Saturday, December 27, 2008

Beacon Function and Range Check

Avalanche Beacon Function and Range Tests: As we prepare for our AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Course (Leavenworth Jan 2-4, 2009), this is a good time to review the function and range tests for avalanche beacons.  This short article is intended to remind newer backcountry skiers how to conduct a test of all their avalanche beacon's functions, including a battery check, a search check, a transmit check, and a range check.  The first three items (battery, search, and transmit) are something that you should check every time you go into avalanche terrain with a beacon, and the range check is something that we use with each new group, or at the start of an extended trip such as the Haute Route Ski Tour or Ortler Ski Circuit.  There are several ways to conduct a beacon range and function test; this is one that we use at the Northwest Mountain School.

Ski Group Leader:  These checks work best if one person leads the group through the check.  In a guided group this is usually the guide, in non-guided groups this is either one of the more experienced members or a person designated by the group.  Designating a leader is generally a good idea, even in very experienced groups, as it can help ensure that someone is responsible for making sure that no critical details are overlooked at the start of the ski day.  Accidents are more common in groups of experienced back country skiers, one common cause being "leaderless" groups, where each member incorrectly assumes that someone is keeping an eye on the big picture.  The leaderless group is often the result of a bunch of nice folks not wanting to step on each other's toes.

Avalanche Beacon Battery Check: Entire group turns on their beacons and confirms that battery power is adequate for beacon type and for length of use.  On BCA Trackers, the manufacturer's specs say that battery power must be "greater than zero," I prefer people to have 50% or greater battery power.  On my Barryvox beacon the battery power needs to be 70% or greater.  At this step you should also confirm that each group member has a spare set of batteries for their beacon.  Also make sure that nobody is using lithium batteries as they can lead to problems with digital beacons transmitting properly.  This is related to voltage and too complicated to explain here, the take home point being don't use lithium batteries with digital beacons.

Avalanche Beacon Search Check: Entire group turns beacons to search, and turns sensitivity or volume down as far as possible, while leader's beacon remains "off."  Once everyone is set to search (no beacons should be making noise at this point), leader turns beacon on and leaves in transmit (send) position.  Leader then checks each person's beacon to make sure that it is receiving the signal put out by the leader's beacon.

Avalanche Beacon Transmit Check: Entire group switches beacons to send (transmit) and secures them for travel.  I generally define secure as in the the beacon's harness and under at least one layer of clothing, or in a securely zipped pants pocket.  Note that the pocket method is a bit riskier as zipped pockets can be left unzipped and the beacon is more susceptible to be being damaged in a traumatic event such as an avalanche.  Best to wear your beacon in it's harness if possible.  The leader now switches their beacon to receive and slowly checks each member of the group as they walk past the leader.  I turn my beacon all the way down and dedicate a good 5 seconds to each person to confirm that I am in fact hearing their specific beacon.  Once the last person reaches the leader, they should have the leader switch to transmit and watch them stow their beacon securely.

Beacon Function Test: These three checks: battery, search, and transmit, constitute the beacon function test.  This should be done at the start of every backcountry ski day, no matter what.  We will next cover the range check, which should be done at the start of the season and at the start of extended trips.

Avalanche Beacon Range Check: Start by designating one leader and having everyone else get in line, shoulder to shoulder, facing the leader.  The leader then turns their beacon off and walks approximately 100 meters away from the group.  Everyone in the group switches their beacons to search (receive).  The leader then turns on his/her beacon and walks slowly toward the group.  Each group member notes the point at which their beacon picks up the leaders beacon.  This is the "search range" of the member's beacon.  Once all beacons have picked up the leader's beacon the entire group switches to transmit, and the leader once again turns their beacon off and walks to the spot 100 meters from the group.  Now repeat the process, but this time have the leader turn their beacon to search (receive) and have each person walk toward the leader until the leader picks up their beacon, note this distance, it is the "transmit range" (send range) of the member's beacon.  The member now turns off their beacon and walks back to the group, replaced by the next member.

Note on Signal Drag:  Ever noticed how you can leave a city with your car radio on a favorite channel and your radio will hold that channel until you switch channels, at which point it is hard to get it back?  This is called "signal drag" and it is the reason we have the leader get completely out of range when starting a properly run range test.  If the leader starts with the group with their beacon on and walks away, the range distances can appear to be much greater due to this phenomena of "signal drag."  By walking into range, you get a more realistic reading, which is the situation you will more often find yourself in during an actual avalanche rescue scenario.

One bonus of doing a function and range test in any group is that you quickly can see that everyone knows how to turn their beacon on, toggle between search and transmit, and stow their beacon.  In an experienced group, it is often difficult for people to mention their lack of knowledge and these sort of activities can serve as a good review without pressuring anyone.

You may want to mix things up for speed.  We often start with a battery check, do the range tests, and then finish with a transmit check where we confirm that everyone is transmitting and has stowed their beacon properly.  All beacon checks leading to touring need to end with the transmit check and confirmation that the beacon is securely stowed.

Don't forget to start every season with some practice at companion rescue, including beacon searches and rescue digging, and do a function and range test on your first tour.  Even professionals find that these skills get rusty over the summer.  There is nothing wrong with taking the same Level 1 Avalanche Course multiple times, particularly if you do not backcountry ski often enough each winter to retain the knowledge from year to year.  Repetition of training is what allows us all to perform in the real situation as it allows us to fall into a familiar pattern in what is often a stressful situation.  A full range and function test at least puts to rest any concerns about group member's beacons working properly on a given day or trip and is an essential ski for participation in something like the Verbier Haute Route or Ortler Ski Circuit.

Happy Skiing!

Note on terms used in this article.  The terms transmit and send mean the same thing, the terms receive and search mean the same thing.  I used them interchangeably here so that you could become familiar with each term.  I find that transmit and receive flow more naturally from my lips, but send and search seem to be favored by current AIARE Level 1 providers.

Opportunities to learn the Beacon Function and Range Checks with an AMGA certified Ski Guide include the following Northwest Mountain School backcountry ski training programs: AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Course, Introduction to Alpine Touring (AT) Course, and our Avalanche Beacon Clinics at Stevens Pass Ski Area.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Indefatigable Fred Beckey

I recently came across an article in the New York Times titled, "At 85, More Peaks to Conquer and Adventures to Seek."  It is about Pacific Northwest climber, now legend, Fred Beckey.  Fred Beckey's life has been a marathon of climbing trips focused very intensely on the PNW and North America in general.  The press Fred has been getting lately focuses on the fact that at 85, he is still spending large amounts of time climbing.  Fred may be most widely known for his encyclopedic guide book series, Cascade Alpine Guide, volumes 1, 2, and 3.  Most PNW climbers have spent countless hours reading amazingly detailed accounts of the geology, history, and climbs of remote peaks in Washington's Cascade Range.

Over the years I have run into Fred Beckey in a variety of funny situations.  The first that I can recall was a rainy winter night at an Irish pub in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood.  A really bad band was giving it their all and Beckey happened to be in the audience.  Whenever the music lulled for a moment, Beckey would stand up and shout something along the lines of, "give it up, you guys stink," in an effort to get back to his efforts at wooing the young women in the bar.  Years later I was sitting with friends in Revelstoke, BC waiting for food to be delivered in an almost empty restaurant, when the door swung open, blizzard driven snows swirled in, and Fred Beckey stuck his face in the door, looked around at the relatively dull scene, closed the door and wandered off.  We were all amused to have ended a great week of skiing at Roger's Pass, with a "Fred sighting" that left us guessing what he was doing in sleepy Revelstoke in the middle of climbing I suppose.

More recently I was teaching a group of middle school students how to rock climb at Mountaineers Dome in Leavenworth in one of our Leavenworth Rock Guides programs, when Beckey and an attractive young woman wandered up to the base to do some climbing.  The significance was completely lost on the kids I was working with, but I enjoyed the thought that the time from the start of his climbing career until the end of some of their's could easily span 110 years or more.

As a guide, I meet a lot of people that can rattle off the names of various Everest climbers, but it is clear that most have never heard of Fred Beckey.  I think that the reason so many guides find him interesting is that he comes across as being less into bagging that one big peak that brings notoriety, and more into doing hundreds of climbs on smaller and more obscure peaks that have led to him being a sort of living legend.  There is no question that he has as many personality quirks and hang-ups as any person, but it is hard not to be impressed by someone that has genuinely done something of substance in an activity where it is hard to stand out.  There have been scores of better climbers come out of Washington, but none so prolific.

As Lou Whitaker (three years younger than Fred Beckey) was always fond of telling his guides, "There are old climbers, and there are bold climbers, but there are no old, bold climbers."  Perhaps generally true, but then there is Fred Beckey, often the exception to the rule.

If you get a chance, read the NY Times article and keep an eye out of Fred Beckey, once he is on your radar you would be surprised at how many "Fred sightings" you can rack up in overlooked corners of the the Pacific Northwest.

Books by Fred Beckey

Cascade Alpine Guide: CLimbing and High Routes, Vols 1-3
Challenge of the North Cascades
Range of Glaciers
Mount McKinley: Icy Crown of North America

Related Northwest Mountain School Links:

Forbidden Peak West Ridge Climb (Beckey made the first ascent)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ortler Ski Tour March 28 - April 3, 2009 - New Trip!

Olivia and I are happy to announce our guided Ortler Circuit Ski Tour, scheduled for March 28 - April 3, 2009. After several requests for other off-piste ski trips in Europe from past customers, we investigated the Tyrol area of Northern Italy, and concluded that this is a logical choice. This is an area that has recently become popular for guided ski programs originating in the US and will kick off our 2009 spring season in Europe.

Unlike the Haute Route, this trip does not run point to point, but rather hops from hut to hut in a high mountain region dominated by 14 peaks that fall just shy of 4000 meters. The fact that the mountains are not 4000 meters high means less crowded huts and fewer skiers. Olivia and I organized a reconnaissance of the area in the spring of 2008 and were called away right at the start to attend to a family emergency. We are really excited to finally see some new terrain. Planning the trip has been interesting as this area is a bit more complicated to reach than other European ski centers such as Chamonix and Zermatt, but our 2008 group visited both Solden and Santa Caterina and all of the huts planned for the tour, and we have a good understanding of how the trip works.

Our group will consist of 6-8 skiers and 2 IFMGA guides and is open to skiers of advanced ability. For those with the inclination the Ortler can be combined with our regular Haute Route tour from April 6 - 12, 2009. Highlights include: great skiing, some of the best hut food in Europe, and moderate climsb and descents of peaks close to 12,000 feet high.

Full details are posted at

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

NMS Guide makes major Himalayan first ascent

We would like to congratulate Northwest Mountain School guide Joe Puryear for making the first peak ascent of Kang Nachugo (6,735 meters). This beautiful pyramidal peak lies on the Nepal-Tibet border in the remote Rolwaling Himal. To quote Joe’s own words about the peak:

“There still exists today large unclimbed peaks in the Himalaya. But they are generally very remote, closed to climbing, or perhaps uninteresting sub-peaks of larger mountains. To find one without these characteristics is not only rare, but also alludes to a very special peak. To find one that is the visual centerpiece of a major Himalayan valley, the Rolwaling; a peak that hundreds of trekkers and climbers pass by every year; a peak so prominent, you can view from its summit six 8,000-meter peaks; a peak that rises over 3,000 meters above the valley’s largest Sherpa settlement – this is extraordinary. This is Kang Nachugo.”

A view of Kang Nachugo showing the climbing route: (Photo by Joseph Puryear)

Joe made the ascent with Lead Mt. Rainier Climbing Ranger David Gottlieb in alpine style over five days, summiting on October 17, 2008. Climbing up a dangerous face to the razor-sharp ridge crest, they persevered through brutal cold conditions and technical high-altitude climbing to reach the virgin summit.

David crossing snow flutings and runnels: (Photo by Joseph Puryear)

To read a full account of Joe’s ascent, illustrated with brilliant mountain photography, please visit his blog at

Of interest, NMS owners John Race and Olivia Cussen summited nearby Cho Oyu with their guided group exactly 2 weeks earlier and were able to see Kang Nachugo throughout the summit day. Kang Nachugo is just a few miles south of Cho Oyu and both peaks sit on the Nepal-Tibetan border.

Related Links:

Sunday, December 7, 2008

NMS Haute Route Trip Makes Lonely Planet

Journalist Kari Lundgren participated in the Northwest Mountain School's April 1-8, 2008 Verbier Haute Route ski traverse and wrote a nice article for Lonely Planet entitled, "Skiing Europe's Haute Route." The article provides insight into what it takes for an experienced skier, yet inexperienced Alpine Touring (AT) skier to succeed on the Haute Route.

Kari's group was guided from Chamonix to Zermatt by Northwest Mountain School ski guide John Race. Other trip participants were Brian Warren (shadowing to gain experience for his upcoming AMGA Ski guide exam), Tor Lundgren, Kari Lundgren, and Brian Behle. Although we managed to make each leg of the trip, this group experienced three days of near whiteout conditions in addition to three days of splitter weather.

This years Verbier Haute Route Ski Traverse is planned for April 6-12, 2009.

Related Links:
Link to Kari's Lonely Planet Article
Northwest Mountain School's April 6-12, 2009 Haute Route Trip

NMS Guides Featured in Sherpa Adventure Gear Catalog

It was recently brought to my attention that the Spring/Summer 2009 Sherpa Adventure Gear Catalog features Northwest Mountain School Guides: Joe Puryear, Olivia Cussen, Drew Lovell, and even Bear dog, our faithful mutt. Joe produces the catalog and takes most of the photographs. In addition to featuring several of our local Leavenworth rock guides, the catalog has some fantastic climbing photographs of various Leaveworth rock climbs and bouldering problems.

The catalog will not be in stores until February of 2009, but we were able to obtain a copy and preview our now famous guides in print. Great job Joe!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Dreaming About Skiing the Haute Route?

The Northwest Mountain School has run a lot of Haute Route trips in the past few years.  This is perhaps the most famous ski traverse in the world.  There are many versions of the Haute Route, but all share the common trait of basically being the high level traverse from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland.  Where things get complicated is when you pull out the map and decide how exactly to connect Chamonix to Zermatt.  The route that people take when hiking from Chamonix to Zermatt in the summer is a bit different than the route they take when skiing it in the winter. 

The two most common variations when done as a ski traverse are the Verbier version (aka skiers Haute Route), and the Classic Version, which is a bit longer and a bit more technical.  We have favored the Verbier version because the skiing tends to be consistently better, it fits nicely into a week, and the avalanche hazard is generally low enough that we have a good chance of actually completing the entire planned itinerary.  Our 2009 Verbier Haute Route Trip is planned for April 6-12, 2009.

In the past few months I have spoken with many people that are concerned that you need to be a talented skier to safely make the traverse from Chamonix to Zermatt with a guide.  So how solid a skier do you need to be to do the Haute Route?  There is no simple answer, but the reality is that your ski skills do not need to be as developed as you might think.  You do not need to be able to ski steep black bump runs at resorts.  You do not need to be able to aggressively ski  in "no-fall" terrain.  You do not need to drop cliffs, jump crevasses, or do anything extreme.  What you do need to be able to do is to conservatively ski a wide variety of snow conditions (corn, sun crust, powder) in an efficient manner.  You need to be able side slip without falling over.  You need to be able to make individual, quick turns, in these various snow conditions, without losing your balance.  On occasion you need to be able to ski in tight terrain.

So how do you train to ski something like the Haute Route?  I encourage people to go out to their local ski area and pick steep sections of safe runs, or ski the edge of groomed runs, at the intersection of the groomed and non-groomed terrain.  Do not practice skiing quickly, but rather practice skiing efficiently and in control.  Try a hop turn.  Try to turn and stop without losing your balance.  Try to ski a tight gully or a tight cluster of trees.  Be sure to ski in the same boots and skis that you will be using on your off-piste ski trip.  

The skiing on the Haute Route is generally very nice, but what you need to train for are the short sections where the snow conditions are difficult or the consequences of a fall a bit higher.  Off-piste skiing by nature, is going to involve occasional sections of really crummy snow in between what is generally really enjoyable skiing.  Well groomed ski areas do not encourage the development of these ski skills, so when training you almost need to look for the bad skiing at your local ski area.  Also be sure you get out and tour as often as possible.  Just as the best way to train for Denali is to walk uphill with a heavy pack, the best way to train for an off-piste ski traverse is to ski off-piste.  If you can't get out of the ski area, look for the least groomed parts of your local ski area and work on skiing variable terrain.

How fit do you need to be to ski the Haute Route?  I have done this with folks ranging from 24 to 65 and all seemed to end up finding a pace that allowed them to safely go from one hut to the the next each day with plenty of time for lunch.  More ambitious skiers generally have plenty of energy left after lunch and can burn this off by participating in additional tours around the huts.  On most trips we average a pace of about a thousand feet per hour, which is a speed that most skiers can very comfortably accomplish.  This is best accomplished by skiing uphill, but can also be done by running or biking.  Again, this can be done at your local ski area if you consider starting the day by skiing to the top of the area and then skiing down.  

What techniques do I need to know to ski the Haute Route?  This is probably the one spot where a few days of instruction from a good ski guide will benefit you the most.  Again, what you need is to be able to ski efficiently.  You should be able to make an in control turn when facing downhill in all snow conditions and on slopes up to 45 degrees.  These turns can be done slowly and one at a time, but they need to be in control.  Uphill kick turns need to feel easy and be second nature.  A guide can probably get you up to speed here in a day.  

You need to be quick when putting skins on and taking them off.  You need to know how to pack and what to wear.  Most people over dress until someone shows them exactly what to wear when ski touring.  You need to know how to turn an avalanche beacon on and off, do a beacon search, and be familiar with companion rescue techniques.  An advanced knowledge of avalanche forecasting is not required.  For those interested in moving toward backcountry skiing on their own, you should consider an AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Course such as the one we will be offering in Leavenworth, WA from Jan 2-4, 2009.  This will give you the a good start toward understanding the avalanche phenomena, but is not a basic requirement for being a client on a Haute Route ski trip.  You might also consider an Introductory Course on AT skiing, which can be set up on a private basis.

If you want to take a year to work up to the Haute Route, consider a less expensive alternative such as the Spearhead Traverse from Blackcomb to Whistler in British Columbia.  This is very similar in difficulty to the Haute Route and provides a very nice 3 or 4 day tour for a fraction of the cost of going all the way to Europe.  If you can do the Spearhead you can do the Haute Route.

It seems that people are slowly starting to wake up to how quickly AT skiing can be picked up.  Many of our alpine climbing clients who are also decent area skiers are concluding that they are not "good enough skiers" to ski the Haute Route and as a result are missing the opportunity to experience this classic ski tour.  If this is a goal for the future I would encourage you to start the winter by committing to doing all your alpine skiing on Alpine Touring (AT) gear; whether at your local ski area or in the backcountry.  Make it a point to ski some of the weirder snow you can find, forget skiing fast, focus on skiing efficiently and in control, and skin uphill whenever possible.  Just as you do not need to be Ed Veisturs to climb Denali, you do not need to be an extreme skier to enjoy the pleasures of the Verbier Haute Route.