If you stand in front of the Ski Patrol hut on Baldy (which can be found tucked under the mountain’s chin and is easily identifiable by the many white crosses it flies), and orient your skis straight down the hill, after a few turns, you will end up at the new avalanche beacon practice center. Delineated by an oversized wooden gate and marked on either side with stakes, this is an area in which five transceivers or beacons (the oversized-cell-phone-looking equipment that transmit an electronic “beep” and should be worn by all back and side-country skiers) are buried. The practice arena opened for the season on Tuesday and is free to use.
“We invite the public to come with their beacons and hone their skills,” Skooter Gardiner of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol explained as we side-slipped down to the field. “It’s open when the mountain is and it’s an excellent resource.”
The beacons are buried beneath the snow on the unofficial run “Christmas Bridge,” that spans Christmas Ridge and Christmas Bowl above the trees. A special dial affixed to the vertical beam of the gate allows users to customize their experience. Dial in how many transmitters you want to search, set your beacon to receive, and follow the signal. A sign next to the dial explains exactly how the system works and how best to use it. The equipment was a gift from Dr. Rick Moore, an orthopedic surgeon who is an avid skier and good friend to Sun Valley Ski Patrol.
As I am a novice at beacon training, Skooter dialed up two transmitters on which to practice. Given today’s user-friendly equipment, it is not hard to get the basics of beacon use, but it is obvious that practicing with one is the only way to get good at using one. The basics are: hold the beacon parallel and flat to the snow’s grade and point it downhill. An arrow on the screen points toward the beeping transceiver and indicates how far you are from your target. A “bull’s-eye” appears on the screen and the beeping intensifies when you are very close. Then it is time to mark a probable area and search with an avalanche probe until you hit the steel plate that lets you know you found your mark. The exercise reminded me a sophisticated game of “hot and cold” played by children.
But proper training for snow emergencies is no game. “Ski Patrolers often come out here three or four times a week to practice,” said Skooter. “It’s like anything else, the more something becomes second nature, the more successful you will be in a real-life situation.”
If you ever go into the backcountry or have children who do, the new beacon practice center on Baldy is an easy, interesting and readily accessible way to practice vital skills. Having the equipment isn’t enough. Taking a basic avalanche course isn’t enough. Practice, practice, practice.
Rest assured, even if you keep to the groomers, it’s good to know that our already highly-qualified Ski Patrol (filled with EMTs, Paramedics, explosives experts, firefighters and some of the best skiers on the hill) are also out there regularly and rigorously doing their beacon homework.