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The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Beacons save lives

By Eric Williams

Whether on skis, snowboards, snowshoes or snowmobiles, backcountry travelers going deep into the Wasatch Mountains should always remember to pack the essential emergency avalanche tools — a shovel, probe and beacon. The shovel and probe are self-explanatory and easy to use — on the other hand, beacons can vary widely in design and operation.

Beacons are radio transceivers that can be attached to backcountry travelers and aid rescue efforts in the event that someone is trapped in an avalanche.

Being the skiers’ mecca that Utah is, the Beehive State is fortunate to have several local facilities where novices to experts can get some necessary beacon practice.

The advent of lightweight probes and shovels and the technological advances of avalanche transceivers and products such as the AvaLung have emboldened backcountry travelers — and saved lives. A backpack full of tools is of little use, however, if the trapped individual is not familiar with his or her equipment.

“Beacons are nothing more than an expensive rabbit’s foot unless you practice often,” said Bruce Tremper, avalanche expert and director of the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center.

In the excitement of purchasing a new snowmobile or pair of snowshoes, many people buy the emergency equipment the salesman suggests, only to realize they have no idea how to work the little gadget with the flashing light. Although the technology of avalanche transceivers is simple, it can take some getting used to. Even backcountry guides and ski patrollers work frequently to hone their beacon skills. Thanks to some of these local professionals, Utahns now have a multitude of beacon practice facilities where anyone can take their beacon and learn the skills that could save one’s life or the life of a friend.

Thanks to the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue and some Utah ski resorts, there are now four EasySearch beacon practice parks within an hour of Salt Lake City. The parks featuring the Swiss EasySearch systems are open and free to the public all winter. The parks are located near the bases of Snowbird, Snowbasin, Solitude and The Canyons.

The wireless EasySearch systems are portable and solar-powered. The brain of the system can remotely activate multiple beacons buried under varying depths of snow. Once the beacons have been turned on, searchers use their own beacons to locate the EasySearch beacons, turning them off by striking a plate with an avalanche probe. After all the beacons have been located, participants can return to the control unit to find out how long it took them to find each beacon.

“Beacons only work if you practice regularly with them and that includes digging practice,” said Tremper, who practices monthly with his staff at one of the facilities. “Since most recreational users don’t practice very often, very few are able to find their partner in time to save their life.”

Tremper also recommends that anyone wearing a beacon also wear an AvaLung, which allows a buried victim to breathe for an hour rather than the 15 minutes he or she would have without an AvaLung.

Another park dedicated to helping snowmobilers learn to use avalanche beacons is located in the Uinta Mountains at Noblett’s trailhead. The Uinta park was brought to the state by the Utah Avalanche Center working with Backcountry Access, a Boulder, Colo., based company. This park is open and free to all users throughout the winter. This system utilizes beacons connected to the control panel by buried wires. As with the EasySearch parks, the searchers deactivate the buried beacons by probing strike boards.

Although organizations like Search and Rescue and the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue exist to help stranded travelers, an avalanche victim’s best chance at survival is in the hands of his or her companions. Time is precious to a person running out of oxygen under eight feet of snow. Even if a companion finds a victim with a transceiver or probe he or she still must shovel two tons of dense snow by hand to free someone buried under four feet of snow.

Most ski shops sell four or five different models of beacons. Everyone has a preference when it comes to design and features, but all beacons are designed to be used together. The practice parks are designed to work with all modern beacons.

Another great way to become more comfortable in avalanche terrain — while getting school credit — is to take one of the classes offered by the U’s Parks, Recreation, and Tourism department. Backcountry Avalanche and Avalanche Awareness classes are taught each Spring Semester. The classes fill up fast, so if you can’t get on the waiting list this semester be sure to think ahead for next year.

Beacons, shovels, probes and many other backcountry products can be rented through the U’s outdoor recreation program located on 2140 East Red Butte Rd.

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