B.C. pro skiers raise red flags, demand recall over avalanche safety gear failure
Posted October 16, 2020 8:01 am.
Last Updated October 16, 2020 10:37 am.
VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Three professional skiers say a faulty avalanche safety item needs to be recalled after they nearly lost their friend in a Pemberton avalanche, this March.
Thousands of others are now echoing that message, pushing for a recall of the Pieps DPS and DPS Pro, saying they will boycott Pieps backcountry gear unless that happens.
The incident is coming to light as Teton Gravity Research release it’s annual blockbuster ski movie, Make Believe, across the globe.
In the film, B.C.-based superstar skier, Nick McNutt, is buried in a surprising avalanche after being caught in “the wrong place at the wrong time,” and is violently strained through a large tree, deep in the backcountry, coming to rest under 130-140 centimetres of snow.
As his experienced friends, including one ACMG ski guide and another training for the same certification, rushed to his aid, they were shocked to find McNutt’s last line of defense against one of Mother Nature’s most brutal forces had somehow failed.
Ian McIntosh was the first skier to arrive at the debris pile.
“The second everyone turned their beacons to search, I then had no signal,” he recalls.
“That was when my stomach dropped, because I went from being very, very confident that I was going to find him incredibly quickly, to ‘he could be anywhere’ and, you know, the worst case scenario runs through your brain at that point,” says McIntosh.
He says at that point a few crew members had made it to the debris pile, and started to poke through the deep snow, using avalanche probes.
“I’m thinking now I’m going to be lucky to find him at all and I’m probably going to be digging up a dead friend,” recalls McIntosh.
“There’s a strong chance that he can’t breathe at all and as minutes tick by, the likelihood of finding him alive diminish exponentially.”
Whether it was a miracle, pure chance, or the result of good training, McNutt was found and rescued in just over five minutes, as he had begun to lose consciousness.
He says he trusted the skills of his team and immediately felt a sense they would locate him quickly. However, he had no idea his beacon wasn’t transmitting a signal at the time.
“In the aftermath of it, it affected those guys a lot because they were burdened with trying to find somebody in a pile of snow, with no signal,” he says.
“It was definitely eye-opening that something needed to be said about this, because it’s a pretty popular beacon, like one of the most common beacons around and a lot of people are out there using it,” adds McNutt.
Squamish woman blames husband’s avalanche death on faulty switch
Immediately after the avalanche, McNutt, McIntosh and Christina “Lusti” Lustenberger, another pro-skier who was filming with the TGR crew, started asking around to figure out if this had ever happened before.
Lustenberger, who is also an ACMG Ski Guide, reached out to people across the Canadian skiing industry and received a lot of replies.
She sent a long email to the beacon’s manufacturer, including in it one dozen accounts of similar failures, including one involving a death near Whistler, in 2017.
Now, a woman who goes by Bri Howard on Facebook says her husband, Corey Lynam, was the man killed in that avalanche, and she blames his Pieps DPS beacon.
“With the help of lawyers, I notified Black Diamond (owners of the Pieps beacon) in writing and asked for an official recall in 2017 due to the obvious design flaw. Black Diamond stated they were doing an internal investigation but never got back to me, answered my calls or recalled the beacon,” she says.
She says in the aftermath of Lynam’s death, she was encouraged to go to the media or pursue a lawsuit, but being a newly single mother of a young child, she couldn’t bear to shoulder that burden at the time.
“The thought of that scared me and I felt silenced,” she says.
“So instead, I went from store to store that sold the beacon trying to get it off the shelves, sharing Corey’s story, but most people I spoke to said that if there wasn’t an official recall, they wouldn’t be willing to lose the revenue from the beacon — it was a bestseller… Corey’s death and my experience wasn’t enough. It was gutting.”
The TGR ski crew also sent McNutt’s beacon in for assessment, saying they felt they had a duty to speak up before someone else was buried without hope of recovery.
“I never thought I would be searching for a friend without a signal, and I never trained a scenario like that for sure,” Lustenberger says of the Pemberton avalanche, explaining she has learned about probing in an organized way, with a line across the debris field.
“But that technique is generally used in body recovery, not in a rescue sense, because it is such a slow technique and usually by the time you find them with a probe, it’s too late that the victim would have succumbed to injuries and lack of oxygen.”
VP of quality advises on safe use
Pieps responded by telling the TGR team that human error and misuse are to blame for McNutt’s near-miss, as well as every other reported issue, including the death of Corey Lynam at Hanging Lake, near Whistler.
The company’s VP of quality can also be seen demonstrating how easily the transceiver’s switch can be damaged or unwittingly moved, with some force, in a newly posted Instagram response to the controversy.
“Inspect the lock button for signs of cracking,” says Rick Vance. “If there’s cracking, retire your beacon immediately.”
He goes on to demonstrate how to check the integrity of the lock-buttons slider, in the process showing how easy it is to force the slider from one mode to the other, even with the lock engaged.
“Never force the slider between positions without depressing the lock button, This damages the locking mechanism, and if you’ve done so, retire your beacon immediately.”
Vance says anyone having issues with the mechanism on Pieps DPS or DPS Pro models can contact Black Diamond or Pieps for help.
‘Are you cool with blood on your hands?’
The online blowback has been swift and fierce as people take to social media to tell Pieps how they feel.
“If you don’t do a product recall and people die, are you cool with blood on your hands?” asks Lacy Kemp, of Bellingham Washington.
Ian McIntosh says he went to buy one of the Pipes DPS last season, and was warned off my a staff member at the store, who instead sold him an upgraded version from Black Diamond. That new, black version doesn’t have the same issues, says McIntosh.
He says when McNutt’s beacon failed to send a signal that day in Pemberton, he immediately thought back to that interaction.
A former MEC staff member says they always encouraged people to buy something else.
“Staff, Service Centre Employees and the Warranty Team all felt this beacon shouldn’t be sold. The buyer though, refused to stand up to Pieps, and kept buying them. I never, ever let any customer buy one, and I encouraged every single person I trained to do the same,” says Tam McTavish on Instagram.
McNutt added a post of his own in response to Pieps’ latest comeback.
“After 7 months of long-winded discussions with the folks responsible for putting out a statement to warn people of the risk that this switch has to fail … I’m pretty disappointed in this message and not at all surprised at the outrage shown in the comments … I’m also frankly appalled that this beacon is still actively being produced when the other beacons in the line seem vastly improved, at least you could stop production on this model and move forward,” he writes.
Lustenberger says it tore her apart to keep such important information quiet.
“When we first contacted Pieps in the spring, we were pretty clear with what we wanted to see from them and that was a recall. Waiting and giving them the time to get ahead of it this summer really weighed on me personally, but I think also our crew and just keeping this not keeping this private and not sharing publicly was really hard and I think.
“We’re not trying to attack Pieps, all we’re really trying to do is have the best interests of the outdoor community in mind and really make sure that this doesn’t happen again and again and again because there’s proof that it has and that needs to be stopped.”