JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) — Three women postholed through the wet, slushy snow — isothermal snow if they were to be technical about it. And they were.
They sank in, at times, up to their knees, holding their avalanche beacons in front of their bodies, tuned to search mode. They studied the numbers reading on the screen. As the numbers dropped — a sign a signal was being picked up underneath the snow — they fell onto their knees and stomachs, zeroing in on what was buried below.
“Probe!” one yelled, and the women began assembling the long, skinny poles. For some it was the first time this season (or admittedly longer) that they had dug their avy gear out of their packs.
The women pushed their probe poles down, searching for a practice beacon that should feel like a body when jabbed. Eventually they found their target. Shovel assembled, one woman started digging, quickly uncovering the beacon.
This is 23-year-old Kaycee Maas’ third season in the backcountry, but this exercise, station one of three set up in R Park in Jackson Hole, was her first since she completed her Avalanche Level 1 course.
“I wanted to freshen up, since I’ve been going out more,” Maas said. “You don’t want the first time you’ve done it in three years to be when you’re looking for a friend.”
That was precisely the aim of the Jackson Hole Babe Force’s “Beacon Search Party,” which gave women a free opportunity to test their skills with Teton County Search and Rescue’s new mobile beacon practice kit.
It’s not the first beacon search event the Babe Force has held nor will it be the last. This spring the Babe Force will again host its “Backcountry, Bacon & Babes” get-together, which takes a group of women up on Teton Pass for a morning of search and recovery practice and afternoon of skiing.
But the afternoon search party was the first two-hour afternoon event the organization had organized, the Jackson Hole News & Guide reports.
In addition to testing their skills, Babe Force board member Jennifer Wolfrom Holladay said, “it’s a way for people to meet some new ladies.”
The afternoon started with a primer from Liz King, preventative search and rescue manager for the Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation. She covered some of the basics, including:
• Always carry these three things: beacon, probe and shovel.
• Be aware that electronics can interfere with beacons, and you may have more on your body than you thought (i.e., smart watches and heated boot liners).
• Always check your beacon’s battery life before heading out. King replaces hers if the life dips to 60%.
• Always use alkaline batteries, not lithium.
The last point, not always known even by those who have taken backcountry classes, she said, can be a life-or-death issue. Lithium batteries don’t indicate the life left in them until they’re dead and, worse, can scramble a transceiver in search mode to the point where it may be unusable.
“It’s really important and not always talked about,” King said.
Then women were sent out to stations that would test their comfort and dexterity with their backcountry beacons. While all transceivers run on the international frequency standard of 457 kHz, the equipment can vary.
That’s why it’s important to know how to wield the make and model of what is in your pack, King told the group of about a dozen women.
“Just know your gear,” she said before sending them off to search for buried beacons.
A place to ask questions
The beeping began as quickly as beacons were flipped into search mode.
While it can be an anxiety-producing sound — and a challenging one in a group where multiple beacons are chirping — it’s also the best sound in the backcountry, King said.
It means a transceiver has been picked up. You’ve found someone.
The first station asked attendees to methodically practice their searching skills, considering five questions before starting:
• Is the scene safe?
• How many people were buried, and were they wearing transceivers?
• Where was the point last seen?
• Are all transceivers turned to search mode?
• Have all electronics been turned off?
Most had heard and considered these prompts previously, either in formal avalanche courses, backcountry clinics or training with friends, boyfriends or husbands. But re-creating scenes and working through them over and over again is vital to keeping backcountry skills sharp, King said.
“This is something we really should practice every year,” she said. “It’s a perishable skill.”
At the second station beacon searchers were challenged to time themselves and then, at the third station, to beat their number. The imposed anxiety of a timed drill is intentional — and useful, participants said.
“The fear is always you’re going to get out there, and with the adrenaline rush you’re not going to be prepared when someone’s life is on the line,” said Natasha Undem, 42. “Having the community to (practice) with is cool.”
For those less comfortable with the equipment, the Beacon Search Party was an opportunity to ask questions both from the organizers — King and the Babe Force reps brought years of experience to the event — but also of one another.
Like, where is the best place to wear a transceiver on the chest if you have breasts and a short torso?
Answer: Many suggested a pants pocket — one stitched into the garment and rated for a beacon, unlike an external pocket.
The event was “a very comfortable environment,” Maas said between stations, “and it does help having (practice stations) set up for you.”
But while there were women on hand to answer questions, it was also an opportunity for women to go it alone.
Amanda Moyer estimated she’s been skiing in the backcountry for 13 years and has practiced her skills with her husband in their backyard. But the Beacon Search Party was the first time she tested her equipment on her own.
Confidence with caution
Her first discovery started before she even got into the field. She’d put the wrong batteries in her beacon.
In preparation for the clinic she’d installed new batteries, but didn’t realize until she turned it on that she’d grabbed lithium. The unit was nonfunctioning in search mode.
“My beacon wouldn’t have worked the next time I went skiing if I wouldn’t have done this,” she said after switching out for alkaline batteries.
She found two of the three beacons easily, but the final transceiver continued to elude her. The stations were self paced — women could practice just one or run through all three several times. Moyer’s goal was to locate all three buried becons and number three wasn’t coming easy. But her persistence paid off.
“It was just driving me crazy,” said Moyer, the last to leave R Park save the event organizers.
Always something to learn
In addition to building skills and empowering women to confidently explore the outdoors, camaraderie is also the aim of Babe Force events, including the Beacon Search Party, Babe Force board member Laurie Stern said.
Each event has a different mix of attendees — sometimes there are regular Babes, sometimes new and old, or, like this time, a new crop of women adventurers.
“A lot of times people meet new ladies at these events so they have new adventure buddies,” she said.
They also leave more confident in their own skills, though confidence and comfort should never be confused in the outdoors, organizers said.
There should always be a level of caution in the backcountry, no matter how much one has practiced or experienced, said King, who has been exploring the backcountry since 2005 and working professionally in the backcountry since 2010.
“I’m confident in my skills,” she said. “I’m also confident I will always have something to learn.”
And with that she said, “I’m going to go dig all these things up.”