When Brianne Howard found out she was pregnant in January of 2016, her husband Corey Lynam planned an upgrade to his backcountry gear with their growing family in mind. An experienced and onetime competitive skier who regularly logged 20-plus days in the Whistler backcountry per season, Lynam bought a new avalanche airbag and swapped out his old beacon for a popular, modern transceiver, the Pieps DSP Sport.
About a year later, Lynam was caught in an avalanche in Callaghan Valley near Whistler, British Columbia, while using that beacon. When a 150-meter-wide slab buried Lynam under 80 cm of snow on March 4, 2017, his five skiing partners found to their horror that Lynam’s beacon was not transmitting a signal. They hadn’t seen the events that triggered the avalanche, Howard said, so they didn’t have a visual reference where he was likely to be buried. A long search started.
She believes her husband’s beacon was moved into the wrong position by the force of the avalanche due to a design flaw.
As the minutes, then hours, passed and the grim realization set in that their rescue mission was turning into a body recovery, Lynam’s ski partners started asking themselves what happened with their friend’s beacon. As was their habit, Lynam and his friends had done a beacon check before starting their tour. Howard said Lynam’s ski partners didn’t have any reason to believe his beacon, which features a slide mechanism paired with a lock button, would fail to transmit a signal when they most needed it to.
Based on conversations Howard had with Lynam’s ski partners, search and rescue members involved in the recovery, and the coroner who prepared the report on her husband’s death, she said she believes her husband’s beacon was moved into the wrong position by the force of the avalanche due to a design flaw.
Howard would spend a lot of time thinking about her husband’s decision to buy that particular beacon in the days, months and years following her husband’s death as she urged Black Diamond (who acts as a North American distributor for its sister company Pieps) to redesign and recall the model of beacon her husband was using when he died.
A newly single mother of a 17-month-old boy, Howard said she didn’t feel like she had the resources or emotional wherewithal to pursue a lawsuit against Black Diamond, but she urged the company to recall the product in a Dec. 8, 2017 letter she sent them with the help of a law firm in Vancouver. She knew that Black Diamond would be required to keep it on file, and she said she said she tried to find some solace in that.
“It is alarming how easily this beacon switched modes during the avalanche that took Corey’s life. I constantly ask myself: What if this was to happen to someone else? What if another young father is buried in an avalanche and dies because he is unable to be located as a result of beacon failure? I do not want this tragedy to happen to anyone else – and neither would Corey,” she wrote in the letter.
Howard said the coroner also reached out to Black Diamond, but that apart from a letter to her extending condolences and saying the company would conduct an investigation of its own, neither of them heard anything further from Black Diamond or its parent company Clarus Corporation.
As part of an investigation launched by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, TÜV, a third party in Europe involved with product inspection and certification, tested Lynam’s beacon. The report found no damage to the beacon, but Howard kept reading product reviews online where users reported stopping for lunch or removing their beacon at the end of the day only to discover it had switched modes on them. She said she isn’t convinced that it performs as promised in an avalanche—under the exact conditions it’s supposed to be designed to withstand.
Howard started speaking up about her concerns in online forums and even approached individual stores and asked them to pull the DSP beacons from their shelves. Her efforts were not always welcome. A moderator on a local online backcountry forum deleted one of her comments, and retailers told her that without something official coming directly from Black Diamond, their hands were tied. So they continued to stock what’s become one of the industry’s most popular and affordable beacons.
“I think they saw me as a grieving widow who wanted to place blame,” she said. “That was really hard because all I wanted to do was raise awareness.” She said she didn’t want another family to endure the loss she and her son have lived through, and she was trying to keep other backcountry skiers from experiencing the trauma of digging a deceased friend out of the snow, as her husband’s ski partners did.
Without a recall in place, Howard said she fully expected that a beacon like her husband’s would be implicated in another burial.
Then this past March, it happened. Professional freeskier Nick McNutt was filming a segment for Teton Gravity Research outside of Pemberton, British Columbia, when he was caught in a slide while wearing the Pieps DSP Pro, which features a similar sliding lock mechanism to the DSP Sport. While skiing a pillow line, McNutt inadvertently dislodged a car-sized block of snow that had been clinging to a rock. It caught up to him a couple of seconds later, dragging him through the trees and burying him 140 cm deep.
The party with McNutt, which included three other pro skiers and three cinematographers, didn’t pick up a signal from his beacon.
As with Lynam’s burial, the rescuers were confused: when they’d done a beacon check at the beginning of the day, everyone, including McNutt, had been transmitting as expected. Fortunately, in McNutt’s case there were key differences from Lynam’s burial: the slide covered a smaller area, and there were six sets of eyes following McNutt as he’d skied his line. Thus, all six rescuers had a reasonably good idea where they should start searching for him.
Pro skier Christina “Lusti” Lustenberger had just called for a probe line when a lucky probe strike from one of the cinematographers located McNutt. The rescue party started digging.
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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.
Trapped under the snow, McNutt recalls telling himself not to panic and hyperventilate. “It’s dead silent, pitch black, and you can’t wiggle a finger. You’re cemented in, you can’t breathe, and you are completely at the mercy of the people you’ve chosen to go with that day and your equipment,” he said of the experience. “Knowing that I was with those [six professionals] and that they all saw me and they were all right there was my mental saving grace.”
When they dug him out, he had an obviously broken arm and was spitting up blood Since an InReach SOS had been sent out immediately after the slide, more help was already en route. About an hour-and-a-half after McNutt’s burial he was airlifted to a hospital in Pemberton.
He spent the next four days receiving treatment for his injuries—which is an ongoing process; he just recently received a bone marrow graft for his broken ulna—and trying to understand what happened with his beacon. He’d been wearing it in the chest harness as advised and there was no visible damage to the unit alerting him to potential for malfunction, he said.
McNutt, who lives in Squamish, British Columbia, started communicating with Black Diamond about the avalanche and sent his beacon to them for testing via UPS. But it was the start of COVID-19’s rampage through the United States and in the disarray that followed, the package was lost.
Neither McNutt nor Black Diamond knows exactly what happened to the beacon. According to UPS tracking information, it made its way across the U.S.-Canadian border and into Salt Lake City but was never delivered to the Black Diamond headquarters. Black Diamond says they worked with UPS for a month to locate it, but its whereabouts are still a mystery. It may never be found and tested.
But McNutt said the conversations he and Lustenberger started having with others in the ski industry have led them to believe the issue with the lock mechanism is more common than should be acceptable. They collected a handful of DSP Sport and DSP Pro beacons that demonstrated potential for switch malfunction and sent them in for testing. McNutt said he was hopeful that Black Diamond might issue a recall, but as the months wore on and little was said, they started taking action on their own.
The Instagram posts Lustenberger put up starting Oct. 6 have been shared widely and drawn a significant response from the outdoor recreation community. Calls for Pieps and Black Diamond to initiate a more aggressive response—the word recall is frequently used on social media—have only snowballed from there.
Thus far, most of the response from Pieps and Black Diamond has been directed through social media channels. On Oct. 13, Pieps posted a video on Instagram—to scathing reception from McNutt and others—demonstrating how to inspect the sliding mechanism on the DSP Sport. “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,” the post said.
A week later, Pieps published a new post visible to their 4,700-plus followers on Instagram saying that if users have concerns about the DSP Pro or DSP Sport, they should contact [email protected] and “we will offer you an upgrade to the latest generation of our avalanche transceivers.”
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We know that confidence in your equipment is key. If you have any concerns about your DSP Pro/Sport, please contact us. We will offer you an upgrade to the latest generation of our avalanche transceivers. If you are in the US or Canada, contact us at: [email protected] For all other countries, contact us at: [email protected]
Rick Vance, VP of Quality at Black Diamond, said the company has been fielding on the order of 100 inquiries per day about the DSP Pro and DSP Sport beacons in the past two weeks. (The DSP Pro is no longer in production, but the DSP Sport has been on the market since 2014 in a basically unchanged form, save for some software and light manufacturing upgrades.) Vance estimates between 100,000 and 200,000 of these beacons have been manufactured.
Vance said they’re evaluating beacons users send in on a case-by-case basis and still gathering information. Black Diamond and Pieps spokesperson John DiCuollo said their goal right now is to restore customer and retailer confidence. He added that it’s still a very fluid situation and they’re discussing further outreach beyond social media including things like town hall events and initiatives with retailers.
Both Vance and DiCuollo emphasize that the DSP Pro and DSP Sport beacons have been implicated in only two incidents—burial scenarios—and that they pass industry standards for switch strength when tested alongside beacons from other brands that use a similar design.
Vance said he doesn’t know how many of the Sport and Pro beacons have been sent back to Black Diamond under warranty specifically due to concerns about the switch in the course of normal (non-rescue) use. Thus, getting solid data on how prone the switch mechanism is to malfunctioning without user knowledge is difficult. Vance did say that among the beacons from warranty they put on their test machine with visible damage to the lock button, the decrease in switch resistance ranged from about 50% reduction to 100%, at which point the switch slides freely between modes.
Without a solid data set available, the information circulating in the ski community is largely anecdotal and includes accounts of people like Rose Triolo, a ski patroller who asked Mount Hood Meadows’ snow safety director to swap out her DSP Pro after noticing three or four times last season that it had switched out of transmit mode while she was wearing it on the job.
“It’s the most important thing you can have—gear that works,” Triolo said. “You need a transceiver that’s going to be in send mode when you need it to be. If that’s not functioning, then the chance of [quickly] finding someone in a burial decreases significantly.” (Triolo notes that she’s commenting in a personal capacity, not as a representative of her employer.)
In Canada, legal action has entered into the discussion. On Oct. 16, a personal injury firm initiated a class action lawsuit against Pieps in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. It’s still very much in the early stages—Pieps will have to be served in Austria, which involves a translation process and other logistical considerations—but Tony Leoni, a partner with Rice Harbut Elliott LLP, said the amount of people who have expressed interest in joining the suit “has really exceeded our expectations.” More than 150 people have registered with his firm, he said. They seek refunds and other damages they may have incurred due to the beacons’ alleged negligent design and the companies’ failure to recall when they learned of it. Leoni said to his knowledge no similar lawsuits are underway in the U.S.
Meanwhile, skiers like Triolo, Howard, and McNutt have been thinking about changes to resort operations—and spikes in backcountry use—in response to the pandemic. “This is probably going to be the biggest backcountry season on record,” Howard said. “Search and Rescue crews are very concerned about resources and what the season is going to bring.” Many skiers taking to the backcountry are likely to be brand-new to navigating the particular set of skills and risk assessments that safe travel in avalanche terrain requires. And some might even end up with a new DSP Sport, or a used DSP Pro that a skier more plugged into the community decided to offload on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace.
“It’s the perfect storm: having undereducated people out there with these devices that are far too likely to fail,” McNutt said. “[It’s] a horrible set up for another incident.”
Photo: Yasmin Gomes