Posted by on Friday, February 01, 2008
Today we went cat-boarding, with Fernie Wilderness Adventures. It was an exceptional experience, but not everything was quite what I expected...
An early-ish start, we were collected at 7:45 outside of the Cornerstone Lodge and driven by bus to the Fernie Wilderness Adventures lodge. Talk about being lucky with the weather this holiday? Not only was there untouched, mega deep fresh waiting for us, we also hit a blue bird. Bingo! There was coffee and breakfast waiting for us at the lodge, then we had an introduction to the days events, people who didn't have beepers were given them, and then we all signed a waiver. After a quick safety lesson on being around the cat, getting in and out etc, we loaded up and set out with a fully loaded cat of 12.
We drove for around 30 minutes and then stopped for some brief guidance on how to use transceivers. To be honest, the info given on how to use them was pretty thin - but the most important thing for the guides was that everyone had them on, so they could be found if needed. I don't think there was any intention of taking us into dangerous terrain: these guys know the weather, they know the lay of the land and they don't need to take risks. But of course, we all still need beepers, and a brief introduction is better than nothing. Note: when the guide hid his beacon, my bca tracker found it first, that beach practice paid off :)
And then it was off for the first run of the day; run one of of 8. Rather than describe each run, hopefully the photos should help with that, I'll just unload my thoughts of how it went down...
First off, I sucked. I've ridden some deep powder before, but nothing like this. It was constant. Every part of every run was deep. Like thigh/waist deep. The guides were saying that it's difficult for them to pick runs as with the depth of snow they really need to have steep pitches - but anything too steep is too dangerous. The shallower pitches are safe, but way too slow...
I'm not a bad snowboarder, I'm quite good at some stuff, but in some ways this was a humbling experience. I'm not going to blame it on my board, at least not fully. But I did waste the first two runs rocking my wide, twin stance on a 155cm board with a short nose profile. On the widest stance setting the back foot is already as far back as it can go, so I just figured I'd blag it.
So wrong. I was falling a lot, and each time into deep powder, sometimes on flat bits, I was covered, frustrated, tired and quite simply looking like a complete novice. After the second run I brought the front binding back as far as possible. After the third run, I turned both my base plates 90 degrees so that I could move both bindings an extra 6/7mm backwards. Boy did it make a difference. My nose diving plank of wood suddenly became half passable as a freeride board. Now I could start to enjoy the runs.
It's worth noting that it wasn't just me that was struggling, although I think I was hit the worst. Even the guides were taking some falls, and the lead guide was often beating a trail out at the start of a run, where we leave the track, rather than just skiing off. Although I was taking my time over the first two/three runs, I was at least pleased that I wasn't holding things up. The group is only as fast as the cat, which can take a while to get to the bottom...
The next thing that made things difficult was the number of trees. Just about every run at some point led us between big trees with not much space between them. With the snow being so deep, in these tight areas it was just about a necessity to follow the guides tracks. And you still had to be going fast. For example, you head down a open face keeping as uch speed as possible, head into a dense set of trees, go around a few blind turns, again keeping your speed to avoid sinking and then bam - someone has stopped on the strail.
In this situation, which happened a lot, we found there's no room to go around them so you had to stop. Tree wells and deep deposits of snow don't make for a good stopping point on a snowboard. You sink and it's hard to get going again. It was a trade off between leaving a big space between you and the guy in front, but not too much that you'd get left behind, or miss your partner getting into trouble. Skiers definitely had an easier time of this. The dense trees were frustrating for all the riders.
Was there too much snow? Maybe. The guide seemed to think so. He commented that the riding was much better when there was slightly less...
But some of it was epic. Truly epic. The second from last run, everything came together. The whole day was worth it just for that run. The face opened up and I was purely surfing on waist deep powder. With my new stance I had much better control of the board and it didn't take all my energy just to keep the nose above the snow. I was bubbling around, dodging trees, taking a little air and making some sweet turns. Mart was my partner for the day ha was right behind me on The Fish - just ripping it up. That was the only time during the day that the two of us opened it up together on a face and cut deep, fresh tracks. It was awesome - truly awesome.
The run ended by heading into some small, dense trees, just before the pickup point. We both found our way straight into a tree well :) Nothing dangerous as we were together and the trees were small and also in shouting distance of the guide waiting at the bottom. We were fairly stuck mind. But that's not the point. For me, that run was the best. I rode it properly. The speed I took and the stance on my board let me ride the pow. Sick!
All in all the day was a fantastic experience. Not just the riding, the terrain, the snow, the guides, being in the cat - it was great. Also an eye opener. Without doubt, for Mart and I, this we the first real backcountry powder that we've ridden. The tour last season in Lenzerheide was not even close with regards to the depth of the snow - and that was all open faces, no trees. For sure we've ridden deep stuff inbounds here at Fernie, but not the sustained depth and freshness that we experienced today.
For this type of terrain I need a different board. Like I said above, I'm not blaming it all on the board. Half of the problem is that I'm simply not that good at riding deep powder.
I think I would have preffered it had there been more open faces. Some of the riding through the dense trees was great, but a lot of the time it felt like we were negotiating half of the run. A more competent rider probably wouldn't have been troubled by this.
After the last run the beers were handed out. They went down so well on the 30/40 minute drive back to the lodge. There was a quick debriefing and we watched a slide show of photos taken by the photographer who followed the two groups around during the day. There were some nice shots in there but I wasn't that impressed. I didn't pay the $50 for a CD!
I'll definitely go cat-boarding again. It's fresh powder all day long. Who can argue with that? It is fairly expensive though, we paid $367, and when the snow in resort is amazing, I don't think there's a need to go again anytime soon. The day isn't really set up for taking photos and video, but I did manage to get some clips - mainly just to show what the terrain is like. Here's a quick compilation of the days events...
Posted by on Monday, January 21, 2008
(Well, not the last ever, just the last time before we go to Fernie).
Yesterday we went to the beach again to work with the beepers. With it being less than a week before we head out, it was nice to meet up and share the building excitement, but also useful to practice a little more with the transceivers.
There's nothing to show really, but we did learn some stuff about the differences between the Tracker DTS and the Ortovox M2, which is the unit that Simon owns.
After practicing with both the Tracker and the M2 we found the second phase of the search (single burial) to be much quicker with the Tracker, due to the 5 directional lights on the top of the unit. (The second phase being the time from when you get a signal to closing within 3 meters).
With regards to the first phase, acquiring a signal and the thrid phase, the pinpoint search, the same methods can be used for both models and there isn't much difference between them.
With the Ortovox M2 the directional indicator works by showing a solid triangle on the display when the unit is pointing in the right direction. That, plus the audio signal and the distance read out make it possible to orientate yourself towards the beacon.
The difference with the Tracker is that the unit is constantly updating your direction; you simply turn when the lights change. With the M2 there are two things that make this update less straight forward. First, once the unit is no longer pointing in the right direction you have to stop and find the right direction by re-orientating it; you're not told the direction to turn. Second, the unit has a variable sensativity that needs manual adjustment as you get closer.
We were looking for a reproducible method, which we found after reading some generic guidelines. It is:
- First find a signal
- When a signal is found, find the direction in which the signal is strongest
- Take five steps in that direction
- Find the direction in which the signal is strongest
- Adjust the sensativity if necessary
- Take five steps in that direction
- Repeat until within 3 meters of the beacon
- Do the pinpoint search
It works really well.
After trying it a couple of times, I followed Simon on his search path and marked out the path in the sand. I then searched for the same beacon with the Tracker, starting in the same place. We marked the second search path as the Tracker moved in on the beacon.
As you might expect, the two transceivers took almost identical paths, with the M2 forming a less smoothe curve because we were moving in a series of straight lines. This goes to show that understanding the pattern of the electromagnetic field that a beacon emits can help you with the search. Once you detect that you're on one of the flux lines, you should have an inclination or which direction you'll be turning when you re-orientate.
I wish I'd taken my camera with me. Marking out the different approach lines in the sand was useful in understanding how the units work, and I could have shown that with a few pictures.
We've made other observations about the differences between the two models; each have their strenghts. I'll save the rest of it for a full review, most likely after we get back from Fernie.
Posted by on Monday, January 14, 2008
Yesterday we went to the beach for a second practice session with the beepers. After seeing the multiple burial instructions in this video I was keen to have a go searching for more than one transceiver. The initial stage of the multiple burial search is the same as if you're looking for a single signal, so the practcie was useful for that situation too.
With the BCA Tracker there are two (there might be more?) methods of dealing with multiple signals. The first, which is what I was practicing and is general to all trasceivers, is called the three circle method; with the Track the searcher only uses the regular search (SE) mode. The second and more advanced method described, specific to the Tracker, makes use the transceiver's special (SP) mode.
This is my understanding of the 3 circle method. Once you've found the first signal, assuming you can't turn it off (perhaps because others are still probing/digging), you travel in a circle around the signal looking for a lower distance reading and/or listening for another audio beep. That first circle is three steps out from the lowest distance reading of the original find.
If you don't pick anything up on the first pass you take another three steps back and walk a second circle. Again, if nothing is found you perform a third circle, three steps back from the second. If you still don't find anything you go back to the point at which you left your orginal primary search (when you first detected a signal).
I think the theory is pretty simple. If there's another signal close by, at some point on one of the three circles you'll be closer to it, than the original beacon. This methodical approach seems to be a reliable way of seperating the two signals.
Check out my first attempt; apologies for the cheesy intro...
In this example I located the second signal on the first of the three circles. Note that first time the beeper detected the second signal I was unsuccessful in locking onto it. After returning to the circle it only took a couple more steps before the signal was detected again, this time the dropping distance was conclusive.
And here's my second attempt.
Here are some comments:
Picking up the second signal. In the first case where the signals were closer together, the search was quicker. This may seem obvious, but my orignal expectation was that in cases where signals are close together, they'd be harder to separate. The Tracker easily picks them out when rotated side-to-side.
In the second example it took longer to pick up the other signal. Quite a few times, each in the same area, I stopped to check or tried following a different signal only to turn back to walking the circle. In these cases I was fairly certain that the other beacon was over there, but the data I was getting didn't seem conclusive
Was I walking too fast? Should I have followed my instincts or kept using the circles? I guess more practice would answer some of these questions. Either way, I did end up clearly detecting a much lower signal, and it led right to the beacon.
Audio vs. video. At the time I was definitely paying more attention to the distance read out than the audio beeps. However, after watching the video back it's clear that the beeps are also very informative.
My original approach. Again, something that I didn't think about at the time was the direction of my approach to the first beacon. This should give a clue as to where the other signal is less likely to be.
Nothing found after three circles? If you don't find anything you need to return to the original primary search and continue searching the rest of the deposition area. In this case I'm not sure how you would ignore the first signal if it still wasn't turned off. It seems like it would be in the way...
Overall times. These were my first two attempts at finding two signals. The first search took around 4 minutes and second around 6 minutes. Considering that I was learning the search procedure, I think this is another indication that the BCA Tracker is an easy unit to operate.
Posted by on Wednesday, January 09, 2008
I mentioned recently that I'd re-watched the avalanche safety clip that comes with the extras on Absinthe's More dvd. The video is produced by Teton Gravity Research and is a great instructional aid. In the video they use the BCA Tracker, but I'm sure a lot of the principles apply to all beacons.
I was pointed at the video section on WhiteLines' site as they've got this same safety video. I was gonna suggest that if you don't have the More dvd then it's worth watching this clip... but as it turns out, the video I've embedded here has new stuff that I previously hadn't seen. In addition to covering a single burial search this movie also provides an explanation of transmitted flux lines, and looks at two methods of dealing with multiple burials.
The extra bits that I hadn't seen before are produced really well; the instruction is very clear. If I get a chance this weekend I'm gonna have a go at finding two burried beacons. Check it out...
Posted by on Tuesday, January 08, 2008
Simon, Sarah, Ciara and myself went to the beach on Sunday to get some practice in with the new transceivers. The beach is handy as it provides a nice open space to work with and sand that's easy to dig in. The dune rushes are also good to conceal the exact placement of the transmitting beacon...
It was definitely a useful session. Simon's used his transceiver in the past and I've read a few things here and there and watched some basic instruction. For Ciara this was her first real exposure to working with a beacon. Searching for a signal in a wide open space definitely helped to get a feel for how the transceivers work and how long certain things can take.
The Tracker DTS really is quite easy to use, with single burials at least, as we haven't tried the multiple case yet. I pretty much followed the guidelines in the manual, which cover: 1st getting a signal, 2nd moving to within 3 meters and 3rd performing a pinpoint search.
Our practice searches consisted of:
- Hiding a beacon
- Marking out the avalanche debris pile
- Marking out the last seen point
- Doing the search
The thing that I found most impressive was how reliable the unit was once a signal was detected. In one case Simon actually burried the transceiver outside of the assumed debirs pile, but close enough to be realistic. Totally unaware, once my beacon picked up the signal I blindly follwed it down to 3 meters and then did the fine search. It was spot on.
Here's a video I took of Ciara trying her first search in the open. Despite our banter (watching it back I can see how interfering I am, what a dick!), the video shows how an inexperienced user can go straight to the signal. Ciara started off around 100 meters away and had no idea of where it was burried...
I expect things are less clear when the transceiver is burried deeper beneath the surface, as would be the case with a real avalanche. There's also the issue of probing and then digging... Apparently within 15 minutes there's a 90% chance of survival, of which the digging uses almost all, so you've got to find the signal fast. That's why I think it's important to practice.
All in all it was as much fun as it was educational. We had really nice weather for visiting the beach, and, being at the seaside, we finished things off with fish & chips plus beer :)
Posted by on Friday, January 04, 2008
Last night I had a go with the new transceivers for the first time. Just simple stuff. Reading the manual, turning it on, switching between transmit and search modes, and trying some noddy searches around the house.
Hopefully I'm going to get a chance to practice with them outdoors sometime this weekend. After that, I'd like to get another session in before we go. The aim is simply to get familiar with the device.
Last night was the first step.
I've got to say that at this stage, the Tracker DTS is living up to its reputation of being easy to use. There's not much to the device; although I haven't looked at the options for dealing with multiple burials.
The guidelines in the manual describe the 3 phases of a basic search: the primary search (or signal search), the secondary search and the pinpoint search.
As you might expect, the first phase involves trying to find a signal, and this is required whilst you're still more than 40m from the transmitting beacon. The second phase, once you have a signal, is designed to bring you to approximately 3m. Finally, the pinpoint search should bring you as close as possible to the transmitting beacon before you begin probing/digging. Different techniques are used for each stage.
It would be nice if my house was big enough for me to say that I could hide a transceiver in one room and be too far away to get a signal in another room, but that's not the case.
Searching in this environment is far from representative of a real slide; but it was cold, wet and dark outside, and I was eager to play around. Besides, it was still possible to get some kind of feel for how the tracker picks up a signal and displays the feedback on the unit.
I also re-watched one of the extras from More, an introduction to performing a single burial search. I'd forgotten that the transceivers used in this video are in fact the Tracker DTSs. It's a useful show, that covers the basics of how to use your transceiver. I'm keen to get out to an open field or the beach to try things out on a larger scale...
Still hungry for more? Check out the archives.