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The Avalanche Beacon

This past week, (April 2020), has sadly brought two avalanche deaths in the Tetons. It is early, and there are conflicting reports, but there is a possibility that both of the individuals who died had avalanche beacons on their bodies, but that neither had been activated. This post is not about arm-chair quarterbacking, judging their actions, or even debating whether the beacons were off/on/malfunctioned. It IS a retrospective on my own actions that need to change.

I have Avalanche I & II certifications. I know the dangers of avalanches and the value that proper operation of beacons can provide. But I, (and I’m fairly certain that many of my fellow backcountry recreators), make a common mistake when we head into the backcountry. What is this seemingly innocuous “little” mistake that we make? It is that I don’t activate my beacon as I’m departing the vehicle every single time I go out.

For some of you, this seems to be a “no-brainer”, but I’ve been with enough groups and individuals to know that it isn’t always the case. Here are some examples:

1 – The approach is going to be lengthy and it’s in non-avalanche terrain, so I/we make the decision to wait until we get “to the real stuff” before we turn on and do any checks.

2 – I “know” that I’m not going to be an any kind of consequential terrain for the tour that day. I will be in low angle terrain, and not exposed from above by any risk whatsoever. So I/we just leave our beacons off and in the packs.

3 – The avalanche rating for the day is Green, or non-existent, and it has been for days. Nothing has been moving. (I personally am not guilty of this one, but I know it happens).

The problem with this type of thought process is that it makes the wearing and activation of the beacon dependent on a set of decisions to be made every time I go out. By doing this, I introduce a major risk into the equation of safe travels in the backcountry. I now have to consciously make that decision each, and every time that I click in as I head out. (And in some cases, I then have to remember to make that decision again at some point along the way).

In order to gain access to the building where I work, I have to “badge in”. Long ago, I learned that I needed to have a place where my badge is kept so that I won’t forget it when I head out in the morning. For me, I tried keeping it by my wallet, or by my phone, or where I get dressed, but inevitably, I would get busy or in a hurry and forget to grab it. Then I realized that I ALWAYS have my backpack with me when I go to work, so that is where the badge is. The point is that I do something the same way every time and I haven’t had to get a temporary badge since I started doing this.

Sara Lundy of SMG goes through the beacon check with our group.

It’s time for me, (and others), to add this level of rigor to my beacon ritual. No more will the point where I turn on / activate the beacon be based on a process that requires a decision to be made at some point during the tour.

My beacon will be on my body, where it needs to be, and activated before I hit the skin track or the boot pack. No exceptions! And this will apply to anyone that is in my group.

Deaths such as those that occurred in the Tetons this week are tragic and sad. I send my condolences to the family and friends of those lost. Even if they did nothing wrong and it was ultimately the beacons that malfunctioned, this has been an alarm for me! As tragic as those accidents are, it is just as tragic if I /we don’t learn from something like this and change my / our behavior, when and where needed.

In addition to “Know before you go”, I am adding to my own personal credo, “Turn it on before you go”!

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