How To Use an Avalanche Beacon


Imagine this: you and your ski partner just skinned to the top of an open bowl. You have all the necessary equipment–brand-new transceivers in your pockets,

twin backpacks with shovel and probes. This will be a breeze, you think. This will be easy. The sun filters through the now-departing clouds and slants across the slope in sword-like lines, revealing the slight undulations in the blanket of fresh snow. You’ve waited all week for this, checking the forecast, watching the snow piling up in the mountains while you sit at your office desk. This is going to be good. It has to be.

You’re feeling magnanimous, so you look at your partner and say, “It’s all yours man. Go for it.”

Your friend doesn’t need to be told twice. He pushes off the lip of the bowl, gaining speed and momentum and makes his first turn. You can almost hear the swish of face shots. You smile. It will be your turn soon.

What happens next seems too slow and counteractive to be real.

The slope, just below where your tips hang over the small cornice at the top, breaks away.

You watch your friend. He doesn’t even feel it yet. On either side of him, the slope pulls away, leaving a gash–nearly two feet high in places–and moves as a single piece towards the trees below. You yell, but your friend doesn’t hear you. He still can’t see the momentum gathering behind him. He only feels the snow moving underneath him. He thinks he’s getting face shots.

Then he disappears. The avalanche grows like a living thing, like a huge fungus, reaching higher, drawing in all the fresh snow in its wake. The cloud engulfs your friend, and you watch in horror. You see only his arm raise up, then perhaps a ski fly into the now-smoking cloud of powder snow flying down the mountain. It has quickly gained speed, and you bring your hand to your mouth. You feel like you might throw up.

The snow settles, the slope smooth now but for the small, stripped chunks of debris pushed up against the odd tree here and there. The world is suddenly quiet.

You grab your transceiver and turn it to receive, sweating and breathing hard as the processor searches for your friend. Nothing yet. What do you do now?

1) Before committing yourself to the slope, be sure it’s safe. Look for hang-fire–large sections of undisturbed snow that could still slide. Stay in the avalanche path, do not venture to either side of it or get below an area of fresh snow. Where there’s been one avalanche, there can be another.

2) Start at the last seen point. Ski down to the point you know you saw your friend (you were watching him closely, right?) and start your search from there. From that point, your friend will be somewhere below you in a straight line. Don’t bother veering left and right, if you have a last seen point.

3) Scan the slope for any signs of your friend. You may see a glove or ski sticking out of the snow. If so, grab that object and pull. Your friend might still be attached to it.

4) If you don’t see any obvious clues, turn your transceiver to receive and start side slipping straight down. If your partner was wearing his transceiver (which you should have checked before starting your tour, right?), you should pick up a signal. Most of today’s transceivers, such as the Pieps DSP (my trusted beacon), use three antennas and have a direction and distance indicator. With a range of up to 60 meters, the beacon quickly points you toward the buried victim.

5) Hold the beacon in your hands, pointing straight out from you. You can either move the beacon to follow the arrows (my preferred method) or hold the beacon in a fixed direction and simply change your direction to follow the arrows. Be sure the distance is getting less as you approach your friend. Since the beacon transmits and receives in a three-dimensional plane (think the core of an apple sending a signal that wraps around the victim like the skin, in which all transmission “lines” will bring the searcher towards the middle), the arrows can, at first, send you in the opposite direction and bring you back around, which can waste valuable time.

6) Once the distance indicator reaches it’s lowest number (this could be as little as 1 meter if the victim isn’t buried too deep), start using a grid method to pinpoint. At this point, I always keep my beacon in a fixed position and move it across the slope. Be patient here. The digital processor in some beacons take a second to display, so time your movements with the transceiver’s. Hold the beacon over the snow (as close to the surface as possible) until the distance displays (let’s say its 1.7 meters). Then move it to the right say 10 cm and wait until you get your next readout (let’s say it’s 1.5 meters). Okay great, you’re getting closer. Keep moving the beacon across the slope until you find the smallest distance (let’s say you get as low as 1.1 meters). Mark that spot, then move in a straight line perpendicular to your first line and find the smallest distance on that line (let’s say it’s 0.9 meters.) Mark that spot.

7) Probe the area in which your beacon indicated the smallest number. If you do not find anything (a person feels squishy, not hard) move out in a spiral away from that pinpoint. If you have done an adequate pinpoint, you should not have to re-search with your beacon. However, if your smallest distance was 2 meters, either the victim may be quite deep or your pinpoint was inaccurate.

8 ) Once you probe your friend, shovel strategically. Especially if the victim is deep, consider how you can most quickly get to his airway. A deep hole, the width of your shovel, will be useless. Instead, start below the victim, using the angle of the hill to your advantage, and dig towards the probe (which, once it hits its mark, should not be removed). In this way, you will be able to drag the person out more easily instead of having to pull him straight up and out of a deep hole.

9) Get to your friend’s airway as soon as possible. Also, remember that heavy snow on the chest can make it difficult to breathe. So shovel snow away from the victim’s mouth and chest first.

10) As soon as you find the victim, turn your transceiver back to transmit, in the event of a second avalanche.

Needless to say, no one thinks they will become the victim of an avalanche. But it can happen quickly. It can even happen on sunny days, in the midst of face shots, on an otherwise perfectly glorious day.

Practice with your beacon before you need it. Better yet, make sure your partner practices with his or her beacon. If you ski at Crystal, you’re in luck. Located just outside the Campbell Basin Lodge is the Easy Searcher Beacon Station. All you need is your transceiver (or visit the patrol shack and ask for help, he or she can let you borrow his or hers). Probes are provided. Six targets that transmit a beacon signal are buried on the slope. Just press the start button (you can choose to practice with one signal or make it more difficult by simulating multiple buried victims) and begin your search. Once you probe the object (it’s 12″ x 12″ piece of wood) lights and sirens will go off. You can also check your time. I try to find two victims under two minutes.

For those of you looking for backcountry, or even side-country, freshies, and with all of the recent avalanche activity in the Cascades, there’s no excuse not to know how to use a beacon. Practice it now. It just might save a life someday.

11 responses »

  1. Great article! and with all the snow piling up out here in the Sierras very timely.

    To anyone heading into the backcountry I would also recommend taking a wilderness first aid course with a wilderness CPR component.


  2. Great post. So glad to have found your blog this season, your posts are always insightful and very well-written … thank you!

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  4. Kim, what is your advice regarding bringing beacons, probes, and shovels into a resort (like Crystal)? Is there an avalanche danger within bounds at resorts? For example, I’m talking skiing/boarding the runs off of the Northway and High Campbell lifts. I know it doesn’t hurt, ever, to carry and practice with avalanche gear but has there ever been an avalanche inbounds? Does this happen? My uneducated guess would be that if there was any danger that day, the ski patrol wouldn’t open these areas to the riders.

    As a new boarder who’s finding more “fun” off of the groomed runs and in more difficult but powdery bowls, I see a lot of people at Crystal carrying packs with avy gear. But these same people don’t seem to be hiking anywhere “special” because they are taking the same lifts I am. Where are they going that they need the equipment? I know they are not skinning and traveling into any “backcountry.”

    Please excuse the newbie questions. 🙂 I’m improving my skills greatly these last few seasons and always want to be informed and safe. It’s actually pretty tough finding any information on this. I can read about backcountry exploration all day but what about the people who want to get away from the groomers but still stay at a resort in the sidecountry?


    • Great questions. The big difference between front country and back or sidecountry is skier compaction. In a maritime snow pack, once new snow is heavily skied, it becomes more stable. Our front country is heavily skied and usually more stable than the side country. Having said that, during deep snow conditions, it is a good idea to wear a transceiver when tree wells are also a major hazard. I wear one every day regardless of conditions because batteries are cheap. However, if you always ski the groomers avalanche gear isn’t necessary. If you want to ski southback, then we recommend skiing with a partner and all the gear. Hope that answers your questions.

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