Monday, December 31, 2012

SW Colorado Conditions--Dangerous Persistent Deep Slabs

Colorado continues to suffer from a persistent weak layer at base of their snowpack due to a dry early winter. In this video, our friends at the Crested Butte Avalanche Center show us just how problematic it is down there.

If you are skiing in Southwestern Colorado, watch this video!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Avalanche--Aspen Ski Patroller Swept Off Cliff

An Aspen Ski Patroller was fatally injured today after being swept off a cliff by a small avalanche. This is the first avalanche related fatality in Colorado this season.

The name of the ski patroller has yet to be released. Apparently, the ski patroller was skiing alone in a permanently closed area when they triggered a small slab avalanche that swept them off a cliff. It is unknown whether the ski patroller was buried though the circumstances certainly point to trauma as the cause of death.

A dry early winter in Colorado has produced a dangerous structure to the snowpack--not uncommon in continental areas--where well developed  facets are sitting at the base of the pack.

It is not known whether or not the Aspen Ski Patroller was wearing an airbag or if the victim was even buried. However, this incident should remind us of the dangers of skiing above exposure--cliffs, crevasses, and terrain traps minimize our margin of safety dramatically. Safety equipment is severely limited when avalanche victims come face to face with consequential terrain.  In fact, a deployed airbag will possible force the victim to move faster and further in an avalanche, perhaps making contact with the exposure more likely.

It is not uncommon for me to ski above exposure in my home areas of the Tetons and the Chugach Mountains. This is a vital reminder that even a small slide or sluff can have disastrous effects when coupled with exposure.

Our condolences to the friends and family of the Aspen Ski Patrol.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Valdez Heli-Ski Guides launches Airbag demo program

Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, ( located on Thompson Pass outside of Valdez, Alaska, has upgraded their guest beacon fleet with the Mammut Element for the 2013 season.

Valdez Heli-Ski Guides was founded in 1993 by Doug and Emily Coombs. It was the first guided heli-ski operation on Thompson Pass and is currently the oldest heli-ski operation in Alaska. In 2001 Scott Raynor purchased VHSG from the Coombs'.

Scott Raynor, states, "The Mammut Element beacon provides our guests with a very simple unit which can also be effectively used in the unlikely event of a multiple burial emergency. We believe the combination of simplicity and multiple burial functionality offered by the Element makes this the best technology available for our guests."

Also for 2013, VHSG has purchased RAS Rocker 18 airbags that will be made available for their guests. VHSG will not require the use of airbags. Rather, they are making sure guests have access to all possible safety equipment.

Says Raynor, "Anecdotal and scientific evidence both show that airbags are legitimate safety tools. For 2013, VHSG will make sure our guests have access to airbags. However, like helmets, they will be optional."

Other operators in Alaska providing Mammut/Snowpulse airbags for guests include Chugach Powder Guides and Points North Heli Adventures.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Alpine Meadows Ski Patroller Dies

The Tahoe community has been blessed with a lot of snow over this holiday season. Unfortunately, this has been accompanied with serious avalanche hazard which has resulted in some near misses, minor injuries, the fatality of a snowboarder at Donner Ski Ranch, and now--the fatality of a 28 year veteran of the  Meadows Ski Patrol.

Bill Foster, 53, died yesterday in a California hospital after being involved in an avalanche during mitigation work at Alpine Meadows on Monday. Foster was doing routine avalanche hazard mitigation work when the slide broke higher and wider than he or his team expected.

My deepest condolences to the Alpine Meadows Ski Patrol.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Knox Frank Memorial Scholarship for Avalanche Education

Knox Frank loved the mountains. His passion, combined with his charismatic wit, was simply contagious. The only thing that made the mountains better for Knox was sharing them with friends, of which he had many.

Knox died in an avalanche while skiing with a group of friends in the spring of 2012. To honor the memory of Knox and share his love for the backcountry experience with others, Crested Butte Mountain Guides is offering the Knox Frank Memorial Scholarship.

This scholarship honors Knox’s memory as a skier, community member, mentor and friend. It provides an opportunity for a backcountry enthusiast to take an avalanche course in Crested Butte, Colorado. This scholarship is unique in that it offers the chosen participant to walk in Knox’s shoes, in his beloved backcountry community of Crested Butte, where his memory is still strong and alive.

This is an incredible opportunity for someone to further his/her backcountry education while experiencing a memorable time in a true ski town community.

The chosen winner will receive a FREE Avalanche Education package in Crested Butte, Colorado (an estimated total value of $1000 - $1500 depending on type of course chosen) and would include:

• Enrollment in any scheduled AIARE Level 1, Level 2, or Refresher Course with Crested Butte Mountain Guides,
• Lodging from Irwin Outfitting,
• Breakfast/lunch food supplied by Izzy’s Deli, and
• Evening food and beverages provided by the Brick Oven Pizzeria and Pub.

Scholarship qualifications:

Applicants are required to submit a short video (no more than 5 minutes) or essay (no more than 1000 words) describing who you are and why you love skiing and the climbing in the mountains. This is easy - we are looking for people like Knox who love adventures in the mountains. We also need to know:

• Where you live?
• What skiing and spending time in the mountains means to you?
• How do you integrate a passion for being in the mountains into your daily life?
• What course you are interested in?
• Your age?

Upon completion of the course, the scholarship recipient will be required to provide the following:

• a 5 minute video about what they learned
• 5 pictures from the course
• a thank you note to scholarship sponsors

To apply please send in your essay or video application by January 15, 2013 to: Crested Butte Mountain Guides, ℅ Knox Frank Memorial Scholarship, PO Box 1718, Crested Butte, CO 81224

The winner will be announced on the Town Of Crested Butte’s Official ‘Knox Frank Day’: January 26, 2013.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Tragedy Strikes Tahoe: Inbounds Avalanche Takes the Life of Tahoe Man

Tragedy has struck at Donner Ski Ranch where a Tahoe man died today in an in-bounds avalanche. Our condolences to the family of Mark Anderson of Hirschdale, California.

Photo: Sierra Avalanche Center

Over three feet of snow has fallen since Friday. During this cycle, a long-time Alpine Meadows ski patroller was injured when the avalanche he intentionally triggered during avalanche hazard mitigation fractured higher than anticipated. His condition is unknown.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Inbounds Avalanche at Squaw Valley Captures Three

As crazy as this sounds, this avalanche blew a skier off of the lift. Read a first person account of the avalanche here:

Three snowboarders triggered an inbounds avalanche off of the KT-22 ski-lift on Sunday. The snowboarders were caught but avoided burial. One victim was treated at a nearby hosptital for a shoulder injury.

This is the second reported in-bounds skier-triggered avalanche in the United States in one week. The Tahoe area has received up two feet of snow in the last 24 hours.

From the Sierra Avalanche Center's website:

The bottom line:
December 23, 2012 at 7:00 am
The avalanche danger is HIGH at all elevations on the NW-N-NE-E-SE aspects on slopes steeper than 33 degrees due to wind slabs and heavy snow loads accumulating on an already weak snowpack. Large, destructive human triggered and natural avalanches will be widespread today. Very Dangerous avalanche conditions exist, and travel in or below avalanche terrain is not recommenced.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Conditions Report: Manti Skyline, Utah

Wow. Things look touchy in Utah.

The Greater Salt Lake Area continues to have an active avalanche cycle due to deep slab instability.

If you are going skiing in the Wasatch, keep your avalanche eyeballs open by reading the daily report at:

Photo: Brett Kobernick

This photo, of a human trigged avalanche in the Skyline area, shows just how sensitive things are in Utah right now.

The local paper warns of the heightened risk here:

The Utah Avalanche Center put together this video to illustrate the danger:

Friday, December 21, 2012

TECH TIPS: 457 kHz Frequency Deviation

457 kHz, right?
We all know that our avalanche beacons transmit at 457 kHz. Unfortunately, older beacons--or a beacon that has sustained damage--may be transmitting +/- 180 Hz. In order to account for these deviating signals, we build our beacons to receive at a wider range. Think of it like when you are listening to the radio--you may be able to listen to your favorite channel even when you turn the dial a little bit up or down. Of course it may be scratchy and intermittent, but it still works.

Beacons are similar. International norms require that we build our beacons so that they can still work even if a transceiver is sending a couple kilohertz off. If we knew that all beacons in the field were transmitting precisely at 457kHZ, then we could build our beacons on a narrower band which would provide greater accuracy. Unfortunately, because of the number of old or slightly damaged in the field, this is not possible. This is yet another reason to make sure you and your friends are using modern avalanche beacons.

So, owning and using a modern beacon not only makes the search easier, but it makes a potential search for you more accurate.

The Mammut Pulse and Element beacons test the frequency during the start up self test. A properly functioning PULSE will transmit at 457 kHz (+/- 80 Hz). Additionally, Mammut recommends that you have your PULSE run on our TESTER unit for a full diagnostic test every three years.

The international norms require that beacons receive +/- 180 Hz of 457 kHz. If the Mammut PULSE recognizes that a beacon that it is searching for has a frequency far out of the norm, it will recommend "reduce search strip to 25m." This narrow search strip will optimize your chances of finding a beacon that is transmitting outside of the norm.  As stated in the Reference Manual:
If your Barryvox® detects that the signal search stripwidth needs to be reduced due to a device trans-mitting far apart from the normative regulation, thereduced search strip width will be indicated.

Take Away Points
Modern beacons provide you with the ability to search for multiple victims and "mark" their locations (after you have found them with a probe.) More importantly, modern beacons do a much better job of transmitting an accurate 457 kHz signal. Will your Barryvox Opto 3000 work? Yes. But retiring older technology will help the entire industry provide greater search accuracy.

Additionally, it is important to test the accuracy of your signal. Mammut beacons do this during start up as well as recommending more detailed examinations every three years (done at the Mammut offices in Burlington, Vermont.)

Crystal Mountain Avalanche Victim Recovered Alive: Buried for 10 Minutes

Sources confirm victim was in an in-bounds area, did not have a beacon, and was found with a probe strike.

The avalanche apparently occurred in the "Northway" area, an in-bounds area that is open by patrol when deamed safe.

A map of the area can be found here:

Details are a bit unclear regarding the Washington State woman who was buried in an avalanche on Thursday. What is clear is that she was buried for over ten minutes before being dug out alive. The main points that remain unclear to me include: Was this inbounds? Was the victim found with a beacon? As an aside, it does look like the type of accident in which an airbag may have helped expedite the rescue. I am just glad she is ok.

A story in the Oregonian can be found here:

An video interview with Paul Baugher, Crystal Mountain Patrol Director, can be found here:

And finally, a video taken by one of the rescuers can be found here:

I am still unclear whether or not this is an in-bounds avalanche. News reports refer to it being in-bounds, but the video certainly makes it appear that a ski patroller is opening a gate.

The video account of the rescue certainly illustrates the importance of strong leadership and organization during a rescue. Having been involved in a large scale rescue myself, I can attest to the fact that it is not easy to get all involved to turn off their respective beacons, or turn them to search. Obviously, this also begs the question, is it safe to do so? Please see my last blog post on auto-revert considerations. Mammut PULSE 3.2 recently introduced a "RESCUE-SEND" function which provides an added degree of safety and organization for rescuers. See my last post for details.

Great job to all the rescuers involved including the witnesses that responded immediately and the Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol.


On December 29, 2008, along with three of my partners, I was partially buried in an avalanche while doing avalanche hazard mitigation during an deep-slab cycle. Among the four of us, we had over 75 years of experience--we never thought we would have been part of a multiple burial scenario--but it taught us a lot about doing complex rescues.

During the rescue that ensued, we were at first uncertain as to how many victims were caught in the slide, so we proceeded under the assumption that there were more victims. As the search continued and people were accounted for, it became unlikely that anyone else was buried. After a thorough search of the area with our beacons our incident commander deemed the area clear of any transceiver signals. Just then, someone yelled, "I have a signal!"

The cursed "auto-revert" function had switched a rescuers beacon to SEND. Another rescuer picked up the signal, and we were off to the races. Moments later, it happened yet again, but we were on to the beacons tricks this time.

Auto-Revert modes, while providing a necessary level of safety while performing a rescue beneath secondary avalanche paths, can complicate a already complex situation.

With the PULSE Barryvox's 3.2 firmware update, Mammut has introduced a new function: RESCUE-SEND. In this mode, the beacon does not send or receive a signal, thereby allowing a designated prober or shoveler to essentially turn their respective beacon off. However, if the built-in accelerometer does not recognize significant movement for 4 minutes (the default auto-revert time on many beacons) then the PULSE will revert to SEND.

To initiate this mode, switch the beacon directly from SEARCH to SEND. After the 5-second confirmation-countdown (which allows you to switch back to search without losing the saved burial list if you accidentally switched to SEND), a "RESCUE-SEND" prompt will appear on the bottom of the screen. Press any button and you are in RESCUE-SEND.  A full-screen prompt and a 3-note descending tone will confirm your selection.

The PULSE 3.2 also has updated the standard Auto-Revert function. Normally, the beacon will revert to SEND after 4 or 8 minutes in SEARCH (depending on what you choose in your settings.) However, you can also choose, "No Revert in Motion" in the settings.  Now, if your PULSE identifies adequate movement, it will never revert to SEND.

Using the built in accelerometer (motion sensor), PULSE 3.2 has introduced these functions in order to avoid confusion during rescues--often caused by Auto-Revert.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The New York Times--Tunnel Creek Avalanche

An informative Q and A with the author of the NYT Tunnel Creek story.

The New York Times did an incredible job with this multi-media presentation on the tragic avalanche at Stevens Pass last year.

Though it is a year past, our condolences to those left behind.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Dutch Draw Avalanche--Near Miss

The Wasatch Mountains currently have a tricky snowpack with a considerable amount of snow sitting on a faceted base. Check out these impressive photos captured by a skier that witnessed one hell of a near-miss.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Loveland Ski Patrol Adopts Mammut Avalanche Airbags

Joining a growing number of avalanche hazard mitigation workers in the United States using avalanche airbags, Colorado's Loveland Ski Patrol recently purchased a fleet of Mammut Pro 35 RAS packs. With this purchase, Loveland joins the ranks of Snowbird, Telluride, Vail Resorts, and Jackson Hole already using airbags. Snowbird and Telluride currently use Mammut/Snowpulse systems.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Avalanche Danger Scale

In this post, Crested Butte Avalanche Centers' Josh Hirshberg reviews the meaning of Considerable Avalanche Danger (3/5). More people are caught in avalanches during Considerable Danger than at any other time.

click to enlarge

During the second week of December 2012, back to back storm cycles renewed the promise of a deep and snowy winter in the Elk Mountains of Colorado. For back-country skiers, epic faces-shots were punctuated with boot shaking signs of instability. During this period, I found myself pondering the exact definitions in the Avalanche Danger Scale. Paying close attention to the differences between, "probable", "possible", "isolated", and "specific" can help you be certain that you understand the forecast.

While the differences between these words may sound like inconsequential semantics, they are anything but. It may surprise you that the forecasters at the Crested Butte Avalanche Center read the definitions of the Avalanche Danger Scale almost every morning. There are days when we may spend fifteen minutes mulling over the specifics of a danger rating before issuing a forecast. This attests to the importance we place on the danger rating. 

Starting December 9th, the Crested Butte Avalanche Center witnessed the most prolonged period of Considerable avalanche danger so far this season. Backcountry travelers who were skiing during this period will recognize that conditions varied greatly from location to location. So, why all the “Considerable?”

First, some basic criteria would say that “dangerous avalanche conditions” exist under a Considerable rating, and “careful snowpack evaluation, cautious route-finding and conservative decision-making” are essential to staying safe. Though there may be some inherent risk to backcountry skiing and riding, it’s not often that it’s “dangerous” per say. During times of Considerable danger you really have to be on your game.  The conventional way of thinking about Considerable would tell us that “natural avalanches are possible” and “human triggered avalanches are likely.” This isn’t a time for that romantic picnic lunch you’ve been planning in the middle of your favorite avalanche path.

During Considerable danger there’s a good chance you will see natural or human-triggered  avalanches if you are travelling in the backcountry. You want to minimize the amount of time that you are in any avalanche paths to minimize your exposure. 

According to the size and distribution, during Considerable danger you could see “small avalanches in many areas, large avalanches in specific areas, or very large avalanches in isolated areas.” In case there’s some confusion with the terms, a large avalanche is something you definitely don’t want to be caught in. This could be big enough to break trees or bury a car. Meanwhile, a “small avalanche” could still be big enough to bury a person. “Specific terrain” is a generalization, ie. it could be something like "most east aspects", while “isolated terrain” is less generalized, ie. perhaps rocky, convex start-zones above 35-degree convex slope. 

Size and distribution help explain how different types of conditions can all fall under Considerable. Additionally, forecasters strive to match the conditions with a danger that best describes it as a whole.  The overall conditions and size and distribution are just as important to consider as whether we expect natural versus human triggered avalanches. Unfortunately, backcountry riders don’t get to choose which flavor of Considerable they want, but the forecaster often emphasizes the most pertinent elements of a given day’s Considerable.  This helps explain why during mid-December we had so many days that were Considerable. Some days we expected human triggered slides and maybe some naturals, but we new they would be small. Other days we didn’t think there would be lots of activity, but we knew anything that ran it could be big. Some days were really heads up with many small avalanches everywhere and a few large slides on specific slopes.

Forecasters consider the Danger Scale to be an exponential scale. One step up on the Danger scale could mean that you’re 10 times more likely to trigger an avalanche. There are lots of times when we can get great powder in the backcountry and even shred some pretty steep slopes. It’s critical that we learn to recognize when it isn’t safe and how to modify our terrain choices to not get caught in dangerous conditions.  If you take some time to review the danger scale, you’ll start noticing how much the CBAC forecasters incorporate the definitions into the daily forecast. Like most readers, the CBAC forecasters are excited for a powder-filled winter. We dream of endless fresh tracks, but most importantly we strive to keep our community safe while enjoying the backcountry.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Wasatch Current Conditions: December 15, 2012

A few words about the current situation in the Wasatch Backcountry by American Avalanche Institute instructor Jake Hutchinson:

"As the snow begins to pile up in the Wasatch the skiing just keeps getting better-- while the avalanche stability just gets trickier. Yesterday, the storm snow and wind slab problems were fairly easy to identify and manage although the speed of these slides may be problematic. The Persistent slab problem is the tricky one. A variety of faceted layers lie buried near a variety of crusts (very elevation and aspect dependent). These layers are producing a variety of test results and a few concerning avalanches here and there. This is a case where stability tests may give a false sense of security and the poor snowpack structure demands respect and attention. Keeping the big picture in mind, paying attention to what has been going on on similar slopes and not ignoring cracking, collapsing and avalanches are key. With another big storm knocking on the door, keeping the slope angles down and managing your terrain will be key in the coming days."

Check out Jake's video in a pit on the Park City Ridgeline:

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Jackson Hole Dec 8-9 Avalanche Cycle: Lessons Learned

Winter was slower to arrive than most of us like in Jackson Hole. Rain fell on the valley floor for much of late November and early December. However, while the valley rain was hard to endure, weather above 7500' was another story--by December 8th there was 60" (152cm) of settled maritime snow at the base of Rendezvous Bowl (9580') at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Things started changing the first week of December as a strong, cold storm system from the SW hammered Jackson from December 5th-8th giving us about up to 32" of dry, right-side-up powder as well as snow to the valley floor. Winter had finally arrived. Wind slabs formed promptly during the storms outgoing wind event with winds reaching 60+mph out of the SW.

On December 7-9th, I was teaching an avalanche course.  Our field day on the 9th proved to be a very educational experience.

We began the day at the top of Teton Pass at 7:15am. A strong westerly wind was honking through the Pass. These winds diminished shortly after we arrived. We immediately reviewed our findings from our tours to Olympic and Avalanche Bowls on the the prior day. For our intended tour (25-35 degree, east and north facing slopes between 8000-9000'), we rated the danger as moderate (2 out of a scale to 5) our main concern was windslab on north and east facing at or around 9000'. No known avalanches had been reported at this time in the backcountry, though the ski patrollers at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort had been able to trigger many slides in the storm snow at the upper elevations of the forecast zone (from 9,000-10,400'.) Our intended tour would remain in more protected, lower elevation terrain than where the patrollers were getting results.

The day before we had also seen evidence of a deep slab instability. This deep slab instability is comprised faceted October snow that is sitting on the ground (HS at 9000' is 90-120cms.) The only reported avalanche on this layer to date was on a slope above 10,000' on an steep, unsupported, rocky, NE facing slope--extreme terrain by any standard.

Additionally, on the previous days' tour, one group had found buried surface hoar down 70cms. I never saw it myself. However, this layer was unreactive to Extended Column Tests and there were no known reported avalanches on this layer.

So, my summary of the avalanche problem consisted of:
1. Wind Slab
2. Persistent Deep Slab (minimally reactive to date.)
3. Buried Surface Hoar (un-reactive to date.)

On the morning of December 9th, we toured south of Teton Pass, feeling quite happy about the new snow and the Moderate danger (2 on a scale of 5) in the backcountry--despite the fact that we had persistant weak layers in a snowpack that had just received over 2' of new snow. Well, all I can say is "hindsight is 20/20."

On the way out to avalanche bowl, I began receiving reports of natural avalanche activity from the last 24 hours--Unski-a-bowl, a NE facing bowl above 10,000 and Teepee Glacier, a SE facing slope above 11,000' had slid during the cycle. Little did I know, Cody Bowl had also slid--six feet deep.

Arriving at Avalanche Bowl (9000', ENE) we chose a location to practice stability tests. We chose a 26 degree slope to minimize our exposure. Soon afterwards, a very experienced skier arrived with similar intentions. This person chose a steeper slope to dig on, a 38 degree NE facing slope. On approach, the skier triggered a small but potentially fatal avalanche (SS-ASu-D1.5/R2-O, down 70cm, 20m wide, ran 150m.) No one was caught.

In retrospect, I knew this surface hoar layer was present. Yet, while I did not have any incident, I still feel I did not give it enough respect--I over estimated the importance of my stability tests which all pointed to mostly stable snow. Additionally, at 7:15am on the 9th, I mistook no reported avalanches to mean no avalanches.

Interestingly, after the slide occurred we finished our stability tests and still got no results on three separate ECT tests (ECTN x 3).

We were eventually able to make the layer respond in a Propagation Saw Test (PST). During this test we got a PST 15/100 end.

Here are some photos which help indicate the size of the slab.

70cm crown in Avalanche Bowl, Teton Pass. The slab was about 70 feet wide and ran for about 400 feet.

Skiers, after tickling the dragon, aborting their mission to dig a pit after triggering SS-ASu-D1.5/R2-O. The slab avalanche may be hard to see in the shaded area of the picture.

In the last few years I have come to trust the Extended Column Test. Karl Birkeland has done research that demonstrates that this test can be administered on low angle slopes, has lower rates of false negatives than other pits, and--of course--the ECT tests for propagation whereas Compression Tests only look for failure in the weak layer. In this case, the ECT did not reveal the instability in three different ECT's in three different locations in Avalanche Bowl. In a fourth pit, the day before, an instructor had found the layer but had found it to be ECTN.

It also is a good reminder that surface hoar commonly surprises professional avalanche workers in the backcountry. When you find it, don't forget about it. So, take note of the spatially variable "12/5 buried surface hoar layer" (the day I believe it was buried.)

When we got back to the car we found out that the Powder Eight Face on Cody Peak slid on the October facets at the ground. The crown was 6' deep in places.

This experience reminds me yet again--safe travel habits that provide you with a margin of safety are the only things that will keep you safe when you underestimate the hazard. One thing that is a gaurantee is that you and everyone else out there (regardless of experience level) WILL underestimate the danger at some point. Having a healthy amount of humility is our strongest defense.

So, ski one at a time. Minimize your exposure to objective hazard. Avoid consequential terrain during or immediately after a storm. Practice your beacon skills. And always, always, always ask yourself, "what if I am wrong this time?"

Crested Butte "Beacon Brush Up."

On December 1, 2012, Mammut Ambassador Steve Banks, IFMGA Mountain Guide, attended the first annual Crested Butte "Beacon Brush Up." The event was presented by The Crested Butte Avalanche Center (CBAC) in conjunction with Crested Butte Mountain Guides and the Alpineer. 

The inaugural "Beacon Brush Up" was a huge success with well over 100 local and visiting attendees. Forecasters from the CBAC as well as guides from CBMG were on hand to give beacon instruction to beginners and experienced beacon users alike. While mother nature did not cooperate to produce enough snow in town to hide beacons in, extra boxes from the Alpineer spread across the ball fields with transmitting beacons inside a few created enough of a challenge for the participants to sharpen their skills.

In addition to the free practice and training, reps from Mammut, Ortovox, BCA, The North Face, and Peips were on hand to demo their new equipment and show off the latest in avalanche safety gear. Steve Srednick, the Cololrado Mammut rep, was busy all day updating people's beacons to the newest firmware (3.2).

When the sun went down, the party started up at the Alpineer. Free food, beer and more information was shared at the local gear shop as people gathered for the raffle drawing. Hats, shovels, probes and even a brand new beacon were raffled off to anyone who showed up to participate in the beacon training. Anyone who wasn't lucky enough to win the drawing was still offered the opportunity to purchase any and all avalanche safety gear in the store at an incredible 15% off retail price!

With such great success in its first year, this is destined to become an annual event in Crested Butte, and will surely evolve into a party atmosphere CB is know for hosting. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

TECH TIPS: Alkaline vs. Lithium Batteries

Winter was a little slow to kick in this year with warm temps throughout most of North America. But, now into the first week in December, most areas have enough snow to get even the most reluctant early season skiers into the mountains.

So, if you are just pulling your beacon out of the closet, make sure to have a look at your battery contacts. Did you leave batteries in the unit all summer? I hope not. If you did, your beacon may look like this:

Alkaline batteries can leak over time. If you have any corrosion on the battery contacts of your PULSE or ELEMENT beacon, then it needs to be inspected and tested at Mammut. Corrosion on the contacts can damage the electronics in the beacon. It is not adequate to simply brush the corrosion off the terminals and play through. It is critical that the beacon is tested, repaired, and possibly replaced.

Alkaline batteries should always be removed when the beacon is being stored during the off season. Additionally, a close inspection of the battery contacts should be done each time batteries are replaced. There should never be any visible corrosion and the contacts should always have ample spring to them.

To eliminate the possibility of alkaline corrosion, Mammut developed LITHIUM capability into the 3.2 (and newer) firmware for the PULSE Barryvox,which was released in early 2012. (If you are not sure which firmware you are running, simply look at the display during start-up--it should say 3.2 or higher.) Lithium batteries have several advantages. They last longer and they are lighter--but even more importantly, they do not leak.

However, there is a catch. Lithium batteries present their own problem--they maintain a "full" battery reading until they suddenly die. Electronic devices struggle to determine the battery's strength because of this unusual life-cycle. So, with firmware 3.2, your PULSE can run lithium batteries by using a timer. When the PULSE 3.2 firmware (or 4.0, etc) identifies lithium batteries, it will ask you if they batteries are new. Never put old lithium's in your beacon--the battery reading will not be accurate unless you begin with new batteries and continue with those batteries until the timer tells you they need to be replaced.  If you remove your lithium batteries, when you replace them it will ask if they are the SAME batteries--if you answer "yes", it will restart the timer where it left off, so it's important these batteries are not used in any other devices while they are removed from the beacon or the timer will be inaccurate.

While this timer system is not perfect--user error could create a situation where bad lithiums are not identified--it does eliminate the problem of damaged electronics due to corrosion which we see as a real issue. Some large user groups, like Canadian Mountain Holidays, have switched to lithium to eliminate any possible damage due to corrosion. So, if you opt for lithium batteries, make sure you start with new batteries and continue with those batteries until the timer runs its' course. If you opt to continue using alkaline batteries, be sure to inspect for corrosion regularly.

Note, that the Element Barryvox can not use lithium batteries.  ONLY alkaline batteries should be used in your Element Barryvox beacon.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Tech-Tips: Common Questions

Mammut USA's customer service department recently shared with me some of the more common questions about PULSE and ELEMENT beacons, so I'll try to cover some of the questions over the next couple posts.

This week, I'll show you how to open the battery door.  This is easy to do and doesn't require any tools, but some people don't immediately see how to open the door.

So, just a quick tip: do not pry your battery compartment door open--doing so can break the beacon, which is not covered by the warranty. Simply apply downward pressure on the curved fingernail groove located on the side of the door and slide it open as shown in the video--be aware, it opens in the opposite direction many people expect.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Chugach Powder Guides partners with Mammut to issue avalanche air bags

When Chugach Powder Guides opens for the 2013 season in Alaska, the veteran heli-ski operator will become one of the first in the United States to provide avalanche air bags to guests free of charge.

Mammut’s Rocker R.A.S. (Removable Airbag System) 18 will become part of the company’s standard issue safety gear provided to each heli-skier. The air bag system is proven to increase survival rates during an avalanche.

“It’s like wearing a seatbelt. If you have one, why wouldn’t you wear it?” said Chris Owens, Chugach Powder Guides’ brand manager. “We believe wearing air bags will become not just optional, but standard practice across our industry.”

While many heli-ski operators give clients an opportunity to rent an air bag system, Chugach Powder Guides partnered with Mammut Sports Group to supply the gear to guests.

Mammut’s Rocker R.A.S. 18 will be added to the Mammut Pulse Barryvox avalanche transceiver heli-skiers already receive. Guides will wear Mammut’s Pro R.A.S. 35 in addition to wearing an avalanche transceiver and carrying a shovel and probe.

“This isn’t about scaring people. This is about taking every possible step and using all tools available to keep our guests safe while they’re having the time of their lives skiing the backcountry,” Owens said.

Mammut’s product design team spent several days in Alaska last season with Chugach Powder Guides’ staff, taking their comments on the air bag product line and making notes on how to improve it.

“Their guides’ feedback was integral to how we developed these packs and air bags,” said Gribbin Loring, Mammut’s marketing services coordinator. “They are out there teaching avalanche training every day and driving backcountry safety messages to the general public. This represents a big step for Chugach Powder Guides to outfit clients with these air bags.”

Mammut first integrated the Removable Airbag System, developed by the Swiss company Snowpulse SA, in its snow backpacks in 2011.

“We’re 100 percent committed to our guests’ safety,” said Geoff Gross, Chugach Powder Guides operations manager. “We will continue to use the best safety options utilizing the most up-to-date technology to enhance our clients’ experience.”

Founded in 1997, Chugach Powder Guides is one of the most established and respected heli-ski operators in Alaska with headquarters in Girdwood at Alyeska Resort and operations in Seward and the Tordrillo Mountains. Chugach Powder Guides offers a variety of heli-skiing and snowcat skiing adventures ranging from one week to one day. The company operates a fleet of A-Star helicopters ensuring small groups on heli-ski adventures. Members of the Heli-Ski U.S. Association, Chugach Powder Guides prides itself on operating by the highest safety standards in the industry and offering a high-level of personal service to guests. More information about Chugach Powder Guides and heli-ski packages is available by visiting CPG's website

Monday, November 5, 2012

New Avalanche Airbag Research 

I have just completed an Autumn tour which included the ISSW and many Snow and Avalanche Workshops including the Northern Rockies SAW in Whitefish Montana, CSAW in Leadville, and USAW in Salt Lake.

First of all, a big thank you to Dave Hamre, Ted Steiner, Ethan Green, and Craig Gordon (among others) for their tremendous efforts to put on these workshops. They are excellent opportunities to stay connected to your snow and avalanche community and sharpen your avalanche senses before the coming winter.

There were some presenters this season whose research reflected directly upon Mammut's snow and avalanche products. Notably, Pascal Haegeli presented his research into the survival statistics of airbags. His paper can be found here:

ABS, a manufacturer of avalanche airbags, has often stated that avalanche victims who employ an airbag have a "97% survival rate." Well, we all know that statistics can be read in many ways. Pascal wanted to have a look for himself. My take away, after seeing Pascal's presentation, is this:

Avalanche airbags work. While statistical outcomes change depending on the variables considered, Pascal repeatedly found that wearing an avalanche airbag increased your survival chances by about 25%. This 25% increase in statistical survivability, combined with the high rate of survival provided by Lady Luck, accounts for a very high survival rate with all airbag users. While no-one should ever consider the airbag to be a silver bullet, Pascals findings verify what we at Mammut have long believed: reducing burial rates directly increase survival rates.

Pascal's paper brings some other important considerations to light. For one, it is disturbing that he finds over 37% of users unable to deploy their airbags in real life events. For me, this highlights the need, before every run, to do a trigger check, as well as occasional test deployments of your airbag pack to ensure it is working properly and that you understand how to deploy it. It is my personal belief that a significant number  of "unable to deploy" instances probably include some users that failed to arm their device.

Again, Airbags are not silver-bullets. People die despite wearing and using airbags. In fact, some people have even been buried despite deploying an airbag. Last year, an avalanche in Telluride tragically demonstrated that airbags can be punctured in rugged terrain. Events last year in Norway and Chamonix demonstrated that even with a deployed airbag, you can be buried (watch out for terrain traps and exposure from above!) And of course, there is the "Faster and Farther" issue: once an airbag is deployed in an avalanche your increased surface area will reduce your chances or self-arrest--you are that much more likely to be pushed to the toe of the slide (or towards objective hazard!) It is not in our interest to ignore these points. Rather, we must be experts with our safety gear. To be experts we must understand, accept, and consider the limitation of the device. Perhaps, in considering these limitations, we will be less likely to allow our safety equipment to give us a false sense of security. Of course, the best way to survive an avalanche will always be to prevent getting in one.

Silver-bullet or not, airbags will save lives. This was brought home to us all at the Northern Rockies SAW event when pro-skier Elyse Saugstad gave a first person account of surviving a very large avalanche last season at Steven's Pass in Washington State that took the lives of three of her friends.

Thank you to everyone who supported the ISSW and SAW events this season. For now, Pray For Snow!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Snow and Avalanche Workshops 2012

This Autumn, Mammut has been busy attending ISSW as well as many of the regional snow and avalanche workshops which are becoming very popular in the western United States.

On October 13th, Mammut joined the community of Whitefish Montana to celebrate the second annual Northern Rockies Snow and Avalanche Workshop. Over 250 people attended. Some of the notable speakers included Karl Birkeland and Dale Atkins. Elyse Saugstad, who credits an airbag with her survival in an avalanche at Stevens Pass last year, also spoke.

On October 19, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center held the Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop (CSAW.) CSAW is always a very successful event and is an excellent opportunity to visit with the professional avalanche community before winter begins in earnest.

On November 2, Mammut will be at the Utah Snow and Avalanche Workshop. If you are able to attend, it is an opportunity to support your local avalanche and snow community. Come by the Mammut booth where you can update you Pulse firmware to 3.2 if you have not already or see this years Mammut Removable Airbag Systems (RAS.)

Friday, October 5, 2012

TECH TIPS: "Stop, Stand Still"

SLOW IS SMOOTH, SMOOTH IS FAST: Understanding the "Stop Stand Still" Message

Earlier today I posted an explanation on the "457 SEND failure!" Below, I explain the "Stop Stand Still" message.

First, it's necessary to have a little background.  All digital beacons have limitations. It is interesting to recall, as Manuel Genswein noted at this year's ISSW Avalanche Rescue Workshop that early on, the professional community was reluctant to switch to digital technology. Why was this? Well, some of it was probably fear of the unknown and a bit of techno-phobia. But another component was based on the fact that ANALOG tones are real, raw data. Analog does not have the potential to MISinterpret information, whereas DIGITAL interprets the analog information--think of it like communicating with someone through a translator--information can be confused and lost. Yet, by now we've all accepted digital technology as the de-facto standard. It is therefore important that we are aware of and accept the shortcomings of digital technology and have a backup plan.

What are the practical limitations of digital avalanche transceivers? 
The advantages of digital beacons are well known to us: it allows the beacon to provide us with a distance indication as well as a direction. This saves us time formerly spent comparing signal strengths of different tangents on a flux line (remember the technique used with analog only beacons?). In short, digital beacons allow us to be faster because we do not have to do comparisons or deductions.

Now, the limitations: Digital beacons arrive at their distance and direction indications by using a mathematical algorithm in a processor to interpret the raw data they are recieving--they are interpreting the strength of a given signal for us. In single companion rescue this is easy and virtually all digital beacons perform easily and with near-perfection. In multiple burial situations however, the beacon must identify patterns to distinguish between the signals. If, at any time, two buried beacons "beep" at the same time, then the searching beacon may be unable to distinguish between these signals--this is signal overlap. Luckily, in time the buried beacons' respective signals will drift apart, so the simple solution (if you know that you have overlapping signals) is to Stop, Stand Still and let the overlapping signals drift back apart, which normally only takes a few seconds.

In the above picture, I set the iPhone directly on top of the PULSE during start up. This message is more often a result of over-lapping signals, but I used electrical interference to initiate this message as I was unable to get the Stop Stand Still message prompt while searching for 5 beacons.

Aha! So, when you get this message, your beacon has actually identified the fact that you have overlapping signals (huh, that's pretty smart!) and advised you as to the best solution. Remember folks, "slow is smooth, smooth is fast." Sometimes our desire to move quickly to find our partner needs to be tempered to have the best (fastest) end result.

Allowing time to separate overlapping signals may not be acceptable to all users. Mammut recommends that mountain guides, ski patrollers, and other advanced users take advantage of the PULSE's Advanced Settings in preparation for the most difficult rescue scenarios. In the Advanced Settings, you can pre-set your beacon to provide you with both ANALOG and DIGITAL information simultaneously. Accordingly, you will never be confused when you encounter overlapping signals because you will actually hear the raw analog signals throughout the course of your search. This is the setting used by most professionals who are aware of the limitations of digital beacons. Be forewarned however, that effectively using analog and digital at the same time takes practice. 

Using Analog and Digital simultaneously, an advanced technique to utilize analog tones while still benefitting from digital distance, direction capability, and marking functionality takes practice. That topic will be covered in a future blog post.  (UPDATE: More info on this can be found HERE and ALSO HERE.)

I hope this helps you understand your PULSE a little better. If you have any questions do not hesitate to contact me (Doug Workman) at

TECH TIPS: "457 SEND failure!"

Welcome to Mammut's new avalanche safety blog, where we do our best to disseminate useful information about our snow safety products. In this post I will address a common question regarding the "457 SEND failure!" message you may have seen while using your Mammut PULSE avalanche transceiver.

457 SEND failure!
Yikes. Sounds bad doesn't it? Well, it is not.

All beacons are affected to varying degrees by electrical interference. At this year's ISSW in Anchorage, John W. Barkhausen presented a paper (THE EFFECT OF EXTERNAL INTERFERENCE ON AVALANCHE TRANSCEIVER FUNCTIONALITY, ISSW 2012) on electrical interference with digital beacons. What he found was that electronic devices such as digital cameras, smartphones, vhf radios, and GPS devices will interfere with a beacon (we have known this for a long time but Barkhausen's experiments made an effort to quantify the interference.)

Barkhausen found that a distance of 40 centimeters between the beacon and the interfering device usually remedied the problem. The bottom line is that a beacons' ability to function properly can be hampered by electrical output from smartphones, digital cameras, VHF radios and many other high frequency devices.

The above picture demonstrates a 457 SEND failure! I was able to initiate this error message by setting an iPhone directly atop the PULSE while it was in SEND mode. As soon as I moved the iPhone away from the PULSE it immediately removed the 457 SEND failure! message.

When the PULSE shows "457 SEND failure!", it is letting you know that is has identified electrical interference. When you receive this message, relax: there is nothing wrong with your beacon. Take a moment to move any electronic device away from your beacon (as Barkhausen found in his experiments, 40 cms is usually adequate.) Digital cameras have been found to be some of the worst offenders, but smartphones and VHF radios are common culprits as well, and we've even heard reports of the foil wrapper on an energy bar (in a chest pocket right on top of the beacon) leading to an error message. Practically speaking, moving the offending device about an arms-length from your beacon will solve the problem.

While this message may be alarming, it is important for everyone to realize that smartphones, cameras, and other electronic devices pose a real risk of interfering with a rescue. The PULSE will remind you if someone in my party has neglected to turn off one of these devices (turn off your iPhone!!!)

Bottom Line: All digital beacons will suffer from such electrical interference. If you see the "457 SEND failure!", address the problem if possible by moving the offending device or turning it off, and continue. It is possible that you could receive this warning in an urban setting due to electrical interference from large buildings, power lines and appliances. Obviously, in these circumstances you will need to be aware, though there is little you can do to remedy the problem.

I hope this helps you understand your PULSE a little better. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to email me at

Monday, September 17, 2012

Pulse Firmware version 3.2 Review

PULSE 3.2 Firmware Review

In late Fall of 2011 Mammut had an early launch of Pulse firmware 3.2, originally planned for the 2012-2013 season. Keep in mind, the 3.2 firmware upgrade is intended to improve a beacon we are already proud of--there are no problems with 3.0. If you are unable to get your beacon upgraded for any reason, there is no reason to be alarmed. However, 3.2 does offer some slick improvements. Now, for the 2012-13 season, you may be wondering if you need or want the upgrade, so let's review the details of 3.2 Firmware.

Overview of improvements Pulse Barryvox version 3.2

Firmware 3.2 has some very sleek upgrades and it speaks to the Pulses ability to be continually upgraded.  3.2 is an improvement, not a correction--older Pulse firmware is still rock solid.

Features include:
Directional Tones- a nice feature aimed at users who keep the Pulse in digital-only mode. As you turn the beacon the digital tones will change to a triple “chirp” to alert you once you are oriented in the direction you should be moving in. This is also incorporated into the Mammut Element Barryvox's firmware so be sure to check it out. The intention here is to allow the user to be better able to scan the snow for signs of a victim, rather than 100% reliant on watching the beacon. (Note:  To turn on directional tones, in the user settings either select “Directional Tones, ON” when in basic user profile, or in advanced user profile select “Tones, DIRECTION.”)

Rescue Send- another very cool upgrade, this time aimed at professional users. If you are in search mode and you switch straight to send, you may elect to go into “Rescue Send.” This way, you can be in a mode which is not sending or receiving (if you are in a large organized rescue this is useful so that you do not have to turn a beacon completely off in order to avoid disrupting a search). If the motion detector does not sense motion for 4 minutes, it automatically reverts to Send. (Note:  Upon switching from search to send the initial 5-second countdown is a check to make sure you switched to send intentionally--if you switched accidentally you may revert to search without losing any of the stored data from a search in progress.  If you wish to enter the Rescue-Send mode, push any button within 5 seconds AFTER the beacon has started sending--you will know you are sending when “send” appears on the main screen display, and a rising 3-note tone sounds.  Screen and Tone prompts will let you know when the rescue-send feature is activated.

3.2 also allows users to opt for the “Airport” instead of the Cross in Fine Search mode. This is a big change in terms of how to teach beginners--no grid searching! Just go to the first lowest number and begin probing in a spiral. Beginners waste too much time with poor grid searches. Remember, the “Airport” or“landing strip is a metaphor which must be understood--the analogy is that as a plane approaches the landing strip it descends and slows down, until it lands, similar to a beacon search where a rescuer must slow down and lower the beacon towards the snow as they approach the burial location. "Touchdown" is where the lowest distance reading is found, and then immediately begin probing in a spiral. This method of teaching pinpointing can speed up beacon searches for many beginners.

Lithium Batteries--the v3.2 Pulse can now use lithium batteries. They are considerably lighter and last much longer. They also eliminate the possibility of corrosion, which we see frequently. (Remember if ANY corrosion is ever seen at the battery terminals the unit MUST be sent in for new terminal contacts.) (Note: The beacon will automatically recognize which battery-type, and will display this setting on the LCD screen upon startup.  It is critical that only NEW lithium batteries be used in order for the battery-life indicator to function properly.)

Where and how to get your beacon updated
In order to get your firmware updated, you must bring or send it to an upgrade location.  You can search for an upgrade location near you by clicking the link below:  (remember to click on "Pulse Barryvox Firmware Update" in the lower left)

Beacon Firmware Upgrade Location Search

Or, you can contact Mammut directly and have them perform the update and run a routine diagnostic test (recommended every 36 months) on your beacon.  Please call first and get a Return Authorization number, which allows us to identify and track the status of your beacon.  Mammut Customer Service can be reached by calling: 

(800) 451-5127
There is a nominal fee for these services. 

    Friday, September 14, 2012

    How to tell Old Snowpulse cartridges apart from new Mammut ones

    In the Summer of 2011 Mammut purchased the Swiss airbag manufacturer Snowpulse.  Snowpulse is still it's own brand with a separate line of airbags from Mammut, even though we use and share some of the same technology.  Last winter Snowpulse issued a recall for all of the air cartridges used in their airbag packs during the production years of 2008 through 2011.  The US Consumer Protection Safety Commission and Health Canada jointly issued an official release of this same recall on August 30th, 2012. 

    Snowpulse Airbag Cartridge recall
    We have recieved numerous calls from Mammut customers wondering if their airbag cartridges are affected by this recall--NO Mammut products are affected by this recall.  The RAS Removeable Airbag System used by both Mammut and Snowpulse uses the new "version 2.0" inflation system utilising a different cartridge, which is not affected by this recall.  The older "Version 1.0 Inflation System" is the one that is recalled.  Information to aid in identifying whether a Snowpusle cartridge is Version 1.0 (recalled) or Version 2.0 (not recalled) can be found below.

    How to tell Inflation system 1.0 cartridges from Inflation system 2.0 cartridges Inflation system 1.0: A pin inside a threaded fitting on the side of the cartridge is pulled during triggering to release air:      
    - This system was only available from the 2008 through 2011 seasons  
    - All cartridges (both the North American 207 bar and European 300 bar) have a dial pressure gauge that shows whether they are full or not=>
         - Gauges with an (A) on them: The pressure gauge has already been replaced
         - Gauges without (A): The pressure gauge must be replaced. Contact Snowpulse.

    Below are two photos of Snowpulse Version 1.0 Cartridges that are recalled.  Note the threaded fitting on the side of the cartridge with the pin in it, opposite the refill nipple.  This fitting is what the trigger mechanism screws onto.  The yellow caps are to protect the threads when not in use and will not be present if the cartridge is installed on a pack.  If you have a Snowpulse cartridge with these identifying features, and it does not have an "A" on the gauge, it should be replaced under the recall.


    Inflation system 2.0: A brass-colored burst disc visible on top of the cartridge is perforated to release the air when triggered.
    - This system was available beginning in the Fall of 2011 for the Winter 11-12 season and is now used by both Mammut and Snowpulse
    - All North American 207 bar cartridges have a dial pressure gauge (manometer). Some 300 bar cartridges have a gauge. Some pressure gauges have a (B) on them. All inflation-system 2.0 cartridges are OK to use.

    Below are 2 images of a Mammut or Snowpulse Version 2.0 cartridge.  This is NOT recalled.  This cartridge may or may not have a dial gauge.  The threaded top of the cartridge screws directly to the trigger mechanism.  It may have a metal protective cover when not in use.  On the top of the cartridge the brass-colored burst-disc is clearly visible. 

    Airbag retailers or filling stations may want to print out this color poster to let customers know of the recall:

    For questions or to arrange a replacement for a recalled cartridge, contact:

    In the US:
    Mammut Sports Group
    135 Northside Dr.
    Shelburne, VT 05482
    (800) 451-5127

    In Canada:
    Mountain Sports Distribution
    #101-806 9th St. N
    Golden, BC V0A 1H2
    (250) 344-5060