Sunday, 22 February 2015

Avalanche Transceiver Training



Avalanche Transceiver Training and Companion Recovery Training

Cost is £25.  Group Size is maximum of 8. Best if you have your own kit as that is what you need to practise with. Training contact time is 2.5 hours. Loan kit from Ortovox and ARVA is available on request.

We use Glencoe's excellent beacon training park and do search and recovery scenarios on ski, so at times it’s fairly mobile training. The thrust of the training is in the context of avalanche avoidance with these search and recovery tools being required when decisions and planning have gone awry.

Meet at 11am at the Beacon park next to the lowest “T” Bar below the plateaux Café


·                     Avalanche Forecast 101: 
Interpretation of the avalanche risk

The context: When you make a poor decision >

·                     Beacon Searching 101: 
Phases of a search, search patterns, signal spikes, antenna orientation and smart antenna technology, Searching strategies, mark/flag pitfalls and problems

·                     Probing 101: 
Probing during pinpoint and deep burials

·                     Digging 101: 
Strategic shoveling and conveyor shoveling

·                     Victim recovery: 
Basic first aid for the victim

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 reacquired after switching back to transmit briefly, then back into search. Students liked its speed, simplicity and clear display. Default auto revert is ON

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
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!

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Ortovox S1+ Transceiver


I have been very impressed by the Ortovox S1+ this season during training.  It's more like a flip lid mobile phone and quite different form other transceivers. Unlike most transceivers that lock you on a flux line for a longish period, the S1+ seems to work out the shortest distance across the flux lines and jumps you across in a straight line to the victim.  So you just walk straight to the victim following a line on the display.  It's very fast and handles signal spikes extremely well in deep burial scenarios.

If you walk past the victim it puts you the searcher icon behind a line.

I also like the fact that you can see the position of other buried victims relative to you the searcher and their distance away on the display screen. Marking seems very good indeed and the processor monitors the buried beacons pulse rates and will not let you mark if it senses signal overlap and displays a warning hand and a "55" . This has the best mark feature I have come across. Having said that I strongly believe that every one should know the basic search patterns of searching in series or parallel and micro grid before learning or relying on the mark feature.

More details on here Ortovox S1+ Information

I think this a is a bit of a star buy and a damn good avalanche transceiver for a professional or MRT's

Friday, 13 February 2015

Glencoe Mountain Transceiver Training Park Success

Avalanche Avoidance and Companion Rescue
The most up to date training system in use at Glencoe Scotland

Eight independent beacons that transmit a signal at the international standard for avalanche transceivers of 457kHz are permanently buried in up to 4m of snow at Glencoe Mountain ski resort. They are looked after by Glencoe Mountain staff, Ski Patrol and Davy Gunn who runs avalanche education training on Glencoe Mountain

Hamish at the 2011 opening
In collaboration with Anatom who supplied a wired starter training system to get things going in 2011. Glencoe Mountain Resort provided a piece of snow sure land, help from the staff and some financial help to start the training park 4 years ago.  The original park was opened by Hamish MacInnes the famous mountaineer and rescuer. Last winter money raised by Clachaig Inn on their annual winter series of mountain safety lectures at the hotel provided funding for the new wireless avalanche search training system in place this winter. The hotels owner is a member of Glencoe Mountain Rescue and a friend of both his and Davy Gunn’s (Chris Bell) was lost in an avalanche in Glencoe in 2013 where 4 people lost their lives in one avalanche. The original wired system is now in use at a training park at Glenshee ski centre and it’s hoped to raise funds to get a similar and more effective wireless system in place there. As at Glencoe, the one at Glenshee provides a snow sure and accessible training venue for local mountain rescue teams, mountaineering groups and off piste and touring skiers.

Practising digging effectively, a crucial
and often overlooked part of avalanche rescue
The general public has free access to use this training system which stays out all winter at any time.  All they have to do is check in with the Glencoe Mountain staff or  ski patrol to see if it’s already in use that day. Demonstration hand held transceivers to search for the buried beacons are supplied for use on training courses by Ortovox UK (Noble Custom), Anatom (Back Country Access) and Rosker (ARVA Nix Impex) or folk can bring their own to practice with. Each of the eight buried beacons also has a RECCO reflector inside so that mountain rescue and ski patrol can practise using this alternative search system as well as transceivers. Organised rescue teams use RECCO which is harmonic radar that can also be used from a helicopter. RECCO is a standard search tool by mountain rescue in Europe but as yet only two Scottish mountain rescue teams, one ski patrol use it. No search and rescue helicopters have adopted it in the UK for avalanche rescue to date

The training park beacons are buried deeply in the snow so that searching for them proves difficult, simulating searching a real avalanche for a victim. As it’s wireless there are no wires to degrade or get cut by shovels as folk dig, and different avalanche burial scenarios can be created from single to multiple victim burials by alternating which buried beacons are transmitting from a control box. When a victim/beacon is found by a searcher, contact with the buried beacon by a snow probe sends a signal back to the control box confirming a success.
Ortovox 3+ a modern fast avalanche transceiverr

Every skier going off piste or touring in the mountains should carry three essential items. A transceiver to be located or locate a buried companion, a collapsible snow probe to confirm the victim’s location and a strong aluminium shovel to dig them out quickly.

Glencoe ski patrol practising in the park
Recovery of buried companions in an avalanche is time critical with a 90% survival if victims are located and dug out within less than 15 minutes. After this time survival is very poor, therefore practise in locating and digging is critical. One of the training beacons is inside a resuscitation mannequin so that digging it out is like excavating a real victim and some care is required. The park importantly provides an opportunity for ski patrol to talk to those practising and emphasise the importance of avoiding avalanche terrain by interpreting the area avalanche forecast and local weather effects and therefore make wise and safe choices avoiding avalanche terrain for the day.

Without the support of Clachaig Inn, its staff and the public donating at the winter lectures this mountain safety initiative just would not have been possible. The enthusiasm and support by Glencoe Mountain owner Andy Meldrum and his staff by providing snow sure land, tending to the park and investing in its upkeep is tremendous. A particular mention of thanks to Glencoe Ski Patrollers Christine and Keith Hill who are always on hand to give sound advice to skiers and boarders and who maintain the park.
Killin Mountain Rescue and a group of Freeride skiers using the training park

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

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
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   BCA Snow Safety & Mammut Snow Safety

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. Learn to know what you don't know! (The Dunning Kreuger Effect)

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 and any browse of excellent news sites like piste hors will tell you that even folk dug out very quickly with advanced life support don't often survive. (Triple "H" syndrome is Hypoxia, Hypercapnia 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). 15m as often shown in survival graphs is quite optimistic. You need to search faster and dig faster which means practise more!

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.