Thursday, 21 January 2016

A Few Avalanche Transceiver Findings

Some findings and observations from using these popular avalanche beacons on the last 2 of 6 avalanche training courses in both shallow (< 1m) and deep (2m) 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 a BCA and Ortovox retailer.

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 practise was marking shown, 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.  After group auto revert and radio/phone checks this still occurred when only one beacon was transmitting. This could 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 from null points and a signal was often only 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 easilly and the built in Recco strip so the victim is more searchable from a longer distance by the Recco system.  Gets 5* from me!

BCA Tracker 3
The Tracker 3 is small, and can easily be carried in an inside pocket.  Easily the smallest beacon on the market at present.  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 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.  You can do this yourself or if you have bought it from me bring it round and I will do it for you at no cost. Gets 5* from me!
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 (ridiculous!) 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. Maybe the upgrade was a downgrade?  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.  It still works and is 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 fast 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 - get an upgrade!) and it shows how far ahead of its time is was. Auto revert default OFF

Auto revert or random transmit from rubber-neckers is the curse of the avalanche search. Be aware of it.  These are just some thoughts from trying every beacon on the market. There are no bad ones and they all have quirks, so get out and find them and practise  Your money would be well spent on any of the ones listed apart from an old T1 from a mate or off eBay!

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