In 1968, Dr. John Lawton invented the first effective avalanche transceiver at Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory in Buffalo, New York. This unit, functioning at 2.275 kHz, converted the radio frequency to a simple tone that a human could hear. By following the tone to where it was louder, the beacon operator could use it to locate the buried beacon by using a grid searching technique. In 1986, the International Commission for Alpine Rescue (IKAR) adopted the frequency of 457 kHz. In 1996, the American Standard for Testing and Materials (ASTM) adopted the 457 kHz standard. Once the frequency of 457 kHz had become an international standard, and that the problems of range had been discussed and analyzed, everyone was most interested in the ease of use. In 1997, the first digital beacon was introduced at the Winter Outdoor Retailer show by Backcountry Access under the brand name Tracker. The technology is always evolving.

Avalanche transceivers (or avi beacons) are used by skiers, industry professionals, snowmobilers, search and rescue workers and ice climbers. They are essential pieces of equipment in the back country during winter. They have saved countless lives, but countless lives have also been lost to avalanches despite the avi beacons. They are a important tools in a “worse case” scenario. They should not be viewed as prevention devices and take patience and practice to learn. There are a number of courses offered throughout Canada and the US. In Canada the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) is the leading source of knowledge on avalanche science and equipment. Before you go into the back country be prepared, do your research and use the proper equipment.

Three European companies are advertising avi beacon apps for smart phones. Would you rely on a phone app to save your life? Phones do not run on 457 kHz and therefore do not meet the international standards for avi beacons. The CAC is advising people to not use the phone apps as there are a number of issues with them, one being they do not communicate with current avi beacons and therefore can not find buried people. The best way to be safe in the back country is practice, stay educated and follow the avalanche bulletins posted on the CAC.

At this point there are no viable ‘short cuts’ in avalanche rescue. There are tons of serious issues including range, compatibility, durability… I also don’t by the “it’s better than nothing” argument as it gives people a false sense of security and might encourage them to travel in avalanche terrain without proper equipment and training thinking they will be rescued if something goes wrong. I’m sure at some point in the future we will look back at the technology we are using today and think “how did we ever manage?” but for now they [457 kHz avalanche transceivers]  are the best we have and with practice they work.” – Marc Piche, Technical Director at Association of Canadian Mountain Guides

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Avalanche on EEOR above Canmore  Photo Noel Rogers

Avalanche on EEOR above Canmore Photo Noel Rogers

CBC Avalanche beacon story:

Canadian Avalanche Centre: