Friday, January 14, 2011

Glitches in beacons, Avalung said to be ‘minor’

Over reliance on technology may be larger problem

Express Staff Writer

An employee at The Elephant’s Perch in Ketchum displays the Tracker 2 beacon, which transmits a signal that allows rescuers to locate an avalanche victim. Though this beacon is functional, a few Tracker 2 beacons sold before late December have a software glitch that may prevent them from transmitting for brief spurts. Photo by David N. Seelig

The Avalung by Black Diamond and the Tracker 2 beacon by Backcountry Access, two popular avalanche safety items, have been reported as faulty by manufacturers and are in need of repair or upgrade.

The beacon is the most recent version. Malfunctioning beacons switch unprompted into opticomm mode, which is a programming mode used to download new software. The beacon stops transmitting a signal when in that mode.

"As a safety issue, it's pretty minor," said Andy Munter, owner of Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum.

Munter said the beacons only stop transmitting for a short period of time, and that the mode switch is always accompanied by a beep.

"It's very obvious if you have a problem," he said.

Bruce Edgerly, vice president of Backcountry Access, said only 10 of the thousands of beacons shipped have been known to malfunction, and Munter said he's had no complaints regarding the few dozen units his store sold.

The beacons are not being recalled, as the problem can be fixed with a voluntary software upgrade, available free of charge by returning the beacon to Backcountry Access.

Certain Avalung models, however, are being recalled. Black Diamond reports that the intake tube, which brings fresh air to an avalanche victim buried under the snow, has been shown to crack in extremely cold temperatures.

"My gut feeling is that it's not a huge deal," said Chris Lundy, director of the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center. "If I had one, I'd probably send mine back, but I don't know that I'd panic."

Munter said he hadn't heard any consumer complaints, though his store likely sold a few affected Avalungs. The recall applies only to certain models sold during 2010, including the Bandit, Outlaw and Agent packs.

Lundy and Munter said they don't see the problems as cause for widespread concern, and Lundy said avalanche gear should not be the sole measure backcountry enthusiasts use to stay safe.

"I have no problems with all of this technology—I think it's great," Lundy said, "[But] that should be the last safety net."

Lundy said the problem with the Avalung is that it can be difficult to use when being swept up in a slide.


"You have to get this tube in your mouth and hold it," he said. "You're not going to ski with it in your mouth, so it's a tricky thing to do under the gun of an avalanche."

Once buried, the user may not be able to move enough to grab the tube, which limits the pack's function.

And, Lundy said, "as the technology gets more complicated, there are more things that can go wrong."

"Risk homeostasis" is another concern Lundy said he has with the latest gear. Just as drivers with studded tires may drive faster and more dangerously in snow, skiers or snowboarders with the best gear may take more extreme risks in the backcountry.

"That's a documented phenomenon," Lundy said. "One little check that people can do in the backcountry is say, 'Would I do this without a beacon?' It just gets you thinking."

Still, Lundy recommended that everyone in the backcountry carry an avalanche beacon, preferably the newest three-antennae models such as the Tracker 2, which help pinpoint a victim's location.

Lundy said digital beacons are generally very reliable, and there is absolutely no way to compensate for a missing or malfunctioning beacon.

But neither beacon nor Avalung, even properly functioning, can protect avalanche victims in all circumstances.

"Airbags, beacons and Avalungs aren't going to do a thing if you smack a tree," Lundy said. "That's not to say I wouldn't recommend getting them, [but] the important thing to remember is that you're likely to get injured by hitting trees or rocks."

Any Tracker 2 beacons shipped since late December are free from the problem. Owners of the beacons should contact Backcountry Access at (303) 417-13455.

Avalung model numbers can be checked at Backwoods, online or by calling Black Diamond at (801) 278-5533.

"We do have a list, and if anybody is concerned, we can let them know if their packs are recalled," Munter said.

Affected systems should be returned for inspection or replacement using the form on the Black Diamond website. The company currently estimates that packs will be replaced by March.

Katherine Wutz:

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