How To: Practice Your Avalanche Transceiver Skills

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Chris Coulter with a transceiver check before heading out. Photo: Andrew Miller

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Transworld SNOWboarding and has been updated with photos and text. Subscribe here.

No need to wait for the snow to start falling to prep for your season. If you’re planning on heading into the backcountry this winter you can gather your gear now, refamiliarize yourself with it, and plan a safe and systematic approach to your journeys.

To give you a little motivation, we talked to John "Buff" Buffery, senior avalanche officer for the BC government. Buff’s been certified by the Association Of Canadian Mountain Guides since the '80s, he’s fought for the right of snowboarders like Craig Kelly to become certified guides, and has guided some of the biggest pros at Baldface Lodge. When it comes to the backcountry he’s seen it all.—Gerhard Gross

Words: John Buffery

I was once flown to an avalanche incident as the Rescue Site Commander where a six riders were buried in a large, Size 3 avalanche. There were a lot of uncertainties to consider when dealing with the chaos and analyzing the risks, like if and where to use explosives to protect the rescuers.

My mind was buzzing, but as soon as I reached into my jacket and pulled out my avalanche transceiver (beacon), everything slowed. I was at home—it was comforting with all my focus being applied to the only known of all unknowns in an avalanche rescue. I had done this type of transceiver practice hundreds of times before, maybe a thousand.

I have said many times, if you ever have to use your transceiver for real, you will have wished you practiced more. The variations and combinations of burial depths at different angles with one or more burials are numerous. Mix that with coursing adrenaline when your actions result in someone's life or death, and you don't want to be thinking of the switches and buttons on your rescue device.

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You can never practice your backcountry beacon skills too often. Photo: Andrew Miller

As summer shifts to autumn, practice with your transceiver, and other transceivers, to be confident and fluid with the appropriate travel speeds—fast when you're further away from the transmitting, or buried transceiver, then slow, with precise movements during the fine pinpoint. The idea of practice is not to trick anyone—it's to repeat the action of searching until you are completely familiar with it. To simulate a deep burial, tape the transmitter in the middle of a long piece of rope and suspend it high between two trees spanning a wide-open area and practice the circle search method holding your transceiver vertical.

If you have an old beacon with two antennas, start saving your money for a new digital three-antennae transceiver, which triangulates the flux-line signal readings more accurately.

Odds are, the more time you're in the mountains, the higher the likelihood you will use your rescue skills. This is one skill you don't want to be mediocre at—be excellent.

Read more from John Buffery: Three Terrain Stages for Safely Riding in Avalanche Areas 

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