Suszynski: No breadcrumbs for the Pieps DSP | VailDaily.com
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Suszynski: No breadcrumbs for the Pieps DSP

In college, I wrote a lot of short stories that ended in avalanches. I didn’t realize the pattern until a friend pointed it out in a workshop. This made sense to me because that’s life in the mountains. We live with avalanches around every corner.

Around the same time, I was introduced to a short story titled “Accident Brief” by Karen Russell. The short story is narrated by a boy named Tek who lives in Waitiki Valley and is part of the Waitiki Valley Boys Choir. Every year, the choir is flown to the top of the Aokeora glacier to “sing” the avalanche down. The choir is made up of boys who haven’t hit puberty yet, so they can hit those high octaves that will trigger a slide.

A few weeks ago, Christina “Lusti” Lustenberger, an ACMG guide, brought to light the story behind an avalanche that Nick McNutt was caught in while filming for Teton Gravity Research this spring. The gist of it is that McNutt was in Pemberton and skied a line that sent a pillow down into his exit gully. As he was landing his last air, he hit a small tree and then was gone. You can follow the story in Lusti’s Instagram page. The alarming part is that once the crew rushed to where they last saw McNutt, they couldn’t find a signal from his beacon. The crew quickly formed a probe line, and about five minutes later, they found him. His Pieps DSP was off. In the comments section on the last post of the series, McNutt said: “A full recall sadly seems unlikely at this point, which is obviously concerning, but perhaps a bigger issue is that there is no real industry standard these need to meet as far as user interface/switch mechanism strength since every brand uses a different design.”

If McNutt hadn’t had luck and a very competent crew with him, he might not have survived that avalanche. Avalanches are a force and gear should account for that.

In “Accident Brief,” the choir is given “transponders” before they board the small plane heading for the glacier: “’In case something goes less-than-good with the Avalanche …. We need to be able to find you boys if you get buried,’” the pilot tells the choir.

And then the plane crashes and it’s not on the right glacier.

In moments where crashes occur, we turn to beacons to show us the right way. If we lose somebody in the snow, we switch to search mode and go find them. But if there’s an equipment failure, the chance of finding that person is close to zero.

Tek regains his senses after the crash. He moves toward a mute boy, Rangi, and they crouch down into the snow to assess the situation. When a helicopter does come, Rangi knocks Tek unconscious and they slide into a snow cave. Rangi doesn’t want to be found and to ensure that’s the case, he grabs Tek’s transponder “and lobs it, with a casual madness, into the blue maw of the crevasse.”

For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why it was instinctual for me to end stories with avalanches. During the ski season, when I’m on my skins headed up a mountain, avalanches become everything around me. Like cornice-nosed ghouls and their foreboding woomfs, they wait for me to make an irreversible mistake. Even equipped with my armor, beacon strapped against my chest, there is some part of me that is always wondering: What if it fails? What if I fail? What if my friends fail?

McNutt experienced an equipment failure and Pieps hasn’t recalled the model yet. When cars have an equipment failure, that piece is recalled. If you pick up a head of salmonella-tainted lettuce in the grocery store, you receive a notification.

At the end of the story, Tek says “Somewhere, an Avalanche is about to happen without us … Mr. Oamaru is fiddling with the flashbulb, the black drape of the box camera billowing around him. He is snapping picture after picture of white sludge rolling down an ice shelf … I feel as if I’m looking down at my own funeral, only nobody knows that I’m dead.”

Perhaps, I am obsessed with the poetry of avalanches because I feel their presence even outside of winter. There is something about the buildup: feet on feet of snow stacking atop weak layers. Or the sun beating down until structurally unsound facets try to hold each other up. Like Hansel and Gretel, we break trail into the wilderness equipped with nothing but breadcrumbs.

“Even so, I can’t silence a small chirp of hope. Who knows? Maybe my transponder hit a ledge that jarred the switch back to ON. Maybe it’s still emitting a signal,” Tek said.

This story about the Pieps DSP has really bothered me. We are in a time where accountability is paramount. If Pieps says its beacon is up to its standards, those standards aren’t good enough. When you’re in an avalanche, it’s hard to count on a small chirp of hope when every minute past is a minute closer to death. We rely on beacons. Pieps needs to do better and if that means initiating a conversation about industry standards, then let’s start talking.


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