Editor's Note: Reporting by Max Ritter and Katie Lozancich
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Notable part 2: Nick dropped in and started linking turns on top of his line. I was in awe of how easy he made it look and didn’t even notice the giant pillow get dislodged from his slough. The pillow fell into his exit gully, entraining snow in its path. Just as he came off the end of his line he was side swiped by the giant chunks of pillow, that sent him tumbling through some trees. Hearing him scream as he hit the trees undoubtedly drove us into rescue mode. The avalanche quickly mutted nicks screams as it pushed him deep under the snow. I felt a huge weight of our current situation bear down, and the urgency of our actions would define life or death.
It's a nightmare scenario that no backcountry skier or snowboarder ever wants to find themselves in: performing an avalanche rescue and learning that the victim's beacon isn't transmitting. For Christina Lustenberger, Ian Mcintosh, Sam Smoothy, and a TGR film crew, that nightmare became a terrifying reality when they rescued Nick McNutt from a serious avalanche accident. Teton Gravity Research is aware of the ongoing conversations happening online and in person, so here's what we know about the incident from last winter, and the facts regarding Nick’s Pieps DSP Pro beacon.
The day started like any other day in the backcountry for Christina Lustenberger, Ian Mcintosh, Sam Smoothy, and Nick McNutt. For the last three weeks, this team of big mountain skiers had been filming in the Pemberton area, tackling ambitious alpine lines. Every morning they had the same morning routine: a beacon check to confirm that everyone was in send mode. At the start of every season, TGR hosts avalanche and mountain safety workshops for athletes and crew that act as refreshers and give our team an opportunity to learn and teach new skills. On March 9th, 2020—the day of the incident—cinematographer Aaron Whitely verified that each athlete was transmitting. Following the safety check, they headed towards their objectives. Compared to most film shoots, it was a productive day. Each athlete had isolated a different alpine line in a remote zone, and after a long skin and climb to the summit, everyone skied their objective without a hitch.
Nick Mcnutt in Pemberton. Eric Parker photo.
Elated from their success, the crew regrouped at the bottom. Nick, still keen to keep filming, noticed a pillow line above the lake. They took it as an opportunity to keep shooting, and the team regrouped at the bottom of the line. It was a spine pillow stack, with no overhead hazards. The snow was cold and dry. He sent the first line effortlessly and decided to try another. However, when dropped in and made a few turns, a large pillow was knocked loose from his slough. The giant chunks tumbled into his exit gully below him under a blind rollover, so Nick was unaware of the hazard. He collided with the funneled avalanche debris when he exited the line, ripping him through some trees in the exit. The debris—with Nick caught inside it—was deposited on the lake below.
The group sprung into action immediately, with Ian and Sam being the first ones on the scene. They hastily started searching, but to their horror, they couldn't find a signal. The clock was ticking now, with every second balancing life and death. Research shows that your odds of surviving a full burial drop off sharply after being buried for more than 15 minutes. With the whole crew now on deck, Lusti called for a probe line since it was clear Nick was no longer transmitting. But before they were able to mobilize one, cinematographer Ben Dann found Nick with a lucky probe strike. The crew started shoveling while Ian double-checked the probe strike. They excavated the snow as quickly as they could, ultimately clearing about four feet of snow until they found Nick. He had a broken arm, was in significant pain, coughing up blood, and complaining of chest pain. They kept him warm and stabilized until a search and rescue helicopter arrived an hour and a half later.
Having confirmed that his beacon was transmitting correctly earlier in the day, the team was confused about how it failed to send a signal during the burial. After they recovered Nick, Ian inspected his transceiver and confirmed that it was somehow switched into the “off” mode. It was a Pieps DSP Pro model, and Nick wore it properly in its harness on his chest. The crew hypothesizes that the beacon switched off when Nick collided with the trees in the exit of his line.
Concerned that the beacon could be compromised and inadvertently switch modes during a major avalanche event—as Nick's seemed to have had done—Christina began investigating if this was a recurring problem with the Pieps DSP Pro and Pieps DSP Sport. These beacons are sold in North America by Pieps’s sister company Black Diamond Equipment. According to a post from Christina's Instagram, after some initial questioning, her email had been "flooded with similar accounts, even dating back to 2017. Each failed situation had the same problem: it reportedly switched modes easily without the user's knowledge. Due to poor design, the button wears out and no longer provides resistance allowing it to slide out of send mode."
To determine whether or not Nick's beacon failure was a fluke, Christina and Nick collected a handful of similar beacons and tried overriding the lock mechanism. From their findings, they believe it is easy to move the beacon into different modes with a little bit of force, even without any visible cracking on the mechanism. Nick and Christina presented this information to Black Diamond and allowed the brand to test them and draw their own conclusions. While BD acknowledged that the mechanism had "reduced holding power," they claimed that the compromised beacon still fell within the original design specs of Pieps. See below for more details on the testing.
Black Diamond’s Testing:
TGR reached out to Black Diamond about this particular testing process, and spoke with a team made up of Rick Vance (VP of Quality at BD), Jerry Hicks (Director of Sales and Marketing at Pieps NA), and Oliver Holzmann (VP of Global Marketing at BD), who were Nick and Christina’s contact point following the accident. Nick sent in a handful of additional Pieps beacons he had gathered (According to both Nick and BD, his own never arrived at BD after being lost in the mail during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic), all of which he had noticed the supposed defect with. Nick's beacon supposedly showed no signs of cracking or physical damage.
Vance explained that they ran two separate tests to check both the physical strength of the switch mechanism on various Pieps DSP Pro and Sport beacons and the likelihood of a user inadvertently changing the mode on these and competitors’ beacons.
For some clarity - Pieps DSP Pro and Sport beacons change modes via a sliding switch on the side of the unit. To move the switch, a small button must be depressed to disengage the switch's locking mechanism. On a properly functioning beacon, the sliding switch should stay locked in whatever mode (off, transmit, search) is selected unless the button is depressed. These tests specifically looked at how well that locking mechanism worked in various situations.
The first mechanical test was performed on three separate batches of Pieps DSP beacons: units pulled from BD’s warranty department of similar age to Nick’s (3-5 years), units that had been physically damaged in various ways, and units whose locking mechanism had been intentionally overridden by force.
On beacons that were damaged (including cracked or otherwise broken lock switches), Vance says BD found that, “depending on the severity of that crack, the slider resistance is reduced by 50 to 100 percent.” In other words, if the lock is physically damaged, it can lead to the slider accidentally moving.
The Pieps DSP Sport beacon - the sliding switch in question is the yellow one on the right side, found on both the Sport and Pro models. Black Diamond photo.
Finally, on beacons who had been overridden by force, Vance explains that, “We’ve tested the life cycle of the lock button multiple times and found that in a lab environment that lock button survives more cycles than the crustiest ski patroller could put on it. We’re talking on the order of 100,000 cycles. The lock switch can be forcefully overridden hundreds of times before it begins to show cracks.”
The goal of the second test was to evaluate how easy it is to inadvertently switch modes on a beacon, and BD compared the Pieps DSP Sport and DSP Pro to as many competitors’ models as possible that all pass the same standards. Jerry Hicks explains the results of their findings, saying: “We looked at as many competitor beacons as we could to evaluate switch/mechanical security. They all pass the same standards. And what we found is that there are actually beacons with designs that are more susceptible to that inadvertent mode switch. That’s primarily based on assembly of locking mechanisms. There are mechanisms in the market without locks or unprotected by the harness.” In other words, it is possible to inadvertently switch modes on all manner of avalanche beacons.
Nick Mcnutt says, “After the incident, my beacon would pass the ‘inspection instructions’ in the video PIEPS posted with Rick Vance. This is after it had failed already.” See below for the video in question.
Black Diamond's Response:
Both Nick and Christina have been in talks with Black Diamond/Pieps since the accident, hoping that they'll issue a product recall of the Pieps DSP Pro/Sport models and discontinue sales of this product. According to Black Diamond, their testing results indicate that no product recall is necessary at this time, and instead the brand’s response is to continue engaging one-on-one with customers to evaluate and potentially replace individual beacons if there is any safety concern. BD stresses the importance of inspecting your beacon often for wear and cracks and properly using/carrying it, and storing it properly when not in use (take batteries out and store it away from direct sunlight and other harsh environments).
Pieps has released the following statement on the matter.
"We have received inquiries about the design and safety of the Pieps DSP Sport and DSP Pro avalanche beacons. These beacons have undergone rigorous testing and exceed all certification standards. They have been sold globally since 2014 and used by countless backcountry travelers ever since. A beacon is a personal safety tool that must be properly used and maintained. Any misuse may compromise its functionality. Please refer to the video on the fourth slide for how to inspect your beacon. Your safety in the backcountry is our top priority. Please reach out to Black Diamond Equipment in North America and Pieps in Europe if you need further information or if you are unsure how to verify the condition of your beacon."
Jerry Hicks adds, “We’ve been having lots of one-on-one conversations with customers and look forward to continuing those to make sure customers have confidence in the product. We are willing to take the product back and perform an inspection and replace it if necessary.”
Christina Lustenberger’s viewpoint is clear: “I think BD is overlooking the value of consumer experience with this device. It’s the best testing you can get. And if you look at the real life experience people are having, it’s failing time and time again. That’s putting the outdoor community in danger.”
Pieps’s response poses a broader question to be examined about the actual rigor of beacon manufacturing standards. TGR Cinematographer Ben Dann provides some great food for thought. He says, “That being said, it isn’t the only beacon on the market that has had some issues. I think this is a great opportunity to rewrite the standards beacons need to meet across the board going forward. When beacons need to be used to save a life there are generally a ton of variables...an on/off switch should not be one of them.”
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