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Smart Phones are not Beacons

As soon as snow starts falling in my backyard Wasatch Range, I begin to check the Utah Avalanche Center website religiously. It’s helpful to get a handle on how the snowpack is forming and get myself thinking about avalanches in general. A couple weeks ago I saw something on their website that made me (and the forecasters) cringe. Several companies have come out with apps that are supposed to make your smart phone act like an avalanche beacon. My first thought was, “This is going to get people killed.”

Above Photo: Backcountry Athlete Greg Hill touring in Rogers Pass, British Columbia
Shot By: Tommy Chandler

Let me just get it out of the way that I’m not a big fan of smart phones. Sure, internet access can be handy, and games are a nice way to pass a two-hour stay at the DMV, but I’m definitely one of those jaded types who fear for the human race every time I see two people sitting across a table on their phones instead of talking to each other. However, diminishing social skills aren’t going to kill anyone, and these new apps just may.

There are a whole ton of things wrong with the idea of using a smart phone as an avalanche beacon, but I’ll just pick on a few reasons why this is a terrible idea.

Compatibility: These apps are not compatible with avalanche beacons, or even other beacon apps, so even if these did work well, everyone in your party would have to have exactly the same app. You couldn’t find anyone with a real beacon and they wouldn’t be able to locate you.

Battery Power: Smart phones are known for having terrible battery life. Many phones won’t even make it through a whole day of standard use without needing a charge. In addition to that, cold temperatures have a detrimental impact on battery life.

Range: Tests with GPS-powered apps under 2 meters of snow show a fine-search range of 7.5 to 15 meters, so best case scenario you’re looking at moving a dump truck worth of snow in order to find your buddy. That’s not a rescue. It’s a body recovery.

Even if you discount those three very serious issues, you also have to take into account that phones aren’t waterproof, they’re easy to break, they’re hard to use with gloves on, it’s tough to see the screen in bright sunlight, apps crash, phones interfere with real avalanche beacons, and so on.

If you ignore all these problems for a second, it’s easy to see how such apps could be welcomed by some. People die every year just out of bounds at their local resort when they duck the rope and head into avalanche terrain. I’m all for any realistic solution to this problem that may help save these people’s lives until they live through the learning curve, but this isn’t a solution. This is sending them out with a sub par piece of gear that’s more likely to give them a false sense of security than help them stay safe.

If anything, having these apps will only convince more people to head into avalanche terrain unprepared. The truth is that someone who isn’t willing to spend the money on a beacon and the time to take an avalanche class has no business in the backcountry. Going into avalanche terrain without the right gear basically says that you value your life and the life of your friends at less than a couple hundred bucks. Putting this app on your phone doesn’t prepare you for backcountry travel any more than video games prepare you to drive a rally car or lead a special ops mission.

Unfortunately, anyone who falls into this category will probably head into avalanche terrain without the proper equipment or training no matter what. My bigger concern is for those new to the backcountry skiing and snowboarding who wish to do things right. The availability of something that seemingly replaces a beacon for a fraction of the cost may con those who would otherwise be responsible into heading out without the proper equipment. It’s up to us as a community to help the newer among us do things right and stay safe until they can develop their own skillsets.

Don’t get me wrong. I welcome new life-saving technology into the backcountry. Advanced beacons, digital probes, Avalungs, and airbag packs all have the potential to give you a better chance of surviving if you screw up big time and get caught in a slide. However, these apps are exactly the opposite. The chances that they’ll actually work are pretty much zilch, and they’ll only convince those on the fence to skimp on proper gear and training.

For a very detailed account of all the really serious problems with this idea, see what the Utah Avalanche Center has to say and read on.

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