Blog: The Little Things (that might keep you alive)

Paul Diegel
Special Projects Director
Guest post by Tom Diegel
Backcountry skiing is time spent mostly – but fortunately not completely! – walking uphill. Daniel Kahnemannn, the grandfather of “heuristics” and Nobel laureate who probably has no idea how much he’s influenced avalanche safety, noted that walking generates just the right amount of blood flow to maximize thinking. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of “thinking” about the many habits people practice, or don’t, to keep themselves safe in the backcountry. Avalanche Level 1 and 2 classes teach you a lot about snowpack and terrain, but they don’t always address The Little Things that experienced backcountry travelers use to boost the odds of achieving another safe day in the mountains.
My knowledge and perspective has been gleaned from reading articles, a lot of skin track discussion with smart partners, hearing and reading tales from mishaps that ended both badly and well, and my own personal experience of 1) triggering a huge slide that should have killed me, but didn’t, 2) going for an 800’ ride that fortunately only ended in a badly bruised leg and ego, and 3) conducting a successful rescue of a buried victim, even as it was my mistake that nearly killed him. This is the first of a couple of installments and will focus on the nuances of avalanche transceiver use. Disclaimer – these are not the fundamentals of avalanche safety, they don’t represent the scope of accepted avalanche protocol, and they are probably not going to save your life ‑ but they might.
How to carry your transceiver: Most folks carry their transceivers in a holster or a pocket, but not too many people have their transceivers also tied to the holster or their pants. This is important. When I practice a real rescue (which my partners and I do a few times a season; more on that later) my transceiver gets flung all over the place, and if it weren’t attached to me it’d be easily lost in the frenzy of digging. Most transceivers have a lanyard. Use it. If you keep your transceiver in your pocket, have the cord attached to a belt loop your pants with a toy carabiner.
Cell phones: Do they interfere with transceiver performance? Yes. There has been a bit of conflicting information over time, but the latest studies indicate that even in airplane mode phones still interfere with transceivers in both search and receive modes. A searching transceiver within 50cms (about 18”) of a phone doesn't always display a bad or missing signal, but it does diminish range and accuracy, two attributes you don’t want compromised. A study recently presented at the International Snow Science Workshop looked at how a group of patrollers used their transceivers and showed that even after extensive training, they tended to do a lot of searching in the 30-50 cm separation from a phone which resulted in a measurable reduction in range and accuracy(for reference, my elbow-to-palm measurement is approximately 35 cm). Most searching is done holding the transceiver waist-high, so keep a sense of where your phone is. Here are two good articles about this for more information: and
We use our phones in the backcountry for photos, video, navigation, time-keeping, listening to music, sharing our joy, and appearing to be in the office. Their potential for interference is high, but here is the fundamental takeaway: keep your phone at least 20cms (8”) from your beacon as it’s transmitting, and 50cms (20”) away when it’s in search mode (keep your beacon at arm’s length).
Other electronics: helmet cams, ipods, heated gloves – all reduce the performance of transceivers, and in some cases render them useless. If you need your devices, make sure you understand how much they hinder your ability to find your buried partner. Then ask yourself if you need them that badly and how you plan to manage them when everything goes to hell around you.
Transceiver check: I try to remember to check my partners’ transceivers every day at the trailhead and/or on the skin track and/or at the top of the first run. Several times someone has checked me and then accidentally turned theirs to “off” instead of “transmit”. It pays to double check.
Transceiver turn off: All beacons have some sort of a stop/lock on them to make it difficult for them to be inadvertently turned off, and each manufacturer uses a different method. If you have a multiple burial situation and one victim is dug out first, it’s important to be able to know how to turn that victim’s beacon to off (or receive). So take a look at your buddies’ beacons to confirm you know how to get it out of transmit mode.
Transceiver batteries – Some people wait to turn on their transceivers at the top of the first climb, which seems crazy to me. I put my transceiver on my body and turn it on in the house, or if I have a longer drive I’ll put it in my boot, but fundamentally I have a rule: if my transceiver is on my body, it’s turned on. And consider the consequences of a partner (who didn’t read this) switching on her transceiver at the top of the first run and finding that it was turned on all week and has dead batteries (an extra set of AAAs in the repair kit would fix that). Batteries are cheap and it’s not worth splitting hairs to get a few more days out of a set! I’ll send you $10 if you can’t afford a season-long supply of batteries!
Read next installment of The Little Things HERE.
Thu, 3/2/2017
Great thoughts from a seasoned veteran. Looking forward to the next read!
Thu, 3/2/2017