It is rare that the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) says “Yikes” over a new “avalanche beacon.” Lacking a Search mode, I think it’s safe to say that the “Snow Be” represents a major leap backwards in avalanche safety and awareness.
Both the Canadian Avalanche Centre and the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education have posted on their Facebook pages concerning the Snow Be, with the CAC saying that “it’s absolutely imperative that you have both send and receive modes” and the AIARE commenting that it is “Maybe the most dangerous piece of ‘Avalanche Safety Gear’ in the world….”
Yikes! It’s marketed as “affordable mountain safety,” but it’s absolutely imperative that you have both send and receive modes.
— Canadian Avalanche Centre
A beacon without Search mode is useless for finding buried victims. It also turns you into a liability, as the beacon’s Send signal will interfere with any search in a slide zone — unless you turn it off and risk becoming a fatality yourself.
According to the company website, the “Snow Beacon” is marketed for “in-resort family skiing in the northern hemisphere conditions.” It is unclear why either the Northern Hemisphere or families would benefit from a beacon without Search mode. The Events page lists the company as appearing at the Snow Travel Expos in Melbourne and Sydney. Australia, which is located in the southern hemisphere and lacks major mountains, ski resorts, or glaciers, is not known for its research into avalanche safety.
Powered by AA batteries, the Snow-Be apparently lasts up to 200 hours. It is unclear whether 200 hours represents full signal strength. According to most major beacon manufacturers, beacon batteries should be retired at 50% capacity; below that amount weakens the range of the transmitter. According to the Snow-Beacon.com website, the Snow-Be transmits at the standard international frequency of 457KHz, but offers no details on how many antennas the beacon uses, whether it has a battery indicator, what its transmission range is, or whether it uses digital or analogue technology (or both).
The Snow Beacon website states that “The survival window for someone trapped in an avalanche is about 15 minutes.” According to a 2011 study from Simon Fraser University the average window in Canada — the Northern hemisphere the Snow Beacon is marketed for — is closer to 10 minutes. If the victim is injured, the window for successful rescue can be significantly less. A 2009 paper published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that reviewed avalanche fatality data from 1984 through 2005 found that 25% of victims died of trauma. To put it simply, the 10 minute window is a generous estimate; injury significantly reduces one’s chances of survival.
The Snow Beacon has not gone over well in the snowsports media. The company’s initial marketing suggested “backcountry use” for the Snow-Be. Since being criticized by the Unofficial Networks blog as “the most dangerous piece of ‘avalanche safety gear’ the world has ever known,” the Snow Beacon website has changed its messaging, stating that “This is not a back-country product, it is ideal for in-resort family skiing in the northern hemisphere conditions.” Banners on the site advertise that the Snow-Be is “affordable resort-based safety for the snow loving family.”
These changes haven’t gone over well with Unofficial Networks, which detailed the “shady” changes on their blog. Changes included removing the owner/founder’s last name, changing their email address from “firstname.lastname@example.org” to “snow-info,” and emphasizing that the “Snow-Be is NOT a receiver and you cannot use it to track other avalanche transmitter’s signals.”
Without a Search function, the Snow Beacon assumes that searching for avalanche victims is Someone Else’s Problem (SEP) rather than the collective responsibility of those on the scene. It reinforces the misleading idea that qualified rescue personnel can be on location, pinpoint the signal, and dig out the caught party in under “15 minutes.” Even in a resort, this situation is unlikely, and products such as these arguably perpetuate a false sense of security. Likewise, products such as the Snow-Be arguably absolve travellers in avalanche terrain of a sense of self-responsibility, making it less likely that users will undertake Avalanche Safety Training in the practices of self-rescue and self-reliance.