Nine avalanche beacons were put to the test by novices and pros to determine their effectiveness in the backcountry.
BY F.M. SWANGARD, MD AND BOB SAYER, CSGA in Winter 2015 issue
Not all avalanche tragedies can be spared by electronics but to venture into the backcountry without a transceiver is nothing short of foolish. Your life and your fellow skiers’ lives may depend on carrying the proper equipment. Our latest transceiver test will hopefully find the right one for you.
Transceivers must always be used with a probe and shovel, and practice is the key to best use. However, avoiding rather than surviving avalanches remains the ultimate goal. Learning how to do this can be accomplished through courses available with the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) or the Canadian Ski Patrol (CSP). As well, using the latest regional weather and snow reports from CAC is imperative. Needless to say, if the risk is high, stay out of high-risk areas.
If you’re considering buying an avalanche transceiver, this test has the most up-to-date information for electronic safety in the mountains. All testing was conducted by the Canadian Ski Patrol and the Canadian Ski Guide Association (CSGA). Since the previous test (the condensed version appeared in Ski Canada in 2010), all transceiver manufacturers have either new or updated models.
TRANSCEIVERS TESTED (pictured left to right)
BCA Tracker 2 * BCA Tracker 3 (Part Three of the test only) * Mammut Pulse * Mammut Element * Ortovox S1+ * Ortovox 3+ * Ortovox Zoom+ * Pieps DSP Pro * Pieps DSP Sport
(Note: Pieps Vector not available due to a manufacturer’s recall.)
TESTED FOUR WAYS
PART ONE: Fastest rescue times by experts
PART TWO: Fastest rescue times by novices
PART THREE: Best antennae coupling (how well different transceivers work together in a group)
PART FOUR: Testing a smartphone app as an avalanche rescue tool
THE RESULTS Test results show that “expert” users are able to work with any transceiver and get good results, while “novice” users get better results with transceivers that offer more “help” features.
PART ONE Expert Users:
The average times required by our expert users, the professional mountain guides at Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing in Blue River, B.C., to locate two buried transmitters was very close between the different models. It was clear that the make or model made little difference to the times achieved by the expert users, all within 10-15 per cent of each other. This time difference, of approximately 30 to 40 seconds, would have minimal effect in the success of the rescue of a buried victim, when the total arrival and digging times totalled 15 to 30 minutes, or longer.
It is interesting to note that within the group of professional heli-ski guides, many chose to use either the Mammut Pulse or the Tracker 2 for personal use (which sometimes differs from resort client needs). When asked which transceiver they would prefer, the majority of guides at Wiegele’s indicated that they would prefer the Tracker 2 because of its simplicity. They were not concerned by the lack of “help” features.
PART TWO Novice Users:
There was a much greater spread in the times between the different models as well as the times of the same model with different users. At Manning Park Resort, B.C., students from Abbotsford’s MEI high school practiced with transceivers for the first time. Locating the two buried transmitters was significantly improved using models with good signal suppression flagging systems. The students readily agreed that they found the transceivers with this easy-to-use feature much less stressful.
When asked which transceiver they preferred, the majority chose the Ortovox S1+ or the 3+ because of their ease of use and the flagging system. They especially liked the screen on these models because it allowed them to see if there were additional buried victims and if so, how many.
PART THREE Best Antennae Coupling:
The test demonstrated how different transceivers work together, comparing the antennae reception distance of each transceiver with other transceivers in three different positions of transmission. It would seem prudent for guides and resorts, as well as individuals, to look at the combinations of skiers in a group using more than one brand or model of transceiver where we found both good and poor signals and take this into consideration when purchasing transceivers.
The best combination tested was with the Pieps DSP Pro receiving from a “buried” Ortovox S1+. Any combination of transceivers receiving from the Ortovox S1+ provided very good numbers. The transceivers from the Ortovox 3+ were almost as good.
The worst combination in the test was the Ortovox Zoom+ receiving a signal from a transmitting Tracker 3. Other poor combinations involved the earlier Tracker 3 transmitting to other models. The new BCA Tracker 3, which is slightly smaller and lighter than the Tracker 2, has a much better attachment system, similar to the Ortovox “pouches,” but because it was received quite late in this study, it was not available for the first and second parts of the testing. In part three, it seemed to have a lower transmission distance to other models, especially in the vertical position. (Note: the new Tracker 3 is currently undergoing testing.)
Both Mammut transceivers, which were also in the 2012 study, led to essentially the same test results. The Pulse had the best receiving distance of 50m, while the Element was 54.8m.
The two Pieps models functioned well, with their best distances in the 50m range. Most of their transmission and receiving distances were among the best.
The value of the Smart Antenna System marketed by Ortovox showed a moderate improvement in a vertical position signal from the three models provided for testing, the S1+, 3+ and Zoom+. All models also have a built-in Recco reflector, which enables searchers equipped with a Recco scanner to find a switched-off or damaged transceiver, or unfortunately typically, for body recovery.
PART FOUR Smartphone App:
There are currently three apps for avalanche rescue available for smartphones. Further information was requested for all three, but there was no response from manufacturers. Only the iSis app for iPhone was tested, which came with no instructions, and was evaluated using iPhone 5 and iPhone 5C models.
There has been a great deal of controversy as to whether these non-standard avalanche programs for smartphones should be endorsed or not. There are certainly problems using smartphones as avalanche search tools, particularly because there’s no compatibility with conventional transceivers. The disadvantages of these apps have been well described in an article from the CAC1.
In the iSis app test we were unable to get closer than one to three metres of the buried iPhone. A conventional transceiver would fine search to approximately 10 cm, making the fine-search ability of conventional transceivers far superior to this app. Therefore, a smartphone app would certainly not replace the conventional transceiver. At the very best it could be used to augment a search where the buried person carried both a smartphone and a transceiver. Another significant concern is that smartphones are easily damaged, especially by moisture. This test didn’t attempt to answer the question of whether a smartphone avy app is better than nothing at all.
This test is a first attempt and should be welcomed as such, but these apps are certainly not useable as a single rescue tool and should only be used in conjunction with a conventional transceiver kit.
Nine transceivers were tested, all of which will do the job well. It’s important to remember, any transceiver is better than none. Before you venture beyond the ropes or into the backcountry, check the conditions—if the avalanche risk is high, stay in low-risk areas. And consider hiring a certified mountain guide to lead your group.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Since 1999, and approximately every two years, the authors Michael Swanguard and Bob Sayer have published a test report on the currently available transceivers in Canada.
F.M. Swangard, MD is a Life Member of the Canadian Ski Patrol, a Life Member of the International Commission of Alpine Rescue (IKAR) and an Honorary Member of the Canadian Society of Mountain Medicine.
Bob Sayer is a member of the Canadian Ski Patrol, President of the Canadian Ski Guide Association, Canadian Delegate to IKAR and Operations Manager/Lead Guide at Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing.
Disclosure: This study was not financially supported by any of the transceiver manufacturers.
The complete test results and detailed methodology is included in the unabridged paper as presented at IKAR on October 8, 2014. It’s available here (pdf file). Questions can be directed to IKAR@skipatrol.ca.