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The problem with the “backcountry rescue gear trinity” is that the gear is a lot like car insurance. An avalanche transceiver, shovel, and probe cost a lot of money but you never really want to be in a situation where they need to be used. An airbag also falls in this category, and it will lighten up your wallet or purse even more effectively than the trinity.
But there is one backcountry safety essential that can make your entire backcountry skiing experience better every time you use them: Two-way radios.
Radios extend communication so you and your partners can ski longer pitches and be able to advise each other on where to go—and where not to go. They can make nailing the Instagram shot a piece of cake. And, if things don’t go as planned, a quick radio check-in can be the difference between waiting for a friend just a little longer or expediting a call to search and rescue.
Now radios are now being used in a way to make it easier for groups in high-use avalanche terrain to work together. People in places like Telluride in Colorado, Snoqualmie Pass in Washington, and Utah’s Wasatch have coordinated the use of common radio frequencies in certain backcountry zones so parties can communicate with one another and avoid mishaps.
Considering the dramatic increase in backcountry users over the past two decades and exponential increase dues to the pandemic, the use of these common frequencies in more regions is more timely than ever.
Common Radio Frequencies in Practice
Imagine getting to the entrance of the fictional Gnarly Couloir after a long approach and finding some tracks that might be a few minutes old or a few days old. A quick check-in on the prescribed radio frequency could mean the difference between kicking off slough on top of another party in the line or being able to ski it comfortably.
Common radio frequencies are not a new idea, but the perfect storm of events has led to more mountain clubs, guiding organizations, avalanche forecasters, and other snow safety experts adopting a system similar to the one in Telluride, Colo., the first area to implement a formal common radio frequencies system.
The original program in Telluride was the brainchild of local guide Matt Steen and Backcountry Access (BCA) Co-Founder Bruce Edgerly. According to Edgerly, an incident where one party was not out of a couloir when another group dropped in led to a serious accident. Telluride Helitrax commonly helps when a Search and Rescue call goes out in the Telluride backcountry, and Steen, Helitrax’s Snow Safety Director, was the primary first responder on the scene that day. Both groups involved in the accident had radios and the idea of common radio frequencies germinated with Steen as it might have been a tool that prevented the accident.
“Everything Helitrax can do to prevent their flying [rescue] routine is good for them,” says Edgerly.
Cross-Pollination and New Programs
In 2015, Steen and Edgerly started a pilot program for the common radio channels in the backcountry terrain beyond the gates of Telluride Ski Resort in Bear Creek. They presented their findings at the International Snow Safety Workshop in Breckenridge, Colo. in 2016. Their findings were only presented on a poster, however, which “just doesn’t get the eyeballs an oral presentation gets,” says Edgerly.
While the program took flight in Telluride’s popular backcountry areas and expanded to nearby zones like Ophir, it didn’t catch wind elsewhere until recently. Steen recorded a presentation about the program which was shown at the Wyoming Snow and Avalanche Workshop (WYSAW) in 2020. WYSAW was held virtually that year and was free for anyone to attend.
Watch: Matt Steen’s WYSAW Presentation
After watching Steen’s presentation, the Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) created their own common-use radio channels for Little Cottonwood Canyon, Big Cottonwood Canyon, and the Park City Ridgeline area. The program was spearheaded by two UAC staff and, to make the channels easier to remember, uses the nearest highway numbers for channel guidance (2-10, 1-9, and 2-24, respectively).
Scott Waller, the Patrol Director of the Cascade Backcountry Ski Patrol and Ski Patrol Rescue Team (SPART), also took the initiative to launch a common frequencies program for Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State after watching Steen’s virtual presentation last fall.
More recently, James Marc Beverly, an IFMGA guide and owner of Beverly Mountain Guides in New Mexico, launched a common frequency radio channel for the backcountry near Taos Ski Valley.
“[Virtual] snow and avalanche workshops this year had a geographically wide audience, so there was more cross-pollination” between the events, says Edgerly. He credits this increased exchange of information due to the virtual nature of regional SAW workshops this year, as well as the “evangelists who get it going,” for the greater use of common radio channels in more areas across America.
Check it out: This is why your avy beacon training isn’t enough
In the spring of 2020, a group of backcountry travelers was involved in an avalanche in the Waterfall Canyon zone near Ophir, Colo., near Telluride. One snowboarder was seriously injured, and the party sent out a distress call using the prescribed common radio channel for the Ophir zone.
A local IFMGA guide in the area just happened to be monitoring the channel. He heard the distress call and was able to call a local emergency room doctor and a helicopter rescue, then skin up to the location of the victim, and stabilize him with the doctor.
“The doctor said ‘if there was any further delay in the rescue time, this man’s injury could have led to a fatality,’” says Steen in his WYSAW presentation.
This example is just one of many that Steen provides in his WYSAW presentation, and his list is only a small representation of the number of times the Telluride common radio frequencies have been critical.
Do It Yourself
Edgerly recommends that any organization interested in starting their own common frequency channels should contact BCA. They will work with new radio “evangelists” to find dead spots and dividing lines for reception, then figure out how many channels are needed and draw boundaries accordingly.
“There might be too much chatter” if using a single channel or any of the BCA Link 2.0 preset channels, he says. Working with nearby search and rescue operations and ski area ski patrol to monitor the channels can help expedite the appropriate amount of help for both real and false alarms.
But, Edgerly is quick to point out, “it’s not all about safety, it’s about having a blast and maximizing every turn you work for” by directing partners for features, photos, and more. “If someone can tell you where the best line is, you can rip the thing. That’s what I love about these radios.”
For a full list of radio protocols when using common radio frequencies, visit BCA’s website.