Louder than a Piep 

Local SAR members and Patrol staff test new GPS enabled satellite communicator

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As everyone gears up for the winter at this weekend's Turkey Sale, those heading outside of the patrolled areas should make sure their gear includes avalanche safety equipment.

This year that could include the new Pieps Global Finder, an electronic hand held unit combining the functions of a GPS and two-way satellite communicator.

Between February 2011 and February 2012, Whistler Search and Rescue (WSAR) responded to 29 incidents in the backcountry and slackcountry of Whistler. Out of those 29 incidents there were four fatalities and at least five critical care medical rescues that consumed over 1,000 hours of volunteer effort. SAR members have repeatedly stressed that the most important aspect of safety in the backcountry is knowledge — knowledge of the terrain you are travelling through and the hazards (such as avalanches) that exist.

Though awareness and education is critical, technology can also contribute to a safer backcountry experience. Last week Pique joined a selection of SAR members and ski patrollers at The Escape Route for the official product launch for the Pieps Global Finder. Such technology has real application in the Canadian wilderness with the vast regions of cell phone "dead zones" outside of populated areas.

"As far as having one device that does all that stuff I think it's awesome," said Wayne Flann, a ski patroller on Blackcomb and member of Whistler SAR.

"We're almost always out of radio contact with our base when in the field. We have satellite phones that we take with us, but there are times that the satellite phones don't work that well depending on where we are. As long as this thing works everywhere (as advertised) we can send text messages stating the condition of the patient during a rescue scenario. They can track us in real time to make sure we don't cover the same ground in a search. I can see it as being an application for SAR personnel for sure."

For recreationalists carrying this device the benefit is two-fold; not only can a party's location be determined by emergency services to an accuracy of several metres with an Internet browser, the party also has direct two-way communication with next of kin and emergency response units through text, reducing the instances of false alarms.

The technology that allows the two-way communication is a constellation of 66 low Earth orbiting satellites known as Iridium. A chip inside the device has the ability to transmit and receive data to the Iridium network with a delays of generally less than one minute. The chip is approximately the size of a box of matches, allowing it to be packaged in a compact, hand held device. The chips that enable voice communication in satellite phones are both larger and considerably more expensive to make.

Such technology comes at a cost, not only for purchasing the device (the Pieps Global Finder is $799) but there is also a subscription charge for continuous use of the satellite network. It costs $25 to activate the device then $25 per month for the basic package which includes a limited set of messages, emails and tracks. All packages include SOS transmissions without additional cost.

While SAR would benefit immensely from this device, Ski Patrol stated it would have limited application for its personnel at this stage.

"We do some searches outside of our ski area boundary from time to time, we work directly with Whistler SAR on the bigger rescues, especially ones that go into the night or overnight," said Adam Mercer, Ski Patrol Assistant Manager at Whistler Blackcomb.

"We are almost always in radio communication with our dispatchers, so we've got that communication. If we're sending people into the field, we're currently sending them with a GPS (device) and we can get that information to our base with a radio. However, there are some uses for it. Unfortunately, it's one of those cost vs. benefit things. It's a very expensive device and I don't necessarily see the return at this stage."

There are other GPS location systems on the market as well and it's well worth investigating them if backcountry adventure is on the agenda this winter.

The boundaries of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains are clearly marked by ski patrol with orange boundary signs and the terrain beyond these signs is not controlled for avalanches. Terrain closed for avalanche control inbounds is also clearly signed and violating these closures will result in pass privileges being revoked.

The minimum level of education required before travelling in to the winter backcountry is an Avalanche Skills Training (AST) Level 1 course, which covers the basic snow science, route finding and self rescue techniques. The course costs approximately $230 and runs over two and a half days. The Whistler Alpine Guides Bureau offers a discounted course for 13 to18 year olds.

The minimum equipment needed for crossing the boundary rope is a transceiver, shovel and probe; for longer-day missions it is wise to also carry food, water, additional warm layers, a headlamp, a first aid kit, an emergency shelter and a charged cell phone.

For more information on backcountry travel go to whistlerblackcomb.com/the-mountain/backcountry. For more information on AST courses go to whistlerguides.com/winter-adventures/avalanche-safety-courses or www.pacificalpineinstitute.com/avalanche.

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