Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Recco's in Scotland

Recco - 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 when companion recovery fails: Dogs, Recco and Probe Lines. Until recently Scotland has only been able to apply two of the three, unlike alpine rescue avalanche search where for years all three have been used as an all in approach. Survival is time critical. So it's really good that Nevis Range Ski Patrol are now equipped with a detector and for folk wanting the additional security to the three essentials they can buy Recco reflectors at the ticket office. Mountaineers in Scotland don't tend to carry the three essentials and education may well be the key, but it doesn't seem to change the fact that most fatalities are for mountaineers, often multiple burials in terrain traps and perhaps being searchable might just save a life or return someone remains to their loved ones for closure that much quicker even if sadly too late.  gives a fairly common sense approach. But errāre hūmānum es

Much has been made of trauma being the main factor in poor survival in Scottish avalanches. I have heard it punted often and its refered to in places like UK Climbing. Sometimes this is from professional mountaineers and even rescuers. Without any study from this country (Scotland) we can only apply the data from European studies and that indicates that 73% of deaths are from asphyxiation, 25% Trauma and 2% Hypothermia. Studies per country for example the USA are not dissimilar (see pic below) and several published studies support the notion that we can most likely say its most likely the same ratios apply in Scotland. Its also worth speaking to the rescuers who were on scene at some of the major Scottish avalanches, and while only anecdotal it lends support that the pattern is the same here. One catastrophic event in one Glen can easily overwhelm, but things need looked at over a long period and from all areas to make conclusions and avoid post incident bias from any one event where avalanche and trauma combine. This becomes especially important looking to the future as the victim base changes from primarily mountaineers to skiers who are now in ever increasing numbers skiing "Backcountry" Freeride/Touring and "Splitboarding".

To reiterate: Opinion from some might lead the public to believe that trauma is the main killer in Scottish avalanches. This in my own opinion is not really backed up by evidence and may in fact be dangerous as it allows those hearing it to anchor to the precept that "being searchable" and carrying companion rescue equipment is pointless as its not the asphyxia, it's going to be trauma that kills you. This is dangerously misleading in my opinion. Trauma may well be a contributing factor on the time continuum of survival, and in some cases due to the unique nature of Scottish winter climbing Scotland may have some more pure trauma deaths from avalanche, but that's not the whole story and the recreational demographic is changing.  I wrote a Blog post on this some time ago with some "back of an envelope conclusions". These cannot and should not be taken as gospel as its just very rough opinion. If nothing else its a wooden spoon to create debate

So, its not a given from Scottish data collection (scope for a project for someone) and even if the odds are higher for injury, then unless folk are searchable victims who could be saved from asphyxia will continue to be lost under the snow until its too late. It's also incumbent for folk in avalanche education to give a broader picture as most ski students on an avalanche class will also be going abroad. My own experience is that its a trip to an unfamiliar country or wish to explore more off piste at an alpine resort that triggers folk taking an avalanche class as much as it is wanting to be aware of the Scottish conditions. We need to continue to give the bigger picture.

Further reading should include: 

Causes of death from avalancheBrugger HEtter HJBoyd JFalk M. 

Cause of death in avalanche fatalitiesMcIntosh SEGrissom CKOlivares CRKim HSTremper B.

USA figures are not too dissimilar to Europe but World studies and the numbers involved are much larger.

Some Scottish MR teams already have Recco as part of their search strategy (Tayside, Glencoe, Cairngorm MRT/Ski Patrol) and Nevis Range, Glencoe Ski Patrol's. 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.

Every avalanche professional 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 or the survivors at Nevis Range ski area who were buried for 18 hours.

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 and are available 
from me for £19 each. I also have capsule ones that can be moved 
from pocket to pocket for £20 each or £38 a pair.
As "off piste" and "Back Country" 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 patrol 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.

So Recco is here in Scotland and its great to see the take up by some 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  money well spent.
Live recovery of a victim located by her Recco reflector  from 1.5m winter 2016

Some Examples From Season 2015

The following are some rescues where RECCO technology made a difference, or could have. The first two rescues mentioned below occurred in Spain’s Pyrenees and deserve attention as they highlight the importance of being searchable. At Baqueira, RECCO technology quickly located and saved a buried off-piste skier, which then helped rescuers find the second buried skier who was also found alive. In the other accident at Candanchú, the search operation and outcome were very different as the skier was not searchable. Rescuers found the skier dead the next day. 

Baqueira-Beret, Val d'Aran, Spain, 2 February 2015
Located in the Pyrenees, Baqueira-Beret is the largest and busiest ski resort in Spain. On Monday, February 2, a group of 4 off-piste skiers were caught, and 2 with no rescue gear were completely buried in a soft slab avalanche. The ski patrol responded immediately. The RECCO detector operator found the first skier buried 1.4 meters after a 6-minute search. The skier’s cell phone (facing the surface) likely reflected the RECCO signal. Once found, rescuers had the indication where to focus their effort and located the second skier, buried 1.5 meters, about 20 minutes later by probing. Both skiers survived. Mountain rescuers from the Bombers de la Generalitat with their helicopter joined seventeen ski patrollers to rescue the pair. It is not easy (and sometimes it’s impossible) to find a cell phone or other electronic device because of weak signals and short ranges, but this rescue highlights the importance of searching with the RECCO even when the person does not have reflectors. Special thank you to Francesc Rocher, ski patrol director, for sharing details.

Candanchú, Huesca, Spain, 31 January 2015
At the end of January the Candanchú ski resort was hit by heavy snows and strong winds, which closed parts of the resort. On the 31st, two backcountry skiers triggered an avalanche in the Rinconada area, an area that was closed at that time because of the severe weather. Neither skier carried any rescue equipment. One was not buried and called 112 (equivalent of 911). Ski patrollers found him suffering from hypothermia. The other skier was buried, and rescuers from the ski patrol and the Guardia Civil searched RECCO, dogs, and probes into the evening before suspending the search because of bad weather and increasing avalanche danger. The search resumed early Sunday morning. As the skier was not searchable he was eventually located – deceased – by probe line some 20 hours after the avalanche. Special thank you to RECCO Techs (and Bomber instructors) Bernat and Francois Carola for additional information.

Polar Circus, Banff, Canada, 2 February 2015
Late Thursday afternoon in Banff National Park a Canadian Forces search and rescue technician was swept over a cliff while he and his partner descended Polar Circus (700+ m ice climb) on an official military training. The pair had just rappelled the upper portion of the route to a steep, snow-covered bench. The victim triggered an avalanche after moving ahead to set up the next anchor while his partner coiled the ropes. His partner searched the area, but neither had transceivers. Late that night the Parks Canada mountain rescue team received word of the accident. An incoming storm dropped up to 1 m of new snow by Saturday, which prevented any searching on the ground. Extensive mitigation work with explosives on Sunday triggered many big avalanches that spilled down the route. On Monday park rescuers were short hauled by helicopter onto the debris and searched for a few hours with 2 dogs and RECCO. Because the terrain is a technical ice climb, all searching was done while roped. Since it was known the climber was not equipped with a reflector, the RECCO search was done slowly with a tight grid pattern. As the dogs were equipped with reflectors, the operator had to wait for the dogs to move out of a sector before searching with the detector. On Wednesday a detector operator picked up a RECCO signal that was being reflected back by a Mammut headlamp the victim carried in his backpack. He was located under 2.7m of debris. This search is a good reminder to use the detector’s earbud headphones especially when searching for incidental electronic devices. Weak signals can be better heard when using earbuds. 

Zakopane, Poland, 21 February 2015
On Saturday, as strong winds caused heavy blowing snow, two tourists set out for a hut in the Valley of Five Polish Ponds. When they failed to reach the hut by 0100 the hut master called rescuers. Early Sunday morning TOPR rescuers, assisted by rescuers from Slovakia, spotted and started searching several recent avalanches with probes, dogs and RECCO without success. The search continued on Monday. An appeal for information over local television and radio resulted in several photographs showing the pair. While searching a small avalanche (80 x 5 meters) on Tuesday afternoon a RECCO detector operator detected a signal. A probe confirmed the signal. A second signal was detected nearby. The first victim was buried one meter deep, the other 2.5 meters. The pair had followed the summer trail, which is threatened by significant avalanche danger rather than taking the safer and longer winter trail. The first victim was buried one meter deep, the other 2.5 meters. The pair had followed the summer trail, which is threatened by significant avalanche danger rather than taking the safer and longer winter trail. The victims likely triggered the avalanche, and apparently were traveling together when caught. Neither victim had a transceiver. Both victims were found because of their cell phones. Special thank you to Andrzej Górka of TOPR for sharing details of the SAR operation. 

Orelle, Savoire, France, 3 March 2015
Four skiers were caught in a small slab avalanche that swept 3 skiers over a 15m cliff and buried 1 skier. The alarm was sounded immediately and 2 ski patrollers arrived quickly with transceivers and a RECCO detector. The search area was relatively small (25 x 20m) and one rescuer quickly got a signal with the RECCO detector. This victim was uncovered from a 40cm burial after only a 12-minute burial. The victim was unconscious, but breathing, and had suffered a significant head injury. The mountain rescue team and emergency doctors arrived and treated the patient before he was flown to a Grenoble hospital. The patient was not equipped with a reflector, but was found by a weak signal that likely came from a cell phone. When the RECCO operator did not detect a signal during the first pass, he started to search in microstrips (few meters wide) with the detector just above the snow surface. Reported by Frederic Gros, Orelle Ski Patrol and Recco operator

Monday, 23 October 2017

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 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 practice 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 ocassionally 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.