Monday, February 13, 2012

Google Latitude is not an Avy Beacon

Nothing says I love you at your favorite seasonal gift giving holiday than the gift of an avalanche beacon. My wife purchased one for me last year. Given the annual snowfall we had already seen by January 1st 2011, my new BCA Tracker 2 Beacon was a very thoughtful and appropriate gift, and one we both wanted me to have. She wanted to know I might not die of my own stupid designs, and I wanted at least a slight chance of living through all the future bad lines I might pick on wind-loaded northeast facing slopes above 35°.

Around these parts, 2012 is not shaping up to be a big year for the avy beacon business. Not a single storm where you couldn't measure precip with the stick that god gave you.. ahem... a ruler. Even with these pitiful snowfall amounts and non-existant upper elevation snowfields, I'm now a convert to the avy beacon of hope. So do me a favor.  If you're too unloveable to get one from someone else, run out and buy one for yourself. You never know when some other ski dummy (like me) might need your help.

Pioneer Ridge
No matter how much I love my new avy beacon, I've found there are some serious limitations to it's use. First, I am a resident of New England, and love to ski the shallow, tight birches of [insert Green Mountain peak]. Second, I have absolutely no tolerance for group education (aka avalanche training) or owners manuals. Third, Andy is my only other friend whose wife loves him enough to retrofit him with a beacon, and, ever since the day he got said beacon, he has used his failure to bring it along on a tour as a good excuse for not skiing questionable lines with me. You can see the predicament I am in now. I have no idea how to use my avalanche beacon, no one to use my beacon with, and until last week, was never presented with a skiable slope where I might need to. That all changed on Pioneer Ridge in Big Cottonwood Canyon last Friday.

Brad, in the distance.
"Are YOU beeping?" The backcountry checkpoints of the Wasatch Range want to know. Not beating. Beeping. Yes, even your out of shape full time desk-jockey ski buddies can hear the beating of your highly trained multisport machine of a heart as you stare down a wind-loaded north facing powder buffet of a couloir. But they cannot hear your avalanche beacon beeping, because you don't have it on. Because you do not know how to use it. Because your friends don't have a beacon themselves now do they?

As we stare down said couloir, everyone is thinking about the giant January slab avalanches they witnessed on YouTube prior to our Utah trip.

The trees?
"Maybe we should turn on Google Latitude so we can tell where everyone is?" Justin says, perhaps a bit too malevolently, trying to stir up feelings of terror and good sense, and remind us that his line through the trees was a better, safer option. Part of me knows he is also reminding us that if anyone goes down, this line will be their grand farewell. Captured on video for all the world to see. Cheapskate ski bums of the world would celebrate a free app for avalanche rescue. Sadly, Google Latitude is no Avy Beacon. It has many, stalker-esque designs, but it is not and never was intended to be used to locate bodies in a snowfield - Justin knows GPS signals can barely penetrate overhanging forest, let alone snow slab.

Or the couloir?
"But the powder is down there..." I say. I have seen it from atop a wind-cut cornice on Pioneer Ridge just moments earlier. At NEBC I do all the scouting, since I have to wait so damned long at the top of every ascent for the rest of the group. This allows me to control information and manipulate situations for my own satisfaction. Only I knew how terrified they would be when they saw the chute of our final destination, because I had already stuffed those feelings away myself with a quick "It's Friday, our last day in Utah, and I'll be damned if I'm leaving here without a powder shot."

In truth, I wouldn't have even considered the line if someone hadn't already snaked it that morning, or perhaps the night before. A magical, windy Etch-a-Sketch effect has filled their tracks, freshening them for our proposed descent. Wind loaded temptress, will you hold? And there's always the trees, still easily accessible to our right.

I can see the Latitude feed now: "Guru Gered, checking in from the bottom of a snownami - 20 minutes ago." I know what I must do, and flip on my Tracker 2. Now at least my conscience is clear of my wife's constant comment: "You never use that stupid Avy Beacon do you?"

"Ok... well, I'm beeping, so I guess I should go first..." are my final words to Brad and Justin, at the top of the Pioneer Ridge couloir that cloudy, February afternoon. Reflecting on all the good things in my life, a hopeful question lingers. "Will Tele the wonder dog and a team of crafty ski patrollers come to my rescue in time?"

Probably not, but here we go anyway...


  1. Quote from my in-flight mag (Skiing) on the way home, " Just because you see tracks doesn't mean it's safe. Deep slab instability (the kind in the Wasatch right now) often doesn't get ugly till the third or fourth skier encounters it". You are an idiot. A lucky idiot.

  2. Getting your avy forecast from the print industry is so old fashioned. I prefer to take the advice of the local ski bum who scolded us on Facebook one day and then went out and skied the line for himself the next: ( Hypocrite or opportunist? You decide.

  3. only myself and one other guy were out of our group of 5 were beeping in little cottonwood on Monday with a good foot plus loading the already windblown slab. We had one probe and no shovel between us and figured a patroller would come to our rescue if things were really ugly. Luckily nothing dumb happened.

    You are not alone in the search for questionable lines.

    1. Unfortunately there are a lot of smart people out there doing dumb things. I think skiing in the backcountry should be about self-sufficiency and taking calculated risks. Unfortunately, when we let our powderlust get in the way of common sense our actions put us and anybody who would potentially have to rescue us in danger. Not cool. Kudos to you for wearing your avy beacon, but I'm afraid you lose points for not sneaking a shovel (or five) into a friend's backpack.

      None of the risks we take to do these kinds of things are "necessary", and different people draw the line in different places. Some people never leave the lodge, while others intentionally throw themselves off of a cliff. I think both are valid life choices, and I'm glad to have the freedom to chose something in between. At some point, though, I think we have a responsibility to exercise a bare minimum of care: if not for ourselves and the ones that love us, but for the people who will put themselves in danger to clean up our mess if we fuck things up.

      Thanks for the comments. I hope I haven't driven away our only reader with my expose' on morality.

    2. I'm far from driven away by your expose'. I doubt I'm the only reader too. I mentioned your guys blog in the local Albany area touring centered shop (High Adventure) and they knew it right away.

      I get the duty of care argument certainly, and I never want to put anyone in harms way unnecessarily.

      Back country skiing, or even resort skiing is certainly an unnecessary risk. But so is going for a run on a traffic filled road or hell, driving a car or crossing the street at rush hour. Its all about balancing costs versus benefits. With the howitzers going off and the avi chopper patrolling at Alta I thought to myself I'll wear the beacon but probably don't need it. I didn't bring a pack with anything else in it because I gauged that risk was so low I was probably being silly by wearing the beacon.

      I'll be the first to admit a beacon with no shovel and probe is ultimately a useless device. In the future, if I think its worth strapping on the beacon I'll be sure to load my pack with the rest of my safety gear too.

  4. You're just mad because you were in obstructed view seating back at the lodge, Buddha Andy.

    1. I think you might have a point. Now easy on the fat jokes. They hurt a little.

  5. I thought I was the designated fat kid, huffing and puffing up that ridge?

    1. The empty Trout River growlers and bags of oreos say I'm coming for your title.