your current significant other, but unlike that five-star fling you met on Tinder, your avy beacon can save your life. Or your buddy’s. Read on!
Transceiver Monogamy: Where It’s At
First off, players, it’s time to settle down. Sure, sampling the field has its allure, but when it comes to building a long-term thing, make a careful choice, then commit. The best way to become proficient with your beacon is to get to know all its features, its quirks (every brand has them), practice, practice some more, and get dialed with it. While it’s easy to grow tempted by other models, when it comes to avalanche safety, sticking with solid partners – in this case, your beacon – is the way to go.
As long as you’ve purchased a quality unit, all it takes is consistent practice to become fast and competent. Pieps’s DSPs, Ortovox’s 3+ and S1+, Mammut’s Pulse and Element; or my favorites, the Backcountry Access (BCA) Trackers; are all great products, just to name the most popular brands. Compare their displays and features, and see which one’s for you, then stick with it and get dialed.
Nurture the Relationship
Let’s brainstorm on how to keep things running smoothly with your one-and-only. Here are a few tips that savvy practitioners live by. For starters, treat your beacon like a brand new smartphone. Don’t chuck it in the bottom of your pack, don’t bang-jostle-huck-trample or drop it, either. Avoid moisture, but if it does get wet, dry it as soon as you can. Stay away from large magnets, too (like that 2000W sub-woofer you just installed in your WRX); they can tweak the antennae in your beacon, which means you might not find your buddy if she’s buried. Not good.
Consider your storage habits, too, both long- and short-term. “Don’t leave your beacon in the car overnight,” says Bruce Edgerly, co-founder of Backcountry Access, the Colorado-based manufacturer of the Tracker beacons and Float packs. “In sub-zero temps, this can age the materials in your antennae and decrease their sensitivity. Worse yet, it could get stolen. ” And when the season’s done, “Take your batteries out over the summer so they don’t corrode the contacts. Manufacturers don’t warranty corroded contacts; the warnings are all over their user manuals.”
Bottom line, your beacon’s an expensive piece of safety equipment. Treat it right, keep the batteries fresh (above 50-percent), and store it indoors, away from the elements.
It’s All Technique, Baby
You need to get good at this. Time for some practice. Hopefully you don’t get any of the real thing; rather, get together with your teammates and simulate beacon searches. The easiest venue for this is a “beacon basin” or “beacon park.” This is a designated area in which there are several buried beacons, with a controller box on the perimeter. Flip a switch and one (or more) of the buried units activates, then one of you performs a beacon search. Usually the buried beacons have a plywood square above it and when you hit it with your probe, an alarm goes off – success, you found your “buddy.” Call your favorite ski area to see if they’re maintaining a park this season. They often change.
As you grow accustomed to searching for a single beacon, begin working as a team. Have one of you searching with a beacon, then have the second follow along, building her probe and getting ready to use it. Eventually you’ll learn to “pinpoint on a line,” a technique taught in most three-day, 24-hour “level 1” courses.
Practice with your usual ski partners because communication is key and if you ever need to use your skills, these are probably the people searching with (or for!) you.
Keep it Simple
Overwhelmed? Don’t be. Buy a high-quality beacon, one that you like and whose controls make sense to you. Borrow a friend’s, rent one at a shop, but whatever you do, make a careful choice … and then take care of it.
Once you’ve made your choice, then take a level 1 course from a reputable provider. The company should be teaching a curriculum from the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), or an equivalent organization. And then practice, practice, practice. With a few hours in the field, you and your beacon will be on the way to a long, loving relationship. Hopefully you’ll never have to consummate it … but hey, if you do, you’ll be ready.
Rob Coppolillo is an internationally certified mountain guide, AIARE 1 and 2 instructor, and co-founder of Vetta Mountain Guides in Boulder, Colorado.