By Rob Coppolillo
More than a year has passed since we began itching for a look at Backcountry Access’ newest beacon, the three-antenna Tracker2 ($335). Production delays kept us guessing, but the gang at BCA said it was all to get the new Tracker2 just right—and for the most part they’ve done just that.
BCA introduced the first two-antenna beacon, the Tracker, more than a decade ago (still available for $290). Suddenly, avalanche transceivers were easier to use and more accurate when searching for burial victims. European manufacturers followed suit, launching two-antenna beacons of their own and kicking off an arms race to see who’d develop the first three-antenna model. Turns out the Euros, like Ortovox, Pieps, and Barryvox, beat BCA to the punch, but that certainly doesn’t mean anybody’s been KO’d.
Why does anybody need three antennae, you might ask? Three is better than two because they make beacons easier to use and more accurate when searching for a buried transceiver. Without getting too geeked out, the three-antennae models give more accurate information, especially with a deep burial and when “pinpoint” searching just before probing and digging. Bottom line is you want your buddies using a three-antenna rig if you’re buried beneath the snow and counting the seconds.
I got antsy back in the ’08-’09 season and purchased a Euro beacon with three antennae and every feature imaginable, including a “marking” function and an LCD display showing where beacons are buried around you. Slick and beautiful, right? Not so fast—that unit has since been returned due to glitches and a general bitchiness in the field. While the Euros launched their products sooner, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily better.
I recently used the Tracker2 for seven days in the backcountry, including a couple of hours devoted specifically to rescue scenarios, in and around the Whitecap hut in British Columbia. Before that, I used the original Tracker for six years.
One of the chief strengths of BCA’s Tracker and Tracker2 is speed. When the beacon receives a signal, it presents the info immediately in the form of a distance reading (in meters) and a direction (indicator arrows). The processor spends less than a second digesting the signal strength of the buried beacon (your poor, under-oxygenated buddy) and tells you where to go and how far you’ve got to get there. The fancier Euro models, the Ortovox S1 and Barryvox Pulse in particular, spend time processing the signal and saving it. The BCA Tracker2 is the fastest beacon you’ll use, period, which is a major advantage.
One reason I returned the above-mentioned $500 unit was its habit of giving me the “stop-and-wait” icon during multiple-beacon searches—two or more beacons buried. While other three-antennae beacons become overwhelmed with info during multiple-burial searches, the Tracker2 did not freeze up.
On Your Mark…
Now a potential downside. Tracker2 maintains its superior processing speed in part by doing less—it won’t count signals for you or “mark” them. (It does, however, have a simple light that indicates multiple burials.) Marking allows you to disregard a beacon signal once you’ve located the device. Imagine you have two friends buried in a slide. You begin searching, locate your first buddy, probe and strike him, and now you want to have another friend start digging while you search for the second victim. With a marking function—something the Ortovox S1 does flawlessly; the Barryvox does well; and the Pieps DSP does spottily (though firmware upgrades may help)—you simply “mark” the beacon you’ve found, and now your own beacon will ignore that signal and focus on the lone signal of your second victim. This simplifies searches and can make a live retrieval more likely in the event of a buried group.
Avalanche educator and IFMGA guide Colin Zacharias, with whom I skied in British Columbia, believes the marking function is critical. “The Tracker2 is a great beacon for a client,” says Zacharias. “But it doesn’t have a marking function, so for the average recreationalist to use it he has to learn multiple search techniques to deal with multiple burials.”
Zacharias’ point is that, since the Tracker2 doesn’t allow you to mark beacons as you locate them, you’re left with a ton of information to manage. The folks at BCA say their research indicates most multiple-burial scenarios can be dealt with as a series of single-beacon searches; that is, you simply find one beacon and move on to the next using a specialized version of searching called the “micro-strip” method (visit the BCA site for specifics). This is a topic of considerable controversy, but basically BCA believes the reliability of the Tracker2, when used with well-practiced search techniques, makes it more effective.
Having used the two most popular European three-antenna beacons (Ortovox and Barryvox) and the Tracker2, at this point I have to say I agree with the BCA folks. Why? It goes back to the processors in the beacons. I found, over the course of several months, that the feature-heavy beacons bogged down with multiple burials and functioned less effectively in the cold (low voltage issues?).
I know I’ll get hammered for this, but my belief at this point is that a well-practiced user with the BCA Tracker2 will find beacons, even multiple burials, more quickly than with a fancier model. I simply had too many practice sessions in which the Euro beacons gave me the “stop and wait” icons (indicating their processors were overloaded), while the Tracker2 never seized, and if one adheres to proper search techniques, allows the searcher to keep moving and keep locating bodies.
There’s also great debate regarding the interface of avy beacons. The Tracker2 looks nearly identical to its ancestor, the Tracker, giving direction arrows and a distance reading. Nice if you’re already accustomed to using a BCA beacon. The only new feature is its “multiple burial” indicator light. The light tells its user if the transceiver is receiving more than one signal by staying illuminated without interruption. It two of those signals are within a 5m radius of the unit, the light then flashes. Simple and easy, but one has to know the beacon to use this info.
The Ortovox and Barryvox manage multiples differently. These units count beacons up to four, telling users exactly how many beacons are buried—a nice feature and one that worked reliably on both units when I tested them. This is a definite advantage over the Tracker2, but again, it comes at a price in processing speed. More than four beacons and these models simply indicate “4+”—then you know you’ve got your work cut out for you.
In general, people adapt to the beacon they’re using, so I’m not sure if the interface is critical in choosing a beacon. Whatever beacon a person uses, she or he must-must-must practice with it and be totally familiar with its functions and display. When using the Tracker2, for example, one must recognize when the multiple-burial light comes on and what to do if it’s flashing. (Flashing, again, means two beacons are buried with a 5m radius of the searcher.) In a close-proximity burial such as this, the searcher must adapt his technique to this situation. Again, the BCA website provides specific details on search techniques.
Before I declare the BCA the end-all beacon, I must say this: The design of the Ortovox S1 (Ortovox.com, $500) is likely where the industry’s headed. Once the S1 processor catches up in terms of speed and reliability, it will be a superior unit. The LCD screen shows where beacons are buried in the slide path (users see a direction arrow as well as little bodies located in space—the most intuitive display of any beacon made); the beacon allows you to mark, and it pinpoint-searches accurately. When it functions effectively—and that’s a major caveat—it makes a three-beacon burial relatively simple. The problem remains in its inability to process all the data it wants to. In essence, the S1 bites off more than it can chew…for now.
Meanwhile, the Tracker2 is a great beacon, and at this point it’s the best bang for the buck for most people, in my opinion. And with dedicated practice, a user can confidently handle the less-common case of multiple burials. No matter which beacon a backcountry enthusiast uses, she or he must study its functions, learn the appropriate search techniques for that beacon, and practice, practice, practice. Check the BCA site for a list of “beacon parks,” so you can get some practice time in before resorts close for the year. Good luck!