One of the most important tools for your everyday backcountry trip is an avalanche transceiver or beacon: should you ever get caught in an avalanche and be completely buried, the only way your party will be able to find you in a survivable amount of time is if you and the other members of your party have beacons, and know how to use them properly and efficiently. So, lets go over how to use your beacon!
Before you even go outside, get familiar with your beacon. Figure out how to turn it on, how to check the battery level, where to switch it from transmit to receive, etc. As a novice in the backcountry, I was recommended against the super high-tech beacons with all the coolest features because it is not only unnecessary for the type of trips I am planning, but in the stressful situation of actually needing to use my beacon in search mode, it is extremely helpful to have the process be as simple as possible.
Now you are headed out into the backcountry. Before you even leave the parking lot, you should do a group check. Make sure everyone’s beacons have an adequate battery charge, and that they can transmit and receive signals properly. Once everyone has been checked, make sure all beacons are on and turned to transmit. Either strap the beacon around your torso or clip it inside a pocket (a lot of snow pants have pockets that come with clips specifically for a beacon). Make sure it is in a garment that you will not take off while climbing and possibly forget to move the beacon out of, or on the outside of your body where it might get ripped off in an avalanche. It also helps to keep the beacon close to your body where the batteries stay warm, as well as away from any other electronic devices that could interfere with the signal.
You have skinned to the top of a mountain, picked out a line, and are ready to shred. Your buddy goes first, takes a couple turns and sets off an avalanche. The first step in a rescue happens before the avalanche has even stopped can save you a TON of time on the rescue: watch your buddy and pay attention to where they were last seen during the avalanche. This could save you from searching the top half (or more) of the avalanche path.
All rescuers must then unstrap their beacons and turn them to search mode. If missed, this step can easily waste the rescuer’s time by chasing a fellow rescuer’s signal that was left on transmit. Next, take a look around; does the scene look safe? Are you putting yourself and the other rescuers at risk of another avalanche? You are entering what you already know is an avalanche path and run out zone because you just watched one happen in that exact spot. Don’t put the whole rescue in jeopardy by entering an unsafe scene. The last step is to designate a leader. Emotions will run high and it is important to have someone directing the search.
It is time to start using your beacon and begin the search. There are three phases to this process:
Start from the point where the victim was last seen and look for your beacon to pick up a signal. If you are the solo rescuer, you must switchback down the slope to make sure your beacon searches the entire width of the avalanche path. Make sure there is no more than about 40 meters between each switch back or more than 20 meters (the approximate effective range of a transceiver) between you and the edge of the avalanche path. If you have multiple rescuers, you can spread out approximately 40 meters from each other and move straight down the fall line. It is important to move rapidly yet efficiently during the coarse search…it is much easier and faster to move downhill than uphill, so make sure you aren’t moving so fast down the slope that you detect the signal after you have already passed the victim, then requiring you take your skis off and hike back uphill. The fine search begins as soon as you detect a signal.
Once the signal is detected, move quickly towards the signal (your transceiver will point to where you need to go and tell you how far away the signal is). If you notice the distance between you and the signal is increasing as you follow the arrow, make a 180 degree turn and move in that direction; the signal should start to decrease as you start moving this direction. The transceiver emits an induction line out of the top similar to the magnetic lines of earth. Because of this, the path is curved and may point you “the long way” along the path to the victim, which will cause the distance to increase as you follow the arrow.
When you are within about 10 meters of the victim, start moving your beacon towards the ground. This means you will have to unclip from your skis and get on your knees. Make sure to keep the beacon level with the snow surface. By the time you are within 3 meters of the victim, the beacon should be on the snow and you will start the pinpoint search. During this part of the search, you will stop following the arrows and pay attention to the distance measurements. Move forward with your beacon until you notice the distance increasing. Mark the lowest number with a glove or an X in the snow. Move the beacon an arm’s length away in each direction (up, down, left and right) and make sure you are in fact at the lowest distance reading. If you move the beacon to the left for example and find a lower distance reading than the spot you marked with a glove, this is the new lowest reading. Move the glove to this spot and check an arm’s length away in each direction from this new spot to make sure it is in fact the lowest. Once this close, start probing!
Summary of the search: running towards the signal until you are within 10 meters; by 3 meters, you are on the ground and starting the pinpoint search; then find the lowest reading from your beacon by checking an arm’s length away in each direction.