VAIL - Using an avalanche beacon is like playing a high-tech game of hide-and-seek, only with much greater stakes.
On Wednesday at Vail Mountain, Ski Patrol and Mountain Safety hosted a beacon demonstration in their "beacon basin" training area, where eight beacons spend all season buried in the snow.
"The demonstration is part of the ongoing activities at Vail Safety Week, but the beacons stay in the snow all season," said Joely Denkinger, of Mountain Safety. "People can come with their own beacons and try to locate them."
The idea is that people buried under avalanche snow would be wearing beacons, which can send or receive signals. If they were using theirs properly, they switched it to send out a signal before they started skiing an avalanche-prone line. If the slide happens, you switch your beacon to receive a signal and start looking for them in the same way you look for the beacons at Vail's Beacon Basin.
After the finding comes the probing.
"They're attached to pieces of wood, so if you think you've found something, then you can work on using a probe in the snow to see if something's under there," said Denkinger.
The beacons are wirelessly connected to a control center at the Beacon Basin's entryway, where you can turn their signals on or off. At any time, anyone is welcome to turn one on and go hunting.
For a more difficult hide and seek session, turn on multiple beacons, recommends Alex Lai with ski patrol.
"With a single burial, just follow your beacon," said Lai. "If you're looking for two beacons, you want to find your first one first and mark it with a flag ... once you know where your first one is, spin your beacon and look for the other signal and start heading for that one."
Lai said while it's a high-tech endeavor, there's also human intuition involved.
"Eventually you'll get right between the two, which is really confusing, and you just have to push through your thoughts and the beacons' thoughts which are saying, 'turn around, turn around.' Once you're closer to the second one, the signal will start narrowing it down."
Lai said Vail's Beacon Basin is located in a strategic spot, at the top of Chair 14 near Two Elk, a spot you would likely pass on your way to an area where you might need a beacon.
"Anybody that makes it this far out are adventuring," said Lai. "People that are skiing Lionshead and Vail Village, they're skiing there because they can see the village, and that's comforting. But you come out here and Two Elk is the only outpost ... I'm glad they have (the Beacon Basin) up here, people that want to venture out have to go past here, and they are going to want to make sure their beacons work."
Lai says in testing, there's other things to consider besides the basic working order of the beacon.
"We do control routes in pairs of two, and we test our beacons when we first got them to make sure they're in spec and the distances are relative," said Lai. "My partner's may find me at 10 meters out, and his may read 14 meters when he comes back and tries to find me. So if there's that discrepancy between the beacons that's something you'll have to be aware of and adjust for in the field."
Lai said while Vail is not known for being an extreme place where you might need a beacon, there's plenty of areas accessible from the resort boundaries that should only be accessed by people wearing and trained to use beacons.
"There's dangerous areas in Vail's sidecountry, for sure," he said.
And like with anything else in life, when it comes to a device like a beacon, practice makes perfect.
"If we see people out here looking who can't find the beacon, it's usually due to not enough practice," he said, adding that proper beacon use can be learned by kids as young as 8 or 9 years old. "If you're old enough to understand a computer, you're old enough to understand a beacon. Kids that start using them early will be better at it when they're 14 and 15 and might need it."
Safety Week at both Vail and Beaver Creek continues through Sunday with various events and activities that aim to promote and communicate the importance of slope safety to guests and employees.
First-year Vail Mountain Safety patroller John Anderson said Denkinger volunteered to take on the extra work necessary to help make the week a success.
"She's not a manager or anything, but she really took on a lot," said Anderson. "Along with the managers, she put this whole week together. She's doing an awesome job."
New this year during Safety Week, any guest who approaches a mountain safety team member and correctly recites the Responsibility Code will be entered into a raffle to win a GoPro camera at the end of the week.