As skiing continues to evolve throughout the world a new type of riding has gained in popularity, side-country skiing. Resorts are opening up new areas to hike to that are becoming increasingly popular. Here in Steamboat we have seen the same build up in side-country access, with increased skiing opportunities from East Face and Saint Pats to the Canyon.
Skiers and riders are seeking more and bigger opportunities than just skiing inbounds. The ski industry has responded with a plethora of safety products opening up more terrain to more people.
The basic accessories that any side country skier needs are a beacon, probe, shovel and the knowledge and skills to use those products
Six different companies make avalanche beacons that all conform to an international standard of 457 kHz as well as a set number of operating hours in both search and send mode. Today’s digiatl beacons have made searching more user friendly and faster than ever.
Back Country Access for example, based in Colorado is the only manufacturer of beacons in the United States. Their first beacon, still in production today and a standard in the industry, was the Tracker, a two antenna beacon with a search range of about 40 meters.
Today they are still producing the Tracker but have added a three antenna beacon the Tracker 2 that has a larger search range of 60 meters. By adding an additional antenna the Tracker 2 offers more detailed and accurate search results during fine searches when you are close to the victim.
Pieps, Ortovox and Barryvox all have their own take on digital beacons that all work amazingly well. The Barryvox Pulse features a very interesting life saving function that allows the rescuer to see which victims are still alive. If two victims and one rescuer are all wearing the Pulse, the beacon can tell the rescuer who is not moving and thus the rescuer is able to spend their energy on the surviving victim.
The Pieps DPS beacon is another great option with a few more features. For a little more money than the Tracker 2 you get a 4 antenna beacon, the extra antenna is for self checking the bacon when it is turned on; it runs a diagnostic test to ensure proper functioning. The DPS is also capable of testing other beacons, signals of older beacons tend to wander off the 457 kHz standard and the DPS can check how far it has moved off signal.
This winter Pieps is premiering their new beacon the Vector that combines the use of flux lines and GPS technology for even faster and more efficient searches. Beacons are getting easier to use which is good because more and more people are relying on them as life saving devices.
A probe and shovel are the other crucial parts of any backcountry or side-country set up. Salt Lake City based Black Diamond is one of the largest manufactures of backcountry accessories. They produce aluminum probes such as the Quick Draw probe (260cm) as well as a Guide probe (300cm). They also make a 240cm carbon probe for those weight conscious travelers. It’s important to buy a probe that is appropriate for your snow pack, aka it is long enough to reach the bottom. Here in Steamboat a 260 cm probe is quite appropriate to deal with our snow depth in Northern Colorado.
Genuine Guide Gear (G3) makes an aluminum Speed Probe which comes in 240cm and 320cm lengths. They use a new closer system this year that is a ball attached to the cord that you slide into a slot locking the probe in its extended position allowing for easy set up and break down.
Shovels also came in a range of options that are quite personal. The two major schools of thought are that a big shovel moves big snow, or a small shovel moves snow more effectively thus you can move more snow faster, neither one is right – they simply vary on the user.
Brooks Range makes an interesting shovel called the Shark Tooth, which they offer in a variety of sizes, which has a serrated blade that allows for chopping through avalanche debris better. Black Diamond makes the Deploy shovel that has a curved shaft that slides out faster for quicker digging, they also make a more traditional shovel and handle that comes in a 3 and 7 liter version. The kind of shovel does not matter as long as you have a good solid metal one that works for you.
This year K2 is producing an all in one backcountry kit, the Backside, a backpack that come with a shove and probe retailing for $189. Many areas will not let you out the gate if you don’t have a backpack, shovel, probe, beacon and partner. The ski industry is making a plethora of dependable backcountry products, it’s your job to learn how to use them but more importantly to find a friend to travel with that is just as knowledgeable.
For years beacon, probe, shovel have been the standard for backcountry safety devices, in the last few years companies have added to the safety device options. Black Diamond during the latter part of the 90’s developed the Avalung, a device that allows a buried victim to expel carbon dioxide out the side of their pack rather than into their breathing pocket in front of their face. By moving the carbon dioxide away a buried victim can remain alive under snow for a longer period of time. The Avalung has been tested to varied results, the largest issue is getting the breathing tube into your mouth during an avalanche and keeping it there.
Another safety device that has been popular for years in Europe and is catching on in the United States: inflatable packs. These devices have an air canister and giant nylon pillow that inflate when you pull the rip cord. The idea being that the extra air will provide increased buoyancy that along with fighting for your life (literally) will help decrease or eliminated your burial death. Other than knowledge and good choices it is the only preventative rather than reactive safety device on the market. They are expensive, the Mammutand BCA version are both well over $700 and up depending on the size but have tested very well in Europe and are going to be on the market for quite some time. The air tanks are single use and can be refilled at any certified station such as dive shop and an increasing number of ski shops. BCA lists on their website all refill locations.
All these tools aid in making the backcountry a safer place, but the best tool is still your brain in conjunction with these life saving devices.