Thursday, 22 February 2018

Avalanche Awareness Training

I have been getting a lot of folk asking for training. My apologies folks. I think I did my bit for the moment but might well re visit it if it becomes practically viable another season. But not this one. Here's a bit of history and all in I think its done its job. A special thanks to Keith and Christine of Glencoe Ski Patrol for helping out over the years and as said in my previous post on an avalanche, go speak to the ski patrol for advice. Not getting in an avalanche is the goal.

All the pictures will appear full size on your browser if clicked:

Hamish MacInnes opened the training park

Legends Phillip Rankin, Dr Ian MacLaren, Peter Weir and SAIS Paul Moores at the opening of the glencoe mountain transceiver park
Ten years ago I saw an increase in folk going off piste and touring and many near misses locally. Folk have explored off piste in Scotland since way back before I was around. Many of the classic local tours and off the back of the Glencoe mountain descents were done by ski patrol or regular Coe skiers. Same at Nevis Range "over the back" and "off the side" were done by early ski school instructors and local legends many of whom are still about.  A lot of these folks had a mountaineering back ground or were local mountain rescue, or were just "Chancers" if you don't mind the pun (it's an in joke).

The new explorers were, and often still are boarders or freeride tourers or hike and drop skiers many whom didn't have a broad range of mountain skills and were not avalanche aware. I thought maybe I could do something to help. Anatom and BCA gave me a rudimentary wired transceiver training system which we had put in next to the lower T bar Glencoe and also we had some money donated for signs and banners. Anatom were an early sponsor and Gordon and the guys superb support with BCA kit for students to borrow

The early wired system waiting to be laid out
A few signs to help 
All of the above worked well increasing folks ability to test transceiver search skills. This was only possible because Andy Meldrum, Staff and Glencoe Ski patrol all bought into the concept and set aside some land and caretaked the park. It also allowed me to run each year for five years up to ten basic level 1 avalanche awareness courses or transceiver and search and recovery workshops. During this time the Mill Cottage Trust also donated money and bought a portable Ortovox STS system which can be used when snow levels are low but its not possible to get up a mountain. This system is available to any instructor or guide working locally providing an avalanche education course, on loan. Despite offering it out so far no one else other than myself has used it. Please borrow it if you need it!

For three years Clachaig hotel gathered some money from mountain safety lectures which I took part in giving talks on Avalanche Awareness. This raised over £2,500 for the replacement of the old system with a new top of the range wireless training system and some more upgrade to the Glencoe training park. This season there are 3 of the possible 8 remote beacons out.

Last year was a poor snow year and there was no demand for training. The previous season every weekend course I had booked had to be cancelled due to wind/weather (I prefer to get folk up the hill on ski's and make it real rather than at the base). That and lack of place to do the introductory lecture made it problematic. I don't see many folk in the transceiver park these days. Maybe the transceiver parks have had their day and its job done. 
Ski Patrol and Course Students learning that survival depends on shovel skills
Students taking a break during a level 1 course

SAIS snowsports Scotland avalanche course instructor George Reid in the park

Scottish Freeride organisers and legends getting in some practice at the park

Boot Hill

Killin MRT getting some transceiver work done at the park
Unlike ten years ago when no one else was providing off piste safety and avalanche awareness training, now Glenmore Lodge, Avy Geeks. Off Piste Performance and many others are providing quality training. That's great for mountain safety. I would recommend these providers to you, or a local IFGM guide.

If you buy avalanche safety equipment from me I am more than happy to give some free tuition up at the ski areas that doesn't take up too much of your ticket ski time, but I will not be doing anymore of the courses as in the past at Glencoe. I ski a bit more at Nevis Range these days as its where a lot of local freeride skiers seem to go, and where many of my customers are as "over the back" skiers, so often up there as well as Glencoe. Grab me any time if you want advice on equipment or a quick run through on your transceiver. But not on a powder day as I might be another of the Chancers.

If you need any kit then this is the stuff you want


Davy Gunn

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

It's all about TERRAIN

When it all comes together all the thinking and planning means you get a lifetime of fun and a pension. To enlarge images click on them.
A few thoughts on slope assessment. At a basic level its all about TERRAIN. Firstly you need to look ahead, consult the avalanche forecast and plan ahead making decisions to avoid avalanche terrain. During travel look around you and observe what's happening under your feet and listen to the snow. Look for red flags such as avalanche activity, wind drifted snow, recent snowfall, whumping and cracking and also be wary during rapid rises in temperature as wet snow slides and cornice collapse can trigger huge slides such as occur in Observatory Gully and Lagangarbh Corrie to name but two. Based on the avy forecast (it's a forecast and not cast in stone that its right!) and importantly what you observe, stop and do snow stabilty tests. ECT or shovel shear and compression.  This is to confirm what you should spatially be aware of.  Stopping and doing these tests is also an opportunity to talk and air views (and concerns) and make the critical decisions of whether your about to bet with your life or that of others.  Before making a drop in also consider these factors:

Angle. Most avalanches are triggered on slopes roughly between 32 and 45 degrees. Below 32 degrees victim triggered slab avalanches are less common and above this angle slopes purge more frequently. The "Sweet Spot" where most avalanches are triggered is about 40ish degrees with over 90% of victim triggered slides occurring in a 7 degree range bracketing that sweet spot. You can conclude from this that angle is a really important part of slope assessment and subtle changes of angle on a given slope can have major consequences, therefore route choice and awareness of slope angle is really important. Modern phone apps make judging the angle much easier.  Rule of thumb for me personally is that as the avalanche forecast risk for a given altitude and aspect goes up - then the angle and altitude of what you ski comes down. More recent research has shown convexity/concavity to be less important than angle.

Anchors. What is the snowpack connected to. Have you been following the weather and SAIS forecast. Are there weak layers within the snowpack. Tree's and rocks can hold a slope as your friend or can be weak spots as your enemy where sun heat or hoar frost has gathered. Subtle angle changes create trigger points at these places. Tree's are also natures cheese grater if you get taken into them. Also ask yourself what the slope you are on is linked into from the underlying snowpack. Unstable snowpack can often propagate a collapse into nearby slopes and draw an avalanche into lower angled terrain.

Aspect. Which compass direction does the slope you want to ski or travel face. Like angle, subtle changes in aspect can take you from a safe slope onto a loaded one. Carry a compass and learn about "slope aspect" as both a navigation and safe travel tool.  The SAIS forecast gives you the necessary hazard warning for compass direction but you need to apply it on the ground accurately. Again some phone apps can help with this, and even give you the area forecast. The new SAIS app is a must for Scotland.

Altitude. You can see by looking at the SAIS forecast that the hazard risk is most often greater with altitude, even in Scotland. The rate of snow deposition is higher with height, and the wind is also stronger increasing side loading of slopes. On dodgy days stay lower as well as skiing lower angled slopes.
Folk need to know how to apply the forecast to trip planning by learning to understand it
Apply safe travel methods when skinning up and keep spaced and avoid terrain traps when choosing your skin line.  A slide coming from above will have the full width, breadth and depth bearing down on you. Unless its a clear runout your pretty well fecked as any stream bed or features will trap you and allow the snow to build up deeply over you. Choose your line well and with some thought.

Complexity. As mentioned above. Be aware of subtle changes in angle and aspect and that localised instabilities are hidden and like a landmine can link one triggered mine to a chain reaction and a small slide gathering surrounding instabilities into a major avalanche event. Learn to read mapping for subtleties of terrain features and how snow may be affected, and think safety by pre imagining what could go wrong. If it's a complex route then its often unsafe as there are too many unknowns. 

Commitment. Always have a plan "B" so that if conditions change or are not what you expected you have another safer option.  Commitment to a slope can mean no bale out options, i.e having no where to go.  If you look at the pro's on youtube they choose their line so they can bale out onto a spine and have good runouts and that's where the next "C" comes into play - consequences.

Consequences. If its an amber light's on in your head so your in a go/no go process, then add consequence into the thought mix.  Are there crags, hollows, stream beds, tree's or any other terrain features that could shred you or trap you if there is an avalanche. Transceiver, shovel, probe and/or airbag will not stop you getting your limbs ripped apart from tree's, your head humped like mince, or with an inflated airbag under a few hundred tons of snow. Airbags are good with a save rate of between 10 and 13  more people per hundred victims - but only if the runout is good.

More up to date North American stats also show that many more people die from two of the triple "H" than was thought. Hypoxia and Hypercapnia kill quickly, even folk dug out very fast getting advanced life support don't often survive.

Triple "H" syndrome is Hypoxia, Hypercapnia (i.e re breathing your own carbon dioxide) and Hypothermia. 

Hypothermia can have a protective effect in rapid cold water immersion, but in an avalanche cooling is slow, especially as modern clothing retains heat so well. In fact its not so much the lack of oxygen as the hypercapnia that makes survival so poor in a an avalanche, and this with hypoxia is also related to snow density). 15 minutes as often shown in survival graphs is quite optimistic. You need to search fast and dig faster (which means practise  these skills more) as time is not on the victims side.

When dropping in stay next to each others tracks, go one at a time well spaced and from a safe area to safe area. What's a safe area?  Good question as sometimes there are none, but basically its somewhere out of any slide path that you can identify. Consider that if its a big slide it could encroach on your safety island so pick your spot with care.

Be prepared to carry out a rescue. You are on your own as organised rescue will be too late. Talk this over before dropping in. You should all have done an avy course and so will have the gear, done the pre checks and discussed a plan - won't you?  If you have not done an an avy course then consider why the feck are you even doing this!

Fail to plan and think it through and it's never pretty. A ski tourer who was avalanched

Monday, 19 February 2018

A trip to the white room

Friday was pretty poor vis for skiing with stashes of fresh to be found also quite a hard windpack and some sastrugi in places. The day before, storm force Southerlies were moving a lot snow and Friday the winds were a bit more South West. Lots of wind loading on North East aspects and the ski patrol triggered some decent slabs on test slopes. Ski patrol will test some short slopes with good runouts facing the same aspect as dangerous ones to use as indicators of stability, and also if they threaten a piste inbounds. Some slopes it would be madness to ski cut as the risks would be too high. It's a question of balancing mishap probability against mishap consequence.

Ski patrols and resort staff close off runs when the probability and risk to the public is too high. No one can stop someone sking a danger area under their own steam but should they be lift served and have a ski pass the resort staff would have every right to remove a pass as not only are they endangering their own lives, but putting tracks in encourages others to follow. The tracks become a cognitive trap as the less experienced think it must be safe if others have gone that way before. So it's not just about individual choice its about endangering others.
The lower crown wall visible and the top one far above less so. The skier was behind the rock on the upper right. To enlarge images click on them.
I was up skiing Glencoe Friday. I am not often up ski patrolling these days prefering to ski or I am up doing some work with customers who have bought avalanche safety gear from me. I do make myself available to help out, so I let the ski patrol know when I am up and when there is a bigger incident I am more than happy to help out and it also keeps my hand in. Both Nevis and Glencoe have a very competent professional ski patrol team and I am happy to be a humper, skiing the sledge across or helping out at a big incident.  Friday there was one of these when a lone skier, who had not even told his partner he was going skiing triggered a big avalanche over East at Glencoe. He had cut into "The Spring Paper" which takes you out onto a wind loaded slope and triggered a cat 3 size avalanche which remotely triggered an adjacent slope as well. The crown wall was about half a meter high at an angle of 40° and there was a second crown wall of about 40cm some 90m lower down on easier angled terrain of about 30°. To get there the skier had to duck the ropes and ignore the warning signs.  He was very lucky as the avalanche hung him up on a small rock shelf and flowed to the side and so he was only buried up to his neck and not under. The debris had flowed out onto the moor, and at the bottom of the bowl a classic terrain trap it was very deep indeed.
The above slope faces NE

After 40 mins burial he was able to get out his phone with one hand and phone a friend who alerted ski patrol. While speaking to him he was cut off and we thought taken by a second slide. A possy of us went across and  started a transceiver search of the large debris pile picking up a signal at 55m but we still couldn't see him. The piste team also arrived by machine so we had a good shovel party. Eventually he shouted and another patroller was able to ski across to him and we could walk up. He was well hidden with only his head showing and probably would have been drifted over in a couple of hours as it was blowing some.
Airway, Breathing, Camera. I just had to take a quick picture!
Half an hour of digging and getting his ski's released (they were Freeride ski's pinned under him with DIN set to 14+ and so they didn't come off so he was well anchored). Thankfully he didn't have his pole straps on and we never managed to find and dig out his poles. If he had them on then no phone access and possibly he would have been pulled under and/or had his arms pinned. So a couple of learning points there regarding DIN and poles. My off piste poles have no straps and my DIN is set to normal parameters for my weight and ability. I have seen the results in an avalanche when they don't release and the bi-lateral femur fractures. It's not pretty.

No one gave him a hard time. We were all pretty chuffed he wasn't injured as a previous avalanche incident in similar circumstances over at the same place a colleague suffered a serious spinal injury. He was badly shaken and a bit cold and he skied off down to get warm. I daresay he would have shed a tear or two and a feel a bit emotional later as it hit home how lucky he was.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Avalanches, Beacons and Being Searchable

1. Learn How to Interpret the Avalanche Forecast. Don't get avalanched ......

The Avalanche Danger Scale uses five progressively increasing danger levels: Low, Moderate, Considerable,  High and Extreme. It indicates the likelihood of avalanches, how they might be triggered and recommended actions in the back country. However, the wording is very brief and does not include a meaningful indication of risk. Below is an explanation of each danger level, including the transitions between levels, signs of instability at each level and the implications of slope angle, aspect and elevation.
Understanding the SAIS forecast as acting on it could save your life
Travel is generally safe. The snow pack is well bonded and natural avalanches will not be seen except for small sluffs on extremely steep slopes. Human-triggered avalanches are unlikely except in isolated locations in extreme terrain. The danger will usually be from wind-driven snow in gullies and chutes or deposited across very steep open slopes near ridge lines. Ski or board one by one as smoothly as possible without falling if you suspect the formation of wind slab. Be aware of shaded, north to east aspects where the danger may be transitioning to Moderate. There are few fatalities at this danger level.

This is the most difficult danger level for back country skiers and boarders to assess snow stability. Many of the usual indicators such as cracks, settling, whumpfing and signs of recent avalanche are absent, especially at the lower end of the moderate level. Key indicators are any recent snowfall, and wind deposition. Snow pack tests may help assess stability.

Conditions are generally favourable for travel providing routes are chosen carefully. The snow  pack is only moderately bonded on some steep slopes. Areas of danger are usually restricted to certain types of terrain such as bowls and gullies. The altitude, aspect and type of terrain where danger can be expected are usually detailed in the Avalanche Forecast. Remote triggering is unlikely, so you only need to be concerned about the steepness of nearby terrain features.

Human-triggered avalanches are possible. Ski or board carefully, one by one, in suspect terrain and avoid high loading of the snow pack by spreading people out on the uphill track. Carefully evaluate the stability of very steep slopes (steeper than 35°) and aspects identified as potentially dangerous in the Avalanche Forecast.

Be especially careful if the higher elevation band in the forecast, or the danger on other aspects, is Considerable. There is a significant difference in instability between Moderate and Considerable. Don’t get sucked onto higher, steeper and more dangerous slopes. Although naturally triggered avalanches are not expected, ice climbers should watch out for the sun warming steep collection zones above their climbs. If deep-slab instability due to a persistent weak layer is mentioned in the Avalanche Forecast, you need to pay careful attention to the terrain. Avalanches from such a layer are not only likely to be large and extensive, they are completely unpredictable. Unless you have specific local knowledge, keep off large open slopes at this danger level if the forecast warns of a persistent weak layer.

29th March 2013 using the older SAIS Graphic for localised considerable hazard
Persistent Weak Layer March 2013

Click pics to enlarge

Large Slab Triggered off persistent weak layer 30th March 2013
Fatal Avlx x 1 Skier Glencoe
Conditions have become much less favourable. The snow pack is only moderately or poorly bonded over a much larger area of the terrain. Human triggering is possible by a single skier on steep slopes and aspects mentioned in the Avalanche Forecast. Remote triggering of avalanches is possible, so the maximum steepness of the slope above you should be used when deciding if you want to continue.

Instability indicators mentioned in Moderate danger above will likely be present. Back country touring at this danger level requires good route finding skills, and experience in recognising dangerous terrain and evaluating slope stability. Keep to slopes of less than 35°, especially slopes at the altitude and aspect indicated in the Avalanche Forecast. Remember that remote triggering is possible. Typically the scree fans at the bottom of gullies start out at around 30° and the slope steepens as it gets higher. Keep off such slopes at this hazard level. The remarks about persistent weak layers in the previous section on Moderate danger level also apply to this danger level.
New SAIS graphic as stripes for localised "considerable"

Reports such as the above showing stripes as areas of  localised "considerable" risk  to North and South within a moderate NW to SW aspect and considerable risk NE to SE. This is the sort of thing that it's easy to become complacent about as its a common feature of the Scottish winter. You might very obviously if you have any sense, stay well clear of the NE to SE aspects but wander into a high risk situation on descent on the N to S aspects.  The majority of avalanche incidents in Europe occur in these moderate to considerable forecast days as they occur most frequently in the season and folk become complacent (the familiarity heuristic) and that's why route choice approaching a climb and thinking about descent options prior to leaving and during a trip as wind and weather change should become part of your thinking.

Conditions have become dangerous, most often as a result of significant amounts of new snow, snowfall accompanied by wind or the snow pack becoming isothermal and threatening wet-snow avalanches. The snow pack is poorly bonded over large areas and human triggering is likely on steep slopes (steeper than 30°). Remote triggering is likely and large natural avalanches are to be expected.

Stay on slopes that are flatter than 30° for any part of the slope and be aware of the potential for avalanches from slopes above. If you do decide to walk ski or board on less steep slopes, be very aware of the surrounding terrain to avoid inadvertently crossing the bottom of steeper slopes or cutting down a steep convex rollover.

Usually this level of hazard is only present for a few days at a time. The smart back country traveller will stay in simple terrain until conditions improve. If you are caught out on a multi-day trip you may have to dig in and wait for travel conditions to improve and the avalanche danger to lessen.

These stripes in the avalanche forecast. My take is to think of them as landmine strips blown by the wind, lurking in eddies from cross loading when the wind blows across as well as down or over a slope, the colour of them is the sensitivity of the pressure plate to you the trigger. If there are enough of them the explosion will propagate setting of others, or if the surrounding slope is weak enough then it will slide with it. As you can see there are areas of High on slopes with a localised "considerable" and a"considerable" risk to the South.  A lethal combo of  narrow safe travel options making for events that will take lives if you don't tread warily and navigate with extreme care.

Extreme danger levels are rare in Scotland as usually this level is associated with buildings and roads or alpine villages under threat, and usually the result of unusually large amounts of new snow. The snow pack is weakly bonded and unstable. Numerous large avalanches are likely. The weight of the new snow can trigger avalanches on layers buried deep in the snow pack. Natural avalanches can release on slopes of less than 30° Back country touring is not recommended and often impossible. Avoid all avalanche terrain and keep well away from avalanche path run outs.

Avoid Groupthink
In psychology "Groupthink" or "Risky Shift" behaviour is well known in groups and most of us will be aware that we have given in to it or even encouraged it. I strongly believe that in avalanche incidents in Scotland this groupthink or risky shift has become the biggest education issue and maybe why we see large group incidents or group events as occurred in the Cairngorms when two separate groups were avalanched last winter. Much has been made of the quick response from folk training in the corrie who helped.  And good on them. What I am about to say is not a reflection on these helper folks choices, as I am sure they stayed in safe terrain.  The  "however" bit though is that just by being there and numbers increase with lots of MRT's training, and groups under instruction, then a larger "Groupthink" takes place. Groups less experienced or not under instruction maybe feel safe, what McCammon labels  as Social Facilitation.  I would call this a  "risky shift". It's often this way in the climbing and skiing honey pots such as the Northern Corries where folk gather. Aonach Mor or ScRL in Glencoe are other places. Even if the waggon wheel of death shows Red on these slope aspects, they are still the places to be seen by the instructor masses who are now at the height of their annual gatherings with paying students. These are the places instructors are familiar with, and therefore where less experienced folk feel safer with an apparent safety in numbers. They maybe went there when they were on a course. Group thinking on a large scale perhaps.

Better minds than mine have already written about risky shift and here's an excellent article on it The Risky Shift Phenomenon and Avalanches. This kind of stuff has been getting applied to avalanche instructor training for a while by AAA.  Do current winter mountain training schemes  include enough if anything on this sort of thing?  I put this as a question, as I am certainly not in a postion to know, and maybe it is already covered. What I do know is that there is nothing that can change the pretty piss poor odds if buried and that pretty universally all of us involved in avalanche education are trying to jump forward and get to "no rescue".

No matter what we do, mountains and people are unpredictable. As a keen off the piste skier I have to accept that luck is also in there as well, as on good snow days I am first in the que and having gone through the forecasts, stability tests you are only left with how the snow feels under you ski's and gut instincts. Sometimes it's a very subtle thing where in the morning it feels wrong, and by afternoon the snow "feels" safe.  I don't know how the feck that would stand up in court! I also know its taken 40 years and I still can't always be sure it all won't go tits up one day. I also know that it pays to voice your opinion when in a group, and make your own choice, not getting swept along by the group and it's most vocal leader. Beware Risky Shift!

"Destiny is a good thing to accept when it's going your way. When it isn't, don't call it destiny; call it injustice, treachery, or simple bad luck"   Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

For backcountry travel, side stash/off piste, or indeed anything out of ski area and uncontrolled, always carry the three essentials of transceiver, shovel and probe and do a pre depart group beacon test and practise.

If you need an airbag you have fucked up but might survive. If you need your transceiver you have fucked up and probably won't!

2. Get a Beacon, Shovel and Probe. Some Transceiver Observations:

Some findings and observations from using these popular avalanche beacons on the last avalanche training courses in both shallow to very deep (3m+) burials. They are all adequate with the exception of the original tracker which although it might work is old. The newer version of the Tracker DTS/Tracker 1 is a bit better and still on sale. The T1 is a 2 antenna beacon and suffers from null points/signal spike unlike the excellent Tracker 2 (not being reviewed here) which is super fast. These 3 antenna beacons are all good purchases, but like all technology when used for scenarios that are not simple then their effectiveness is challenged and quirks come out. Only realistic practise with the beacon you own will make you the user aware of what these are, and work arounds.  What this means is practise and realistic scenarios to challenge you the searcher. That's what Beacon training parks are there to help you with. I have attempted to be non biased but declare a conflict of interest as I am an Ortovox retailer.

Auto revert or random transmit from rubber-neckers is the curse of the avalanche search. Be aware of it when on a long search, and be aware if its preset on or you have to activate it as part of the pre trip beacon check.

These beacons were used at the Glencoe BCA beacon training park and on scenarios created on ski 's and off piste in the ski area while searching for an analog Ortovox F1, analog SOSF1ND (re boxed F1) and old Tracker 1's and a Tracker 3. All students were taught the primary basic search patterns of searching in series, in parallel, and micro grid, and only after lots of practise was marking used, and then only in the context of relying on a basic reliable search method should marking fail. All the three antenna beacons looked at here that show multiple burial icons did at varying times show multiple victims when only one was present and most often in deep burials. After group auto revert and radio/phone checks this still occurred when only one beacon was transmitting. This would be the long pulse cycle of the old F1's getting the processor confused, but it also occurred in the deep burials and I wondered if each side of the deep beacon flux line was seen as a separate signal. 
Ortovox 3+
The marking function on the 3+ was reliable but of course like all these beacons marking gets problematic beyond marking 2 beacons.  The 3+ on deep burials suffered occasionally from null points and a signal was then re-acquired after switching back to transmit briefly, then back into search. Students liked its speed, simplicity and clear display. Default auto revert is ON.  This would be my beacon of choice as value for money for most folk with the right balance of speed, ease of use and simple but reliable features including smart antenna orientation helping a victim be found more easily and the built in Recco strip so the victim is more searchable from a longer distance by the Recco system on organised rescue.  

BCA Tracker 3
The Tracker 3 is small, and can easily be carried in an inside pocket.  Its very fast processor is good, but the advertised range which is 40m is a little optimistic and I would say in most cases its only 30/35m necessitating a narrower search strip and a little more work from last seen point to signal pickup. The T2 is still faster IMHO and has a slightly longer range.  The T3 doesn't mark a victim but will "suppress" one beacon in close proximity for 1 minute allowing the searcher to get away and lock onto another victim. I didn't find this very reliable. However, it's "big picture" mode was very useful in showing directions and distance to other beacons and did what it says, give a big picture. Auto revert is default OFF.  Worth upgrading to Firmware 3.3 if you have one as it definately improves the beacon.  
Mammut/Barryvox Element
The Element and its more expensive brother the Pulse are very popular beacons from Mammut with the internals from Barryvox a company with a long pedigree in avalanche beacons.  The one used had the latest software and had a very good range. The analog in the Pulse version is superb for an experienced searcher as the search distance increases to 60m (I got a signal at 67m on one). The Pulse in analog is also good acoustically as you can hear the pulse tones of different beacons.  The Element is purely digital and does not have the rescue send or unmark features of the Pulse. The Element like it's big brother suffered a lot from the "STOP" icon, requiring the user to stop and wait while the processor updated. On a couple of scenarios this got too long and only by switching from search back to transmit quickly and back to search was the signal eventually reacquired. Of the ones used here it seemed slower than previous models with the older software. Auto Revert Default ON
The original digital beacon, the Tracker DTS. These should be retired due to age IMHO 
Tracker DTS 2nd edition
The ubiquitous Tracker 1. Still on sale and probably the most common beacon carried for years.  It still works and is quite fast even if it only has two antenna's.  I want to slag it off as we recommend that everyone these days has the more accurate 3 antenna beacons. However, the damn thing still works and in fact is faster than some 3 antenna models. The additional training requirement of teaching how to overcome signal spikes is no big deal most of the time. But, when it is it's time consuming. It is a lot less effective in deep burial scenarios and students must be taught to spiral probe, or probe in a grid to locate a deep victim, which takes a lot more time. Like its superior big brother the Tracker 2 the T1 has "SP" or spotlight mode which I have always liked in complex multiple burial scenarios as it narrows the search angle directionally and spotlights the next victim so you can then get away from the found victim, move to the next signal and allow it to lock onto it as it becomes the closest. Sometimes it's possible to jump from continuing with a micro grid search having used the SP mode and get a lock on the next victim. I tell my students get an upgrade 3 antennas is better.  But, the T1 is still ok (only just - but get an upgrade!) and it shows how far ahead of its time is was though. Auto revert default OFF

This new transceiver looks excellent and hopefully I will have one to review at some point. Coming from a company that has a good track record this should be an excellent beacon. I will write it up after a test

Your money would be well spent on any of the ones listed apart from an old version T1 or old out of warranty Tracker DTS. Even the 2nd edition ones are not worth your money, even though there are lots 2nd hand going. Most often its from folk upgrading to a 3 antenna one so why be cheapskate and buy one off them. Get a 3 antenna one. These are just some thoughts from trying lots of beacons on the market and this is just one review. There are no bad ones and they all have quirks, so get out and practise as its really important you are slick as someone is depending on you.

Note. If you use old analog beacons to practise you may find the multiple victim icon coming on intermittently. These old beacons have much longer signal pulse and digital beacons sometimes interprets this as two signals.

3. Get some Training and Practice Digging

Snow dependant 
Group size is 6 max. Best if you have your own kit as that is what you need to be familiar and practise with. Some loan kit from Ortovox is available on request. We use Glencoe's beacon training park and do search and recovery scenarios on ski, it’s fairly mobile training if based up on the hill. With the installation of the base snowmaking it might be possible to run training even on blown off days at the base. The thrust of the training is in the context of avalanche avoidance with search and recovery tools being required when decisions and planning have gone awry.   


·                     Gear Check
Essential items and tools and how you carry and deploy them. Pre trip checks

·                     The Forecast
Hazard Evaluation: Interpretation of the weather forecast, SAIS avalanche forecast and local observations

·                     The Big Picture
Terrain: Anchors, Angle, Aspect, Altitude - Complexity, Commitment and Consequences

·                     Beacon Search Training
Phases of a search, search patterns, signal spikes, antenna orientation and smart antenna technology, micro Search Strips, mark/flag pitfalls and problemsProbing and shovelling.

·                     Victim recovery  
Immediate (basic) first aid of the recovered victim

·                     Staying out of harms way
Group discussion, Summary and Debrief

Learn how to interpret the days SAIS forecast and some basic snowcraft

Learn how to use your transceiver effectively

Learn how to find, digout and take care of an avalanche victim

4. Recco. Mountaineers are not Searchable - most of the time ...............

Don't get buried! But if you do you want to be searchable 
and found FAST!
Recco is another important part of the organised rescue strategy. Education and avalanche avoidance is primary, being found early by companions if it goes wrong is vital and prior practise makes this work. Organised rescue requires a triple response: Dogs, Recco and Probe Lines. Until now Scotland has only been able to apply two of the three unlike alpine rescue avalanche search where for years all three have been used. Survival is time critical. Much has been made of trauma being the main factor in poor survival in Scottish avalanches. Largely based on recent tragic avalanche incidents where trauma has clearly been the dominant factor.
These anecdotal observations and opinions make easy it to forget the victims where triple "H" syndrome has been the killer of which there have been many over the last decades. Anecdote though is not enough, and there is no recent data set from necropsy studies in Scotland, (if there is its not readily available). One thing is sure, being searchable and getting found quickly increases survival. Some Scottish MR teams already have Recco as part of their search strategy (Tayside, Glencoe, Cairngorm MRT's but not Lochaber) and Cairngorm, Glencoe and Nevis Range Ski Patrol. A good thing. I can imagine nothing worse than a victim recovery delayed because a search team did not have a detector and the victim is found to have either a Recco reflector or a harmonic on them. Recco is of course for "organised rescue". Everyone including Recco and the clothing manufacturers endorse the view that not getting avalanched through education and training is better than needing any search devices which may be too late. However, in the real world shit still happens and unless someone is "searchable" a rescuer cannot find them readily even if the poor victim has bottomed out of the survival curve. We should not forget Robert Burnett's remarkable 22 hour survival in the Southern Cairngorms. All victims surely deserve the benefit of the doubt and rescuers throwing all resources at an attempt for a live recovery.
Small sticky reflectors that can be attached to boots or helmets
As "off piste" and "Backcountry" skiing grows in popularity there is every reason to imagine that being more searchable can save lives.  Nothing can replace education and prevention, or fast effective companion rescue with beacon, shovel and probe, but as ski patrols and MR teams take up Recco and the reflectors can be bought and carried then the chance of getting found alive by organised rescue if on scene quickly increases. I would recommend two reflectors to mountaineers, One front top and one back bottom.
Sewn in reflector

So Recco is here in Scotland and its great to see the take up by enlightened Scottish rescuers adopting alpine best practise. Who knows when Recco will save a life, but if it does it's job then its been donation money well spent.
Live recovery of a victim located by her Recco reflector  10 days ago.
Glencoe Ski Patrol doing a precautionary combined 457mhz transceiver search and Recco harmonic search. The R9 detector searches both, and at close range can find many other harmonic devices such as mobile phones.

POC Helmets have Recco
The reflector for Harmonic Radar or RECCO