In almost every avalanche course I teach we have a discussion about the use of avalanche airbags. My opinions on this matter have changed over time in light of new information and advancements in technology. Earlier in my avalanche education days I would cite statistics such as 75% of avalanche fatalities on Mount Washington were caused by trauma, not asphyxiation, the mechanism of death that an avalanche air bag is supposed to reduce the chance of in certain situations. Therefore I would conclude, perhaps wrongly, that avalanche airbags did not seem as valuable in our unforgiving terrain. In this article I will present a new argument for the use of avalanche airbags in the East, specifically for the backcountry touring community. First, a bit of background information that may be useful to the uninitiated.
How They Work
Simply put an avalanche airbag backpack has a handle or “trigger” that gets pulled by the wearer when caught in an avalanche which then causes a deployment system, either compressed air or electronic, rapidly fill a large rugged “ballon” that was stored inside the backpack. This “ballon” basically works to keep the wearer closer to the surface of the snow in a moving avalanche via “granular convection“, often referred to as the “Brazilian nut effect”. This video shows the effectiveness quite well.
Here are a few other things I will note that are relevant to this video. First, backcountry snowboarders and split-boards should see the value in an avalanche airbag perhaps at a higher level than skiers. The reason for that is these travelers do not have release-able bindings and therefore are more likely to be pulled under the snow during the type of avalanche motion seen in this video, referred to as “wet flowing” in the snow science community. Second, this avalanche path is a good example of a path with a safe runout. An avalanche airbag deployment is less likely to result in a positive outcome if you have terrain traps below you i.e. rocks, trees, cliffs, gullies, crevasses, creeks, etc.
A Change in Demographic
Before 2019 the main demographic for avalanche fatalities on Mount Washington were either ice climbers or winter hikers (11) and only three skiers. There has been an obvious shift in how people are recreating in the terrain with a noticeable explosion of the backcountry touring population (AT skiers, Split-boarders, Tele). This change in usage increases the chance of a survivable avalanche in a few ways.
First, getting caught in an avalanche while on foot or while skinning low in an avalanche path is often more serious than triggering something from the top. While there’s obviously a fair amount of luck surviving any avalanche the first avalanche involvement of our season resulted in no injuries for the person who triggered the avalanche and was carried the full slide length while the victim who was hit mid-path suffered serious trauma. In January of 2016 while teaching an avalanche course in Tuckerman Ravine I watched 4 people get caught and carried in an avalanche right next to our class. The avalanche also hit a 5th person in the runout resulting in the most serious injuries of the incident. Last year’s well reported Wilson Glade quadruple fatality (Utah) also showed how getting caught in the up track while ascending can have more dire outcomes.
Second, while it is suggested that anyone recreating in avalanche terrain carry the appropriate safety gear (transceiver, probe, shovel, and perhaps an avalanche airbag) this author believes these items are still less likely to be carried by the eastern ice climber or mountaineer. The merits and justifications of this choice are for another topic but I will suggest the fact that the majority of backcountry touring parties are carrying basic avalanche safety gear this user group is more likely to survive an encounter with an avalanche than a group without these items.
A Increase in Acceptable Risk
In a recent survey of backcountry touring groups who travel in avalanche terrain I asked two questions. The first:
While not unexpected the majority responded they would consider touring in avalanche terrain under a “Moderate” danger level. The North American Avalanche Danger Scale describes the likelihood of a human triggered avalanche as “possible” under a Moderate level, and “likely”, under a Considerable level. Almost one in three respondents would consider traveling in avalanche terrain when both natural avalanches are “possible” and human triggered are “likely”.
While some research has shown that the most avalanche fatalities occur during a “Considerable” danger level:
Other research shows that “Moderate” is actually the danger level where most fatalities occur:
Since these stats can be adjusted based on what data sets you are looking at I will just look at the fatalities and involvements I have personal experience with.
At least four of the last 6 fatalities on Mount Washington occurred under a “Moderate” danger level. The majority of reported “near misses” and involvements occur under a “Moderate” danger level. As a region we also see a fair share of incidents when under a “General Advisory” early in the season before the Mount Washington Avalanche Center starts issued daily forecasts.
The second question I asked in the recent survey was:
These results confirmed my suspicion that avalanche airbag usage in the East is still an exception and not common place. Based on the change in demographics, risk acceptance, and improvements in technology I believe we should see this change.
Improvements in Technology
Probably the biggest change an avalanche airbag technology is the growing availability, lower costs, and convenience of electronic airbag systems. Traditionally canister style avalanche airbags were the most common. Having to maintain a canister type system is likely a deterrent for many who might otherwise benefit from owning an avalanche airbag. Air travel with canister systems can be difficult, requiring you to discharge the system and find someplace at your destination that can refill your canister. You’d be less likely to practice deploying your airbag if the system only allowed one deployment. Now there are multiple electronic models that allow for multiple deployments, are easy to fly with, and can be charged anywhere you have an electric outlet. Some notable electronic models now available:
The real reason for my change in opinion on the validity of avalanche airbags in the East is a bit personal. When looking at the last two avalanche fatalities on Mount Washington the case for more common airbag usage is clear to me. There is a very important similarity between the tragic deaths of Nicholas Benedix in 2019 and Ian Forgays in 2021. Both of these backcountry riders were caught and carried in their avalanches, likely with the “wet flowing” motion shown in the previous video, and both ended up buried under the snow without suffering any trauma. Certainly a nearby partner who was not caught in the avalanche and had the right rescue gear and training may have been able to make the “save”, but unfortunately both were alone and unwitnessed avalanches. Take home point for me here is riders who occasionally travel solo in avalanche terrain should certainly consider the added layer of protection an avalanche airbag might provide. On the same day as Nicholas’s avalanche I myself triggered a large avalanche a few drainages away and was lucky to only be buried up to my waist. One of my only thoughts as I saw the snow coming down from above me was I was not wearing my avalanche airbag. Even more recently was a miraculous save in the Adirondacks just a week ago after two skiers were caught, one fully buried and the other just enough to still get out and save his partner. They were the only two in the area and if but a few more inches of snow this would have been a double fatality.
Research shows avalanche airbags save lives, suggesting a deployed avalanche airbag will reduce mortality by 50% . While they should not be considered 100% protection against getting hurt or killed in an avalanche wearing one in avalanche terrain adds another layer of protection from the hazard. While the increase in backcountry travelers wearing avalanche transceivers has noticeably increased in the last 10 years I expect to see an increase in avalanche airbag use in the east over the next ten years, and for good reason. We just recently had our first avalanche transceiver full burial save in the eastern US, and I believe the first avalanche airbag save might not be that far in the future.
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This past Saturday around 1 pm history was being made on Angel Slides in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York. Two skiers triggered a large avalanche that partially buried one and completely buried the other. As luck would have it one of the skiers was able to free himself from the snow in about 5 minutes. Using their avalanche transceiver they located their partner, buried nearby under 4 to 5 feet of snow. Unconscious and faintly breathing he regained consciousness while his rescuer continued to extract him from the snow. Ultimately they were both uninjured and they made their way back to the trailhead under their own power and reported the incident to a park employee.
And with that the first ever avalanche accident “save” was made in the Eastern US.
I use the word “save” to describe an incident where an avalanche victim is completly buried by an avalanche and recovered alive (and survives). This has never happened in the East, but I knew it was coming. Before 2019 I would often point out to my avalanche course students the interesting fact that no one had ever been buried in an avalanche in the East while wearing an avalanche transceiver. I would suggest that trend would change as more backcountry travelers were carrying the right equipment and it would only be some time before one of us found ourselves in the dark under the snow. Would we have a partner nearby who would be able to get to us in time?
The first person to be fully buried in the East with a transceiver on was Nicholas Benedix on April 11th, 2019. Nicholas survived for over two hours buried in Raymond Cataract on Mount Washington, but ultimately succumbed to hypothermia, a tragic and unique part of the history of avalanche accidents in the East. It would take less than two years before we would have a second person fully buried in an avalanche with a transceiver on. On February 1st, 2021 Ian Forgays was buried by a wind slab he triggered in Ammonoosuc Ravine, also on Mount Washington. Neither of these victims suffered trauma in their avalanches, but like Nicholas, Ian was traveling alone and therefore had no one near him to make the “save”.
With these two recent full burial accidents I’ve been suggesting to my students it is only a matter of time before we have a save. I would have put my money on the first East Coast save occurring on Mount Washington given the terrain and amount of visitation, but this moment in avalanche education goes to Wright Peak, in the Adirondacks.
Angel Slides, Wright Peak, Adirondack Mountains, New York
The Angel Slides are a series of three slides on the eastern flanks of Wright Peak, elevation 4,587 feet. According to The Adirondack Slide Guide: An Aerial View of The High Peaks Region, 2nd Edition by Drew Hass, Tropical Storm Irene (2011) created the far looker’s right slide path which was the path triggered during this accident. According to CalTopo.com the path is about 1,100 feet long, 170 wide, drops 608 feet with an average angle of 31 degrees and a max angle of 43 degrees, and is a North East aspect.
It should be noted that the only avalanche fatality known in the Adirondacks occurred on these slides, specifically the widest of the three, during February 2000, when Toma Vracarich and three friends were caught and carried. According to the Adirondack Almanac, all three of his friends were injured in the slide. He died beneath the snow and the slides were subsequently named the “Angel” slides. He was 27 years old.
Unlike the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire the High Peaks of the Adirondacks do not have an avalanche forecasting center. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation sometimes issues an early season “avalanche warning” but it is basically just an awareness statement with some links to learning about avalanches. Occasionally the National Weather Service issues an avalanche warning for the White Mountains Region. These warnings usually occur during obvious signs of danger like huge storms that dump two to three feet of snow in a short period of time but I haven’t heard if the NWS has ever done that for the Adirondack Region. Regardless these warnings don’t take the place of mid-season monitoring of the snowpack that occurs in a forecasted area like the one covered by the Mount Washington Avalanche Center.
To help with this information gap a couple community minded backcountry enthusiast’s have created the Adirondack Community Avalanche Observations website where backcountry travelers can submit observations made while out recreating. This is a great resource for the Adirondack community and it was just started about a month ago!
Another contributing factor to this accident is the type of avalanche they were dealing with. The followup investigation conducted by members of the Adirondack Community Avalanche Observations Team indicate that this was a Persistent Slab avalanche problem. This type of avalanche problem is not as common in our Maritime climate as it is in our Transitional (Utah) or Continental (Colorado) climates. When you have early season snow that is exposed to prolonged cold temperatures it can become very loose, “faceted”, and basically weak in structure. Then, as winter really arrives and subsequent snow storms bury that “rotten” layer of snow it can lie in waiting for weeks, sometimes months, for a trigger (us) to come and collapse that weak layer. We’ve been hearing this happen in this season’s snowpack in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. It’s the awe inspiring “whumpf” heard when the layer collapses. In a flat field it’s a cool part of snow science to observe. On a slope approaching 30 degrees in steepness it’s a dreaded warning, like the shrill rattle produced by a threatened rattlesnake, it is the mountain telling us it’s about to bite.
History has been made in the East in regards to avalanche incidents. With no one else in the area two skiers survived a near death experience. The second hand account I received of the first skier, Bryan, regaining consciousness while choking on snow and partially, or fully buried just under the surface of the snow, conjured up an image in my head of an angel reaching down and brushing just enough snow away from his face for him to regain awareness, rescue himself, and then go on to rescue his partner. Remarkably and with out injury, these two survived an experience that could have easily gone south. Angel Slides was given its name after the passing of Toma Vracarich there in 2000. Maybe Toma was the one who brushed the snow away from Bryan and gave him a second chance? Or maybe it was just luck. Either way this is a story that could not have had a better ending, and I’m grateful it’s being told.
Disclaimer: All information above was gathered from reports the victims submitted themselves and the report linked below. I have not spoken with either of the victims so there could be errors in my reporting. If I’m able to talk with with them I will update this post with more information.
When using a plaquette style belay device (Black Diamond ATC Guide, Petzl Reverso, DMM Pivot) in Assisted-Braking Mode or Auto-Blocking Mode (to belay a follower directly off the anchor) there are some ways to reduce the amount of effort required to pull slack through the device. This can lead to a more efficient belay as well as save your elbows from over-use injuries like tendinitis (not uncommon in life long climbers and guides).
First make sure you are using an appropriate diameter rope for your device. Skinnier ropes will require less effort to pull slack then thicker diameters but make sure you are staying within the range the manufacture recommends! For reference here are the suggested ranges for some common devices:
The skinnier rope you use the less effort it will take to pull slack through the device. Currently my favorite single rope for multi-pitch ice and alpine rock climbing is the Sterling Fusion Nano IX DryXP, 70m. This rope pulls very smoothly through any of the above devices!
Every holiday season I hand pick just 10 items I think would be an excellent gift for the hiker, climber, back-country rider, in your life. These are items I either already own and love or items that are at the top of my own wish list for Santa. I hope this list helps you find the special gift for someone you are shopping for this holiday season!
Definitely the greatest hand grinder for serious coffee lovers ever designed! We use ours daily to perfectly grind 20 grams local coffee. And speaking of quality coffee if you are local to Mount Washington Valley you know there are only two places to shop for coffee! If you are not local both of these small amazing coffee shops ship so order up some great coffee today from Frontside Coffee Roasters and Ski The Whites Coffee Company!
I am a diehard fan of the Aeropress Coffee and Espresso Maker for our caffeine needs both at home and on the trail! It is simply the fast way to brew an amazing cup of Joe and clean up is so much easier than a messy French Press!
I bought the DJI Mini 2 Drone Fly More Combo last Spring and have been having a lot of fun making amateur video clips with it. I did quite a bit of research before I bought it and I think this is one of the best values for a quality starter drone! There’s a few examples on my YouTube channel of what kinds of clips you can create… here’s a short clip I made last month:
An incredible rugged and easy to use pair of hand held radios can greatly improve safety while enjoying mountain sports. You can read my full review of these here and get 10% off with promo code “AlpineStart10”.
Only until tomorrow MPOWERD is offering BOGO on the Luci Pro Series! Awesome for outdoor light both at home and while backpacking that really is a killer deal. I’m also a fan of the new Luci Base Light that can charge your smartphone while also providing great back-up light. We have that model and a few of the Original Luci Lights that we use while car camping and during power-outages at home.
This socially responsible company makes the coolest water bottles and tumblers out there! Super high quality stainless steel technology keeps cold drinks cold for 24 hours and hot drinks hot for 6 hours! Customization and tons of color and style options means there is a Hydro Flask out there for just about everyone!
I’m pretty sure the 10 seconds of silence from my girlfriend after asking her to marry me was enough time for her to accept that she loved a man with some seriously stinky feet. Luckily she said yes and I would soon find this foot powder, seriously the only product that works on my feet! 10 years later she is quick to remind me if she notices my supply running low. This one is a PERFECT stocking stuffer, pick it up on Amazon here.
Possibly the best socks I’ve ever owned and made right over the border in Vermont! For mountaineering and ice climbing check out this model! These socks come with an unconditional lifetime guarantee and make an excellent stocking stuffer!
Every home in the Northeast should have one of these! It’s effective enough that I can easily dry my boots and gloves along with my wife’s in just a couple hours. No balancing them over the floor base heaters or getting them too hot near the wood-stove and risking early de-lamination! You can pick on up on Amazon here.
The Petzl Nao+ is the best headlamp for anyone who gets after dawn patrol or squeezes in late night pitches after work!
While I do love these online deals I want to take up this space by encouraging you support local businesses, especially small specialty climbing shops, with your business! To that end if you can physically visit these stores please do!
Well there’s my small contribution to the every growing list of Holiday Gift Guides that are undoubtedly hitting your mailbox this season. My suggestions are heartfelt and I hope they help you find something for the outdoor person(s) in your life!
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start
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We are about to hit the season of savings on outdoor gear! I’m organizing my annual Holiday Gift Guide and it will be ready by Black Friday. One item that will certainly make my “top ten” Holiday Gift Ideas is a quality first aid kit. MyMedic is currently offering 35% off their most popular first aid kit, The Solo, one I’ve reviewed in depth!
Occasionally a deal comes across my radar I think is worth sharing here. This one is only valid through tomorrow! Use code “NOVBUMP20” for an extra 20% off some already deeply discounted products! Here’s a quick list of my favorite items that are eligible for these savings!
There are many situations in climbing where it makes sense to construct your anchor from the climbing rope you are already attached to versus reaching for a sling or cordelette; most notably when swinging leads or finishing a climb with a tree anchor followed by a walk-off. In recent years the Connecticut Tree Hitch (CTH) has gained popularity among both professional climbing guides and savvy recreational climbers.
The Buntline Hitch is also a suitable option that has a few distinct advantages over the CTH.
The hitch does not require a locking carabiner
The hitch forms a suitable master point for belaying your second (when using a CTH you must tie another bight knot to create a master point).
If tied incorrectly it forms either two half-hitches or a clove-hitch which have a high enough slip strength. The CTH tied incorrectly will catastrophically fail.
It is fast to tie and untie
Credit: Big thanks to Derek DeBruin for sharing this hitch with in the AMGA Professional Facebook Forum and for his continued work disseminating quality information. EDIT: Derek credits Richard Goldstone for teaching him this method.
Disclaimer: Climbing is dangerous. Practice new skills on the ground and seek qualified instruction.
Rigging to lower from a sport climb is faster, more efficient, and safer than setting up a rappel. Here’s the why and the how!
Faster and More Efficient
When one rigs to lower one only needs to pull up enough rope to pass a bight through the fixed anchor and tie a bight knot that can be clipped to one’s belay loop. If one chooses to set up a rappel instead one needs to pull up at least half the rope (if the rope has an accurate middle mark) or the entire rope up (if the rope does not have an accurate middle mark). This is not only faster than setting a rappel, but safer!
As mentioned the fact that you do not need to locate the middle of the rope when being lowered leads to a reduction in risk. There are many examples of accidents that resulted from the two ends of a rope not being even during a rappel. When rigging to lower you also have the benefit of still being on belay. If you have led the route prior to rigging the lower the rope will still be traveling through quick draws below offering some protection against an unexpected slip. Finally this method keeps the climber attached to the rope in some form through out the process eliminating the risk of dropping the rope (it happens!).
The process isn’t too complicated but there are a few considerations and options.
The first of which is whether or not to tether into the anchor during the process. The best practice depends on the situation, more specifically, the stance. When you arrive at the anchor if there is a decent stance you can omit tethering into the anchor and doing so reduces clutter and speeds the process. If the unexpected slip occurs at this stage your rope is still through the anchor. If you have passed a bight through the anchor some security can be obtained by keeping tension on the bight as you bring it down to your belay loop and tie the bight knot. However if the stance is small and insecure it would be best to tether into the anchor so you can rig to lower more comfortably. While there are a few appropriate tether systems out there one of the best options is the CAMP USA Swing Dynamic Belay Lanyard.
Pull up some slack and thread a bight through the fixed rings on the anchor. Continue to lengthen this bight until it reaches your belay loop and pull it about 8 inches past (below) your belay loop.
Tie a bight knot here. There are a couple bight knots you could use to attach the rope back to your climbing rope. An overhand on a bight works, but is harder to untie then a figure-eight on a bight. I often tie a figure 8 on a bight with an extra wrap or two around the two strands. This makes a secure bight knot that is very easy to untie after it has been loaded (sometimes called a figure-9).
After the bight knot is tied connect it to your belay loop with a locking carabiner. Some climbers might chose to add a second reversed/opposed carabiner (locking or not). If only using a single locking carabiner make sure it is locked and properly orientated when you call for “take” and weight the new attachment. Best practice here is to get a little closer to the anchor so when your belayer “takes” you can weight the new attachment and verify everything looks correct the next step.
Untie your original tie in knot and pull the long tail through the anchor.
Remove the quick-draws (or whatever your top-rope anchor was), weight the rope, and ask to be lowered. Watch that you don’t get tripped up on the long tail coming from the backside of the bight knot! Once you are on the ground remove the locking carabiner and bight knot and retrieve your rope by pulling from the belayer side (less rope to pull). Move on to the next climb or head to happy hour (depending on time of day).
Close Your System!
One important caveat to this system, and almost all climbing systems, is to be sure to “close your system”. Essentially this means during your partner check (before anyone starts climbing) you ensure that the unused end of the rope either has a stopper knot tied near the end, is secured around a ground anchor, or tied into your partner. In order to explain the avoidable accident we are preventing I’ll share this simple example. You successfully lead a 35 meter tall route without realizing you are climbing on a 60 meter rope. After rigging to lower your belayer lower’s you and when you are about 10 meters from the ground the unsecured end of the climbing rope slips through the belayer’s brake hand and belay device and you fall to the ground. As unavoidable as this sounds it happens every single year! Close your system!
“I heard lowering through anchors is discouraged as it wears out the fixed gear?”
Professional mountain guides and climbing institutions around the country are actively trying to correct this common public misconception. It stems from the very real and modern ethic that active top-roping through fixed gear is discouraged. Over time, depending on the fixed hardware, this can lead to pre-mature wear on the fixed anchor. It’s easy enough if you plan on top-roping for a bit to use your own carabiners to save some wear on the fixed anchor. Only the last climber will lower through the fixed gear, and modern stainless steel rappel rings and “mussey hooks” can handle this type of use for many years to come. The gains in efficiency and reduction in rappelling accidents justify this technique, and the organizations that promote education and conservation are the same organizations promoting this technique, namely groups like the American Mountain Guide Association, The Access Fund, and The American Alpine Club. There may be some areas where locals are still resisting this modern technique. It’s possible their routes have more aluminum fixed anchors or they don’t have an organizing body that works to keep anchors updated like the Rumney Climbers Association. In those areas it’s best to check with local climbers on accepted practices, but hopefully these areas can be updated to better support lowering as an option.
All this said there are times where rappelling will be a better choice. The American Alpine Club created this video which covers the steps to rig a rappel from a sport anchor instead.
Rigging to lower from a sport climb is definitely faster and arguably safer than setting up a rappel. I hope this post has you thinking critically about your process while climbing and that it was clean and concise. At the end of the day double and triple check what ever system you are using especially during transitions and climb on!
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start
Disclaimer: Climbing is dangerous. Practice new skills at ground level and under the guidance of a qualified guide, instructor, or mentor. Climb at your own risk. Affiliate links above help support this blog.
I originally posted this tech tip back in 2017 but with any climbing skill a bit of repetition can’t hurt. Here’s the original YouTube video and a new one I posted this morning.
CONTEST- $200 Gift Card to IME, North Conway NH
I’m giving away a $200 gift certificate to International Mountain Equipment in North Conway, NH to a randomly selected YouTube subscriber on November 30th, 2021! This gift certificate can be used on anything in their retail shop like a new climbing rope, ice axes, crampons, clothing, etc, or on a climbing lesson or avalanche course with the International Mountain Climbing School! No purchase necessary, just hit that subscribe button on my YouTube channel to be sure you will be entered in the drawing!
Today Ortovox officially added two new avalanche transceivers to the market, the Diract and the Diract Voice. While a few preproduction samples have been checked out by other avalanche professionals I received a post production model about a week ago and want to share some preliminary opinions and thoughts at this revolutionary avalanche transceiver. A more in-depth review will be published after I’ve had some considerable real world field time with this model. I know a lot of people may be looking for a new avalanche transceiver before the snow really starts to fly and I hope this “first look” report will help you decide if you should consider the Ortovox Diract or Ortovox Diract Voice avalanche transceiver!
After unboxing the initial set up was straight forward. As soon as you open the box instruction on the lid include a QR code directing you to download the Ortovox app for either iOS or Android. I selected English from the nine available languages and register the device through the app while synced to my smartphone via Bluetooth. Registration is a great idea since not only will up be sure to receive any important software update notifications it automatically extends the two year warranty by an additional 3 years giving you 5 years of total protection on your investment! More information and links to the apps along with some video tutorials can be found here: https://ortovox.com/us-en/service/information-user-manuals/avalanche-transceivers/diract-start
After registering the device I was instructed to calibrate the internal electronic compass used to ensure the device is held level in SEARCH mode and to analyze orientation when buried for the “Smart Antenna” technology (more on that later). I chose to do this outside in the yard away from the house and my cell phone to ensure no interference.
Let’s start with the obvious biggest feature of the Ortovox Diract Voice. This is the first ever avalanche transceiver that gives the user verbal feedback during the stressful times of an avalanche rescue. Like others, I wasn’t exactly sure about the name Ortovox chose for this new model, but a quick Google Translation search revealed that “diract” is the Hindi word for “direct”. And that is what this avalanche transceiver attempts to do… direct your actions during the course of an avalanche rescue with important voice prompts. I demonstrate this in this video with some initial hands on practice in a nearby field:
POST PRODUCTION NOTES:
While filming the first couple test runs with my iPhone in AIRPLANE mode the transceiver experienced electronic interference which caused a false signal while outside the range of the transmitting transceiver and caused the transceiver to instruct me to start a fine search while still 18 meters from a second transceiver. Both of these errors were user-error, not software error! Any electronic with a GPS chip, Bluetooth, WiFi, radio transmitter, or microchip, should be more than half a meter away from a transceiver in search mode, or better yet powered off completely! I’ve left these first test runs in the final video as they demonstrate how the voice commands work and I believe that is useful. Twelve more test runs were conducted (6 filmed by the drone) and no other errors were observed.
My overall impression of this novel idea is positive. As an avalanche course instructor with over 100 avalanche courses taught I really do believe voice prompts can help rescuers react appropriately. Reminders like the initial “Run in 50 meter search strips and look out” encourage both urgency and situational awareness. Directional corrections like “run to the left/right” can help keep the searcher on the “flux line” while they are constantly conducting a quality visual search (often a part of rescue new rescuers struggle with). Getting outside of the fine search area the transceiver clearly tells you “You were closer!” When I publish my updated full review (ETA mid-winter) I will cover every voice command that’s possible and how best it fits into the rescue strategy.
There is one voice command I would have liked to have seen integrated. If the transceiver registers a number less than 1 meter during the search I would have loved for it to tell me to “Start probing here!” I have observed for years students will spend too much time on the fine search trying to get the lowest possible number when in reality if they are actually searching for a human sized target (and not a small stuff sack) and have a number under 1 meter they should halt the fine search and start probing. A probe strike is imminent. In that same line of thought it would be great if the transceiver could tell a quality fine search was carried out and if 1.6 meters in the lowest number after the fine search it could also direct the user to start probing.
That said a practiced rescuer should be able to make these transitions without the voice command, so the omission of this one command is no deal breaker!
Internal Lithium Ion Rechargeable Battery
The next biggest innovation in both the Diract and Diract Voice is the use of an internal lithium ion rechargeable battery. I think this is a great choice from a design point and I’m confident other manufacturers may follow suit as there are few disadvantages and many advantages. First of all having an internal rechargeable battery means no more pulling half used alkaline batteries out when they reach 60% and adding them to the draw of “not full batteries” I have in my gear room. This is better for the environment. The next advantage is you do not need to remember to remove your batteries at the end of the winter season. I’ve seen quite a few transceivers ruined with corroded batteries when owners left their batteries in them over the course of a humid summer. With this style battery it is best to not constantly “short charge” they battery, i.e. plugging it in every night to get it back to 100%. The user manual states to not charge until under 80%, and even states “once the battery charge falls below 40%, the device should be charged as soon as possible”.
The technical specifications claim that a full battery will provide a minimum of 200 hours in SEND followed by 1 hour of SEARCH. I will do some extensive testing of this battery over the next month and update this post accordingly by for now I’ll say I’m quite confident in this performance. After 2 hours of SEND and about 30 minutes of SEARCH my battery is still reporting 100%. Depending on how often you tour I imagine you’ll only need to recharge once or twice a season. I will be teaching rescue skills weekly from December through March and will report back detailed battery performance.
As for concerns about not being able to access or self-replace the lithium-ion battery Ortovox has had a third-party verify that this battery is good for at least 450 “cycles” and will still produce enough power to meet the 200 hours of SEND followed by 1 hour of SEARCH performance. A “cycle” is basically each time you charge the battery, which is why “short charging” is discouraged. Ortovox is working on a consumer focused solution for when it does become time to replace the battery, which based on my estimates of heavy use, won’t be needed for 5-7 years, if even then. The truth is with these numbers and proper charging habits the battery may last as long as the widely recommended “upgrade/replace your transceiver” suggestion of ten years. If that holds true that equals about 30-60 AA alkaline batteries from my own use staying out of a landfill!
The software is designed to self test the battery at every start up and will display a percentage, along with a alert if 30% or less, or “empty”. It also checks the health of the battery so if you ever do reach the end of the life of the battery it will display “Battery service necessary” and direct you to the Ortovox website for service/repair.
Finally it should be noted that you can not charge the battery when it is under 0 degrees Celsius. This may concern some users but I feel with proper planning this should never be an issue. My plan is to let my battery deplete for during day trips to within 40-50% capacity then recharge to full (one cycle). If I am heading out on a week long trip somewhere (Iceland this April?) I’ll recharge it to 100% for the trip. If you are spending two months on some amazing expedition I’m sure you can get the transceiver above 0 degrees Celsius in your sleeping bag if you need to recharge it.
Standby Mode and Auto-Revert
The next unique feature of the Ortovox Diract and Diract Voice is the addition of a “Standby” mode. Typically avalanche transceivers have only two modes, SEND/TRANSMIT or SEARCH. In a rescue scenario we teach everyone in the group not caught in the avalanche to switch their transceivers to SEARCH so that rescuers don’t waste time by “finding” people who are not buried in the snow. The issue is in a group rescue scenario you often do not need 5 people searching for a signal on a debris pile. For example if one person is missing and there are 5 rescuers you might only have 1 or 2 people actually searching with their transceivers while the rest of the group spots from a safe location and starts assembling probes and shovels to be ready for the extraction part of the rescue. These rescuers can utilize the standby mode to get their transceiver to stop transmitting, and, especially in the case of the Diract Voice, quiet the scene. We don’t need all the beeping and voice commands confusing the overall scenario. While in Standby mode the transceiver does have a motion sensor that is monitoring your movement. If no movement is detected in 90 seconds a loud alarm and display warning will indicate the unit will revert back to SEND in 30 seconds if 1) no movement is detected (i.e. you were caught and buried by a secondary avalanche), or 2) You press the FLAG button to cancel the revert.
The next thing I’d like to talk about is the shape and layout of the unit. Applicable to both models these transceivers are a slim design that fits comfortably in my hand and in my dedicated transceiver pocket on my ski pants. While I traditionally prefer to pocket carry my transceiver I believe I’ll start using the harness carry more often due to some innovative choices by Ortovox. The first is the decision to move the Recco technology from the transceiver to the carrying system. The second is the harness pocket holds the transceiver perfectly and adjusts with ease.
The layout of the controls is simple but well thought out. I am able to operate all functions on the transceiver with one hand regardless.of using my dominant (right) hand or not. With only two buttons and the SEND/SEARCH switch operation is really intuitive. To test the intuitiveness for a non-trained user I asked my 10 year old son to turn the transceiver on, put the unit into SEARCH mode, return to SEND mode, and power off the device. He accomplished all four tasks in less than two minutes with no further instruction.
Smart Antenna Technology
A feature of all Ortovox transceivers I have long been a fan of is the patented “SMART-ANTENNA-TECHNOLOGY ™. This basically makes locating your signal faster regardless of what orientation the transceiver is buried in by using intelligent position recognition and automatically switching to the best transmission antenna. Ortovox transceivers are the only transceivers that use this technology and I believe it’s an excellent feature.
The LCD display is quite visible in bright daylight and the brightness is adjustable via the free Ortovox app. I’ll be leaving it on the brightest setting while testing the battery performance this winter. The screen has a smart light sensor so when the transceiver is stowed in either a pocket or the carrying case it will shut off. After removing it from the harness a quick press of either of the two buttons will waken it.
Range and “smart” Search Strip Width while in SEARCH
I tested the Ortovox Diract Voice in an open field with a measured distance with the following results. I will update these this winter with other models buried 1.5 meters down in the snowpack. While in SEARCH for an Ortovox 3+ transceiver a signal was always acquired around on average between 30-40 meters with on result of 28 meters when the transmitting transceiver was in a poor coupling orientation. These results support Ortovox’s suggestion of a 50 meter search strip width in this open terrain with no interference. Yet another innovation feature of both the Ortovox Diract and Diract Voice is the unit somehow analyses the surrounding area for interference and adjusts the recommended Search Strip Width to be optimized. For example, in the open field (and even with my cell phone interference) the Search Strip Width was displayed as 50 meters. In my house while testing the Auto Revert function and surrounded by Wifi, electronics, etc the displayed Search Strip Width was reduced to 20 meters.
The Ortovox Diract and Diract Voice transceivers have an intuitive system for helping the user manage the incredibly complex scenario of a multiple burial. The first is the display with indicate multiple signals with little “person” icons on the bottom of the display (up to three). This is another moment where I would have loved if the voice command could have verbally alerted me with something like “Multiple signals detected”. This addition would really help a searcher understand the bigger picture faster and manage their resources appropriately. Once you have finished your fine search and achieved a positive probe strike you can press and hold the flag button to have that signal suppressed, at which time the transceiver will direct you to the next closest burial. From my limited testing and reading of the manual there is not an option to “un-flag” a flagged victim. Should that be needed (and it shouldn’t if you use this feature with the caution taught in rescue courses) you will need to place the transceiver back into SEND then revert to SEARCH to remove all “flagged” targets. <insert info on any verbal instructions during FLAGGING>
This is a big moment in the history of avalanche transceivers. While there are a few great transceiver manufacturers out there I’m not surprised that Ortovox was the first to produce a transceiver that is so different from everything else out there. The benefits of a talking transceiver might vary by the user. Those who consider themselves “experts” in avalanche rescue will likely feel the effects of the voice commands less important as they are used to “listening” to the visual and audio clues of the various transceivers they have used over the years. In my opinion those advanced users might decide to upgrade to the Ortovox Diract (without voice) simply for the solid performance and benefit of the internal battery over transceivers that burn through alkaline batteries. Those who are new to avalanche rescue, or (gasp) rusty on their rescue skills (take an Avalanche Rescue course!), will likely find the voice commands from the Ortovox Diract Voice to be quite beneficial at guiding actions during the stressful moments of an avalanche rescue.
As mentioned this is an initial “first look” type review as I’ve only had this transceiver in my hands for about a week. I will test it throughly this winter while instructing over a dozen avalanche courses and will update my findings and opinions likely by late January. If you were planning on upgrading or buying you first avalanche transceiver this Fall in preparation of the winter I hope this information has helped you decide if the Ortovox Diract or Ortovox Diract Voice is the right transceiver for you, and if it is you can purchase one from these online retailers:
At the end of the day as an avalanche educator I’d be remiss if I didn’t end this review with the classic avalanche educator’s disclaimer. The BEST transceiver in the world is the one you practice with most! When was the last time you practiced avalanche rescue? How about taken an avalanche rescue course? Make avalanche rescue practice part of your seasonal preparation! There are SO many courses out there, if you are looking for one here’s some links to get you started:
Yet another way you could up your Avy Savvy brain is taking IMFGA Guide Mark Smiley’s newest online course “Beyond Level One*”. This is a massive online course designed to be taken over the course of a whole season with 120 episodes and contributions from some of the best avalanche professionals in the industry! I have taken other online courses from Mark and the quality is top-notch! I will be enrolling in this course myself to see what Mark has created and am especially excited about how much of the content I will be able to absorb à la podcast style!
Disclaimer: Traveling in avalanche terrain is dangerous and nothing in this review is intended to be “instruction” or assumed to be accurate. The author is a member of the Ortovox Athlete Team and received this transceiver at no cost as part of that partnership.
*Affiliate links above help support Northeast Alpine Start at no additional cost to you. Purchasing a transceiver or online course through those links earn the author a commission. Thank you.