Four years after the death of a Squamish man in an avalanche near Whistler, one of the world’s largest makers of avalanche beacons has issued a voluntary recall for a line of their products.
Corey Lynam died in March, 2017 after being Swept up in a near Hanging Lake.
Lynam, whose widow described him as an experienced backcountry skier, was wearing a Pieps DSP beacon at the time, but when his companions tried to find him, the beacon was inactive but still functioning.
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Brianne Howard told Global News that didn’t make sense, as her husband and his ski partners were meticulous about checking their gear before setting out and again before doing a descent.
“I knew the process, I knew the checking, I knew all that had been done and there was no way his beacon was off, there was no way he wasn’t wearing it, so what actually happened?” Howard said.
“It would be different if it was smashed or broken, that would make sense.”
A BC Coroners Service report into Lynam’s death determined that his beacon had somehow switched from “transmit” mode to “receive” mode, and found Lynam would have been located much more quickly had the device operated as expected.
It also raised questions about how the product was tested to ensure it did not malfunction.
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In the wake of her husband’s death, Howard began investigating the beacon her husband was using, and discovered others had also had issues.
“I would find these little anecdotes in the comments on reviews and think to myself, these are huge red flags, how is someone not picking up on this?” she said.
“This is a major problem, this is your life in the hands of these beacons.”
Howard said she contacted the Black Diamond, the company that owns Pieps, calling on them to recall the device.
The company, she said, told her the device met their safety standards and had passed testing.
Three year later, pro skier Nick McNutt was caught in an avalanche near Pemberton while equipped Pieps DSP beacon. Like Lynam, it failed to activate as his crew raced to save him.
Incredibly, his support team, who were filming a video, were able to pinpoint his location and quickly dig him out — though he was injured in the accident.
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The Pieps recall covers the DSP PRO, DSP PRO ICE and DSP SPORT models of avalanche transceivers. The company is offering users a hard case that holds the unit to ensure it can’t switch modes while in use.
On its website, it says it has conducted “extensive evaluations of the safety and performance” of the devices, which it says conclude “the products comply with international standards, are properly designed, and perform as intended.”
Howard believes the the units suffer from a fatal design flaw, and that information about the recall has not been shared widely enough.
She said the fact that thousands of the devices are currently in use, in a year where more people are backcountry adventuring than ever before, means someone else could lose their life.
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“I think the beacon should be off the shelves. I think production needs to stop and I think sales need to stop. That hasn’t been clear on their website,” she said.
“The voluntary recall has also been confusing. We’re not sure if it means they’re going to replace the beacon … or just produce this hard-case fix.”
Wayne Flann, a member of Whistler Search and Rescue and the Canadian Avalanche Association agrees.
“They’re still for sale. They shouldn’t be on the market,” he said. “The company has to fix it and make sure it does work properly.”
Flan added that avalanche beacons can be delicate devices, and that users should always be double checking them before use, and ensuing that they are properly worn and secured.
Howard said she’s expecting more clarity about the recall from the company in the coming weeks, but in the meantime she fears someone else will have to go through what she did that spring day in 2017.
“It was the worst day of my life for so many reasons — all of these thoughts go through your mind. You think maybe he just broke his leg, maybe he just got separated from the group, broke his leg, broke his ski,” she said.
“All these scenarios go through your mind, and then as time passes, the scenarios change, and the more time that goes by the harder it gets to hold on to hope.”
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