Since I began ski touring almost 15 years ago, introductory avalanche education (I.E. AST courses in Canada, AIARE courses in the U.S.) have become culturally accepted as a backcountry prerequisite. It’s now socially acceptable to not let a backcountry beginner come ski touring with you—no matter how hard they may shred—until they have taken that course, or at the very least, spent time with someone more experienced (in a controlled setting) to learn how to pull their friends out of an avalanche burial.
This winter, added to this safety check, global ski-touring communities will likely be ensuring that no members of their group are using an older Pieps DSP Pro or DSP Sport transceiver.
What is prompting this? In a nutshell, the sliding switch mechanism on these transceivers is allegedly compromised. It has been anecdotally reported that when pressure is applied to the unit (either stowed inside or without the transceiver harness) the switch can move from the SEND mode to either SEARCH or OFF modes, essentially turning the transmit function off. The plastic lock mechanism that keeps the switch in place can allegedly develop cracks that allow the switch to move, though plenty of users of this transceiver have also been able to replicate the movement of the sliding switch (with applied pressure) leaving no visible damage to the unit. A number of YouTube videos from owners of this transceiver show this reported malfunction.
AN ULTIMATE FIELD TEST
The latest example of this alleged malfunction came via social media earlier this week from Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) Christina “Lusti” Lustenberger and pro skiers Nick McNutt and Ian McIntosh. While filming for the latest TGR ski film last March in the Duffey Lake area east of Pemberton, McNutt collided with a moving pocket of snow (one he had dislodged while skiing a pillow line), which sent him crashing into the trees near the bottom of his run. He came to rest fully buried under more than a metre of snow.
“It gave me a big sense of calm knowing who I was with, knowing that (the rest of the film crew and athletes) were all right there and ready to act,” said McNutt. “I obviously didn’t realize that my transceiver wasn’t transmitting.”
With no surface clues and no transceiver signal from the victim, the team got out their probes and shovels and readied for the dreaded probe line; a needle-in-a-haystack technique that combs an area in the hope that someone will strike the victim with their probe. One of the cinematographers luckily struck McNutt with his probe, which was quickly verified as a “human” strike, and a careful excavation ensued. The crew had him out in less than six minutes.
“(The transceiver) had been switched into OFF mode due to whatever weird movements I experienced when I was hit by the snow,” said McNutt. “After the fact, we inspected the transceiver closely and it had no damage and appeared to be working perfectly fine. If that can happen, what’s to say it won’t happen anytime someone gets in an avalanche?”
McNutt and the film crew were experienced professionals and they had an ACMG guide with them assessing conditions. Everyone on set felt good about the snowpack that day and a routine beacon check was carried out at the trailhead before heading out to the filming zone on snowmobiles. McNutt was unlucky with his crash, but the piece of equipment he needed to work at that moment didn’t work.
The size of the team that responded and the collective experience of that team is what saved his life.
Transceivers are meant as a lifeline in the event of a catastrophe. In this case, the transceiver failed with no signs of impact or duress and the lock button displayed no cracks, said McNutt.
“Afterward, I could have gone and sold it online and it looks like it’s working perfectly," he said. “That’s really concerning.”
The question many are asking is: If it happened in March, why are we only hearing about this now?
“Immediately after Nick’s accident we were put in contact with (Pieps’ parent company Black Diamond) and right from the get-go, our crew felt strongly about removing this product from sale and issuing a product recall and public statement,” said Lustenberger. “Between all of us, but especially Nick, we spent around 20-plus hours of phone calls and emails with (Black Diamond) pushing for that objective.”
For a professional group of athletes, filmmakers and a ski guide all serving the same industry, this is the high road you want to take; give the company a chance to address any alleged issue, acknowledge the issue and take responsibility for it if warranted. Lustenberger did her homework. She put a callout on the ACMG Informalex (a mountain guide forum and information sharing network community) and received 10 responses that highlighted alleged issues with the two Pieps DSP models in question. Those included accounts of the sliding switch moving into the SEND or OFF position, and accounts of the locking mechanism cracking.
“My decision was that come the fall, when it was nearing ski season, that was my time limit for giving (Black Diamond) the opportunity to make a move, get ahead of it and hopefully issue a recall,” said Lustenberger. “I needed to share this and get it off my chest. The rest of the team wanted it out there, too.”
Lustenberger’s recent Instagram post prompted the team at Black Diamond to organize a conference call with her and McNutt a few days later. Black Diamond wanted to work out a solution, but would not (or could not) commit to a product recall. Shortly thereafter, a public statement was issued on the Pieps Instagram account with a video featuring Pieps VP of Quality Rick Vance. Vance demonstrates “proper inspection and use” of the Pieps DSP Pro and DSP Sport transceivers, urging users to inspect the lock button for cracks and to not force the slider while locked. If users find cracks or have forced the slider, his advice is to retire the beacon immediately.
McNutt and his team didn’t find the video particularly comforting.
‘IT PERFORMS TO OUR STANDARDS’
I emailed Pieps to give the company a chance to respond. On Friday, Oct.16, John Dicuollo, a public relations spokesperson for Pieps and Black Diamond called and while he didn’t have answers to all my questions, he was willing to put me in touch with the engineers and quality assurance staff if I wanted to go deeper on the test data.
Here’s a summary of what I learned during our conversation:
- The DSP Pro and DSP Sport transceivers still operate according to certifiable standards;
- A product recall isn’t off the table, but product recalls don’t happen overnight from a global company with ten of thousands of units in circulation;
- In addition to all the in-house product testing and quality assurance (QA) done by Pieps and Black Diamond, the actual certification for transceivers is handled by European third party standards organization ETSI;
- Cracked lock buttons on Pieps DSP Pro and DSP Sport transceivers have been getting warrantied “for a while.”
“We are working on the solution, but right now the data is telling us we don’t have a recallable device according to the standards set for the industry,” explained Dicuollo. “But we’re listening to the community and we know that it’s not necessarily just about data … it also has to do with confidence. We’re interested in the safety of all backcountry skiers and we’re taking it very seriously.”
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
McNutt’s close call was earlier this year, but in 2017 an avalanche in the Hanging Lake area of the Callaghan Valley took the life of 32 year-old father Corey Lynam. He was wearing a Pieps DSP Sport transceiver, which he had plenty of experience with, and his ski partners from that day verified he was transmitting when they left the parking lot that morning. After the avalanche came to rest and the rescue was initiated, Lynam’s transceiver emitted no signal. It had been inadvertently switched from SEND to OFF during the avalanche.
Lynam’s widow Brianne Howard sought answers. The transceiver was the subject of a third-party investigation and according to Black Diamond, was found to be working correctly. She hired lawyers to investigate whether a lawsuit was possible, but ultimately did not pursue legal action.
“I was a new single mother working full-time and trying to make ends meet,” said Howard. “The thought of going after a big American company was too much to take on.”
Instead, in December 2017, she sent an official letter to Black Diamond president John Walbrecht and all the senior management, recounting the avalanche incident involving her late husband. She implored them to take this transceiver off the market and issue a recall so no one else would have to suffer the same fate.
“It never went anywhere,” said Howard. “They said they were sorry about what happened, that they’d do their own internal investigation and get back to me. I never heard back from them, they never followed up.”
Howard tried a more localized strategy, approaching retail stores with her story about this model of transceiver. But retail managers and buyers often tend to trust the word of sales reps more than their customers, so there was little attention given to Howard’s story.
“I was shocked by the reactions a lot of people had,” she said. “A lot of people would say, ‘It’s great, it’s one of our best-selling beacons.’
“I posted my story on social media groups but it was taken down multiple times. It was so frustrating and I felt helpless. But now that Nick (McNutt) has gone public with his accident, I’m happy to add my story to his.”
A LESSON LEARNED?
With a PR crisis of monumental proportions on their hands, it will be interesting to see what the next move is from Black Diamond and Pieps. Design standards could probably use a comprehensive review, not just for Pieps, but for all transceiver manufacturers. But that’s a reactive solution.
One root of the problem is in our retail-sales culture. I worked at a backcountry gear store in Whistler for about five years and I saw the attitude of some sales reps. They will listen to the concerns of retail associates, who are often great gear testers, and who will in turn hear concerns from the customers they serve. Sometimes those concerns are taken seriously and passed up the chain of command at the brand. But more often than not, the concerns are dismissed as some sort of statistical anomaly.
Last year I was invited to a Black Diamond/Pieps product knowledge session (hosted by a local retailer) that showed off the impressive search-and-transmit functionality of the latest Black Diamond transceivers, which out-performed a handful of other transceivers on the market (note that the sliding mechanism has been updated and redesigned since the older DSP models). A local ACMG ski guide mentioned he had a fleet of older Pieps DSP transceivers (like the ones McNutt and Lynam used) and was seeing the sliders jam on almost every unit when guests were practising beacon drills. Not exactly what you want to see during a life or death scenario. The sales rep looked surprised and said that Black Diamond absolutely stands behind its products and he would look into it. I doubt this point of concern went any further than that.
Global companies need to not just look to their warranty return rate, they need to listen to stories from the field (anecdotal or otherwise) and properly investigate them, especially when we’re talking about a lifeline device like an avalanche transceiver. The blame of course does not fall solely on sales reps or quality-assurance teams, it’s up to us as consumers to properly voice our concerns and not ignorantly carry on using defective devices. That’s best done directly to the brands rather than through social media vitriol. If everyone does their part, perhaps we can help avoid any more needless avalanche deaths due to equipment failure.
Vince Shuley is anticipating a busy ski touring season in the Sea to Sky. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email firstname.lastname@example.org or Instagram @whis_vince