The new heli-ski avalanche transceiver
Every few years a new avalanche rescue transceiver, or beacon, becomes the new standard, and as with every generation of beacons the best one is the one that never gets used in an avalanche. To get an idea of the changes with the new equipment this year, I questioned Kevin Christakos, Assistant Manager at CMH McBride, transceiver expert for CMH guide training, member of the CMH Mountain Safety Advisory Group, and a fan of all varieties of snow toys ranging from little kids sleds to big kid sleds and whatever skis are on his feet.
TD: Are all 12 CMH lodges using new transceivers this year?
KC: Starting this winter all CMH areas will be using the Mammut Barryvox Pulse transceiver. The guides have been using it for the past two years and it was used in McBride, Valemount and Bobbie Burns last winter. During this time we have been giving feedback to manufacturer, which has then been incorporated into the development of the latest version.
TD: What are the advantages of the new generation of beacons?
KC: These new beacons are great, they are very easy to use, have a significantly larger range (you find them sooner), and they are able to separate the signals so if there is more than one signal to be found it is much easier; this is a very big change.
TD: Will they be much better for novice users or just better for guides and experienced users?
KC: The transceiver is now a small computer and is programmed differently for the two user groups. For novice users the transceiver does all the work and the user is simply giving it legs to get around. For guides more options are available so they can take control of automated functions in certain situations and wring the maximum performance from the transceiver.
TD: Any problems (like tripping the switch from search to send while searching) with the new beacons?
KC: All modern transceivers are designed in a way that the user can quickly change from searching to sending a signal in the event of another avalanche. This means the user must take precautions not to accidentally switch over to send during a rescue and confuse the other rescuers. To avoid this, when you are not actively searching the transceiver is placed back into the harness. Don't let it dangle from the retention cord this is a sure way to accidentally switch from search to send. The Pulse beacon also emits a warning signal when it is switched back to send so if it is accidentally bumped you will hear it.
TD: Other transceiver advice for heli-skiers?
KC: Transceivers are part of a rescue package that also includes radios, probes and shovels - all part of the CMH Guest Pack. It is equally important to train in the use of all of them. Interestingly, we tend to focus on beacons but the longest and most difficult phase of rescue is the shoveling. Having a plan for how you will dig someone out and training with it makes a world of difference when the clock is ticking.
There is also some great information available online. The Canadian Avalanche Centre is an excellent resource and even has an intro course you can do online for free. Mammut, the maker of the Barryvox Pulse, has a good educational and technical section of their website as well.
Every heli-skier is required to train in use the radio, shovel, probe, and transceiver before going heli-skiing with CMH. Thanks to decades of collective experience by snow scientists, mountain guides, ski patrol, other snow professionals and the CMH Snow Safety program, the vast majority of heli-skiers never use avalanche rescue equipment in an avalanche scenario, but this training is an essential time to switch out of holiday mode and pay attention to a system that is not difficult to learn and does save lives.