Avalanche Beacons Inbounds

Responding to Unofficial Networks

Bad Ski News -- a photo of an avalanche
Yes, Avalanches Occur in Resorts

I reckon most skiers do not know what an avalanche beacon is let alone wonder if they need to wear such beacons inbounds at resorts. However, Unofficial Networks editorializes on the notion we should be wearing avalanche beacons inbounds. As always, please read the article: Avalanche Beacons Should Be Commonplace At Ski Areas During Big Dumps by Morgan F..

Very quickly an avalanche beacon is a radio transmitter/receiver that sends signals. The signals can then be detected and located by other avalanche beacons (switched to search mode) and allows rescuers to more quickly locate that beacon under the snow. The idea is it gets the rescuer close to the victim, the rescuer then probes the snow until the victim is found, and then digging commences. Beacons are not typically the most expensive piece of equipment a skier or a snowboarder has on them, but it would be a close second or third.

Morgan’s editorial urges resort guests to wear beacons when the conditions warrant, hence “…During Big Dumps”. This was the situation at Taos and Loveland the weekend both resorts expeirenced their inbound slides resulting in one death and one critically injured skier. Also, it is not unknown for resorts to require avalanche beacons to access certain areas of their resort even though those areas are inbounds. Prime examples are Bridger Bowl and Big Sky. If you want to ride up the Schlasman’s chair at Bridger Bowl you need to beep (ie have a functioning avalanche beacon). Big Sky requires you to have a beacon to ski the Big Couloir. I am sure other resorts have similar requirements as well.

Trends

Skiing in general is working to increasing access to advanced terrain (ie double-black diamond — I hate the word extreme even though it is appropriate here). Terrain that was formerly accessible by bootpacking, skining, or hiking is now becoming lift-served. This means more people accessing the terrain. This terrain is typically avalanche prone terrain and of course people want to ski these lines when they are full of fresh snow. Resorts rarely (more like never) groom these areas and yes they monitor and perform avalanche control in these areas, lets face it — the idea is to keep that fresh snow on the face since that is what we want, right? Ski patrol bombing those faces to send the fresh snow down the mountain in a big pile is essentially a spoiled dream.

This means more people getting into avalanche terrain.

Ski resorts in the US have an obligation to mitigate the risk of avalanches. However, there is no way the risk is ever going to be zero (well, on big mountains — the risk of avalanche at the ski resorts I tend to ski at is indeed zero). The in-bounds slide is not a common event, but news of such events does make a regular appearance on my news feeds. So, what is a resort guest to do?

By Nolispanmo - Own work, CC BY 3.0, Link

Education

The single most important thing a skier can do is to learn about avalanches. Learn where they occur, how they occur, the conditions in which they occur, and how to read the snow. Even if you never dig a snowpit in your life that information will help you assess the risk of what you are doing. Even if you are not an Alpine skier but are hiking, or XC Skiing, or snowmobiling in the mountains get some basic avalanche awareness. There are many good websites out there to help with this and many YouTube videos on avalanche awareness.

Study the avalanche forecasts when you are in the mountains. Even if you are staying in bounds and well away from “rowdy” terrain. Try to correlate with what you are seeing “in the field” the resort with what the forecast says. This way when you are in a resort ripe for slides you keep away from danger zones.

Getting a Beacon for In-Bounds Skiing

A beacon is one of those things you may get but hope and pray you never need it. The ideal is through education and awareness you and those around you never get caught in a slide. Still, the question is do I get one even if I never go out of bounds? My feeling is to not get one unless your goal is to someday get into the side or backcountry. Why not? Most people will get more safety value from becoming better skiers or riders! Yeah, people get hurt and killed by inbound avalanches, but I hear more stories about people injuring and killing themselves by running into things and people on the slopes. A beacon will cost about the equivalent of four sessions with an instructor, think about how much better and controlled skier you will become after eight hours of professional instruction?

Not only does it cost money it also costs time. If you have a beacon learn how to use it in search mode as well and that takes practice. If you reside or spend lots of time in mountainous regions there will be plenty of opportunities and places to practice, go for it. However, if you (like me) live in flatland forget it. I have one ski resort in my entire region (Minnesota, Wisconsin, the UP of Michigan) that offers occasional opportunities for avalanche awareness courses and I doubt there is the opportunity to engage in regular beacon location exercises.

Risk vs Cost vs Reward

In an ideal world you will have a beacon, a probe, a shovel and will know how to use them all. In the real world you need to weigh the costs of buying and training with the gear vs. the risk you will need it vs the costs and benefits of other items. For the vast majority of people ski safety is much better served with lessons than a beacon. Once you start to get close to skiing in ‘rowdy” terrain or skiing beyond the ropes then get a beacon.

Your Turn!

So, do you think it is wise to purchase an avalanche transceiver to ski inbounds? Why or why not and under what conditons?

Good Stuff!

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