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Are these avalanche transceivers not working?

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For four skiers and the crew she was filming near Whistler, British Columbia, things went as planned. It was sunny and blue on March 9, 2020, and the team drove down ambitious lines in stable snow as the cameras from Teton Gravity Research were aimed at them for the new film Make Believe. They had checked their avalanche beacons that morning as they had done hundreds of times in the past. Before he left for the day, Nick McNutt eyed a line with a series of pillow-shaped drops. It looked free from danger. McNutt took a lap, then shed his skin to record another clip. On the other side of the valley, guide and athlete Christina “Lusti” Lustenberger watched in amazement as he connected the curves on the line for the second time. But a huge snow cushion loosened its side from above. As it left the gully, it collided with the rubble and was swept sideways into some trees and under the surface of the snow.

On snowmobiles, the group sped quickly to where McNutt had disappeared and switched their beacons to search mode. For such an experienced team, it should have identified its next location relatively quickly. But something was wrong – they couldn’t find a signal. If too many minutes passed, McNutt would run out of air. The group began probing the snow through the surface in the area where they’d seen him go down. In a stroke of luck a cameraman hit McNutt within a few stitches. The team worked quickly and shoveled almost three feet of snow from their boyfriend, who was spitting blood and had a broken arm. They loaded him onto a snowmobile, kept him warm with extra jackets, and waited for search and rescue for more than an hour to take him to the hospital, where he was quickly stabilized and monitored for four days. Everyone was wondering if his beacon – a Pieps DSP Pro that was a few seasons old – had switched itself off in the strap around his chest without his noticing it?

The team concluded that there was a serious problem with McNutt’s device, even though there was no visible damage. Transceivers have two settings: transmit and search. When skiing, lock it in send mode. When someone is buried in a slide, everyone else switches to search to receive their companion’s signal under the snow. It’s a standard protocol that anyone can use to check and make sure their beacons are in the correct mode before a group goes skiing in the backcountry (it is obvious when someone is looking for a beacon instead of sending it because the device starts chirping). They believe McNutts switched between modes even though it should be locked out.

In the seven months since the incident, the team worked with Pieps and its sister brand Black Diamond (which sells Pieps beacons) to run a series of tests to investigate whether turning off beacons without the user’s knowledge was a recurring problem on the DSP Pro and DSP was sports models. During the same period, through conversations with friends and guides, the athletes learned that other people had noticed anomalies with the same models. Most of the stories came from users who had finished a safe day of skiing and discovered that their beacons had switched modes. Seeing the potential for more accidents, they asked the brand to conduct a worldwide recall. “The only time I’ve ever needed it to really work wasn’t,” says McNutt. “It’s worrying.”

See you in the morning In October, Pieps and Black Diamond were yet to issue a public statement with results or plans to fix the alleged issues, even though both companies have launched trade-in programs that allow users to update their devices by emailing With winter approaching and this year’s backcountry participation expected to increase in the face of the pandemic, athletes felt a responsibility to alert the wider community to the potential problems with the beacons. On October 10, Lustenberger published a series of Instagram posts about her experience last spring. In response, a deluge of other users on social media and forums shared similar experiences with the same models while switching modes in the field. Lustenberger has screened more than 40 comments on her public Instagram account from people of similar type Problems. “Mine turned off several times in my pocket!” wrote a person. The main allegation from the community is that the switch can unwittingly toggle between modes due to its placement on the front of the beacon where it can be partially pushed in its harness. They also think that the lock button will degrade over time and with use.

Among those who caught attention was Brianne Howard, who lost her husband Corey Lynam to an avalanche in March 2017. Lynam carried a Pieps DSP Sport Beacon in his front pocket during a backcountry excursion in Whistler’s Callaghan Valley. He was buried for four hours because the rescuers could not receive a signal. According to an investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, his beacon was in search mode instead of transmit mode despite security checks. Black Diamond says that once Pieps learned of Lynam’s accident, he contacted the search and rescue team and local authorities to learn more about the incident. Howard hired a lawyer to draft a letter to brand management in December 2017, asking them to investigate and recall the product. Black Diamond sent a reply on Jan. 2, 2018. TÜV SÜD, an independent testing laboratory in Europe, inspected Lynman’s transceiver and found that it was operational; Black Diamond never inspected it directly as it was part of a police investigation. She decided to speak out publicly when McNutt and friends started exchanging ideas a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, on October 16, a Canadian law firm filed a class action lawsuit against the trademarks in the British Columbia Supreme Court. The lawsuit alleges the negligent design of several different devices including the DSP Sport and Pro models, “in which the transceivers involved allegedly switched to the ‘off’ or ‘search’ mode when they were worn.” Black Diamond and Pieps did not want to comment on the lawsuit. Howard and the athletes say they are not involved. “None of us try to slander Pieps or Black Diamond,” says skier Ian McIntosh in a video he posted on Instagram. “That is not our motivation. Our motivation is simply the safety of all backcountry travelers. “

Last week, Black Diamond confirmed that they had temporarily removed the sport – the entry-level version of the brand for $ 299 – from the Black Diamond website. The Pro was retired in 2017 and the following year Pieps launched four new models with Bluetooth technology and a different locking mechanism. Instead of pressing a button to unlock and lock the device, you have to press and slide the lock to switch between modes. The athletes say they have never heard of Pieps’ other models that have problems.

The Pieps DSP sports beacon (Courtesy Pieps)

However, Pieps and Black Diamond told Outside that while they understand and acknowledge concerns that “no beacon is perfect,” the devices are safe, and exceed certification standards, after rigorous internal and external testing and research. Whenever they receive a complaint that a product is defective, they first try to get the customer’s device back for inspection in the laboratory. “In my industry, we can’t afford to accept anything,” said Rick Vance, vice president of quality at Black Diamond and Pieps. McNutts beacon from the accident was lost in the mail, but Pieps tested the switching strength of his friends’ models, including one with a damaged lock button and other used beacons of similar age (three to five years).

Your aim in this mechanical test was to rule out an aging effect. Pieps and Black Diamond claim the tests achieved this. However, they confirmed that when the button is cracked or otherwise weakened, the lock’s function is reduced by 50 to 100 percent. In measuring the effectiveness of the Beacon design, they compared new and used DSP Sport and Pro to other brands in the market. “This study concluded that we were in the range of what is currently on the market,” says Vance. “That tells us two things: We have no problem at the batch level where we could start a callback saying, ‘If your serial numbers are between X and Y, return your beacon.’ And we have no problem with the prior art. ”Therefore, according to Vance, the alleged problems do not meet the requirements for a recall. According to a company spokesman, 150,000 DSP Sport and Pro models have been sold worldwide.

Pieps published her own public safety announcement to her 5,000 Instagram followers a few days after Lustenberger first shared her crew’s experience. On the last slide, Vance demonstrates where to inspect the beacon for cracks and how to properly switch between modes by pressing the little lock button. He also shows how to unlock the locking mechanism by pushing it. “Never force the slider between positions without pressing the lock button,” he says. “This will damage the locking mechanism and if you do, you will retire immediately.”

But the skiers are certain that switching the beacon between modes is not always a user error. And a functioning transceiver, along with a probe and shovel, is an important part of the avalanche rescue kit. Avalanche Canada Forecasting Program Director Jim Floyer says, “It is absolutely critical that we maintain confidence in the transceiver system.”

Pieps and Black Diamond told Outside that security is their top priority and they are working hard to regain the community’s trust. The situation has also sparked discussions about updating beacon certifications and standards, Vance says.

McNutt and friends say the brands’ actions are steps in the right direction. But without a full recall of the two products, they fear that the warning will not reach every single customer. They say they will keep communicating with as many people as possible. For them it is irrelevant which devices pass tests in the laboratories – they need them to function in the field. “I just don’t want people to use this device,” says Lustenberger. “I don’t want people to play Russian roulette with their safety equipment hoping that in the event of an accident it will stay in the desired mode.”

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