Thursday, May 24, 2012

iPhone Avy Beacon App: The Joke's On You

Three years ago, an April Fool's post on an iPhone avalanche beacon app was clever enough to fool readers into thinking it was real -- or was it that some readers weren't clever enough to detect an obvious joke?

Either way, the joke is now on us, or at least on anyone who buys the SnoWhere app for anything other than $9.99 worth of amusement.  (This came out much earlier in the year, but I was reminded of it recently with the introduction of the slickly marketed and attractively priced "snow-be" -- or make that, "find-me" but don't count on me finding you!)

I'm all for a radical rethinking of the dated beacon spec (ETSI EN 300 718-1, 718-2, 718-3), and indeed Barryvox (along with its licensee ARVA) has been doing just that with its W-Link secondary frequency on the Pulse beacon, and Pieps is slated to do that with its GPS-equipped Vector.  I've also been impressed by all the various functions my phone can perform, some originally intended by the designers, and other cleverly designed by third parties.

Designing an app to allow one phone to locate another phone buried underneath the snow would be a great university course project, thereby following up on apps that can find a lost or stolen phone, or an errant child.  But, "SnoWhere Could Help Save Your Life"?  No.

A phone is incapable on transmitting or receiving on the standard 457 kHz avalanche beacon frequency.  But if both the victim and the would-be-rescuer had phone with compatible apps, could one phone somehow search for another phone?  Sure, the victim's phone could acquire GPS signals, and that information could be transmitted to the searcher's phone.

So in theory, yes, but in reality, here are all (or at least some of?) the potential problems (even assuming that both the victim and searcher both have the app running):
  1. Dependence upon a satellite network.  This should be okay though, since the GPS satellite network is reliable.  Plus other types of rescue devices depend upon satellite networks (e.g., GEOSAR for PLBs, Globalstar and GPS for Spot).  
  2. GPS signal acquisition underneath snow.  A high-sensitivity GPS receiver with an antenna optimized for GPS signal reception can indeed acquire GPS signals underneath snow.  But phones typically lack the very latest in GPS chips, and their antennas are optimized for cell phone networks, not GPS satellites.  SnoWhere claims, "In our tests, the best GPS location accuracy was +/-5m on iPhones 4 & 4S and +/-10m on iPhones 3G & 3GS."  Even setting aside how rigorous these tests were, that means that the very best scenario is that SnoWhere will leave the searcher with an area to probe of 845 or 3382 square feet (4/4s and 3G/3GS, respectively).  And how knows how much that degrades under whatever more demanding scenarios that SnoWhere did not test.
  3. Bluetooth transmission underneath snow and over long distances.  The very latest iPhone has Bluetooth 4.0, and earlier versions listed as compatible with SnoWhere have Bluetooth 2.0 or 2.1 -- yet SnoWhere only vaguely claims that, "SnoWhere has a range of 40m and has been tested in depths up to 2m." without specifying which model(s).  Somewhat anecdotally, my Droid Incredible has Bluetooth 2.1 with a headset range of only a few meters before static overwhelms with the voice quality.  If SnoWhere's vague claim of 40m-range indeed degrades under certain conditions, and if SnoWhere's 10m-accuracy claim for the iPhone 3G/3GS also degrades under certain conditions, the span over which SnoWhere provides any useful information might approach zero (e.g., 25m Bluetooth range coupled with 20m GPS accuracy).
  4. WiFi interference.  Remember to turn off WiFi beforehand or else "performance" (such as it is) is even further degraded.
  5. Phone call interference?  The following passage implies that if a phone call is randomly received during the search, then SnoWhere will shut down entirely:  "SnoWhere also remembers when you might forget – by restarting automatically after phone call interruptions to keep you transmitting, so your friends can find you. You’ll always know that SnoWhere is running by its reassuring ping."
  6. Search interface.  The "video" shows only a few static screen captures and never shows video of a phone actually homing in on a victim.  Does it even have any directional indicators based on the searcher's GPS location?  Or does it just show a map (whose details will be worthless over such a short distance involved in a rescue) and then the searcher has to figure out which way to go?
  7. Manipulation of your phone's touchscreen with bare fingers in cold temperatures while in a panic.  No need to elaborate here.
The bottomline?  The very bottom of the website's main page provides this disclaimer:
"No location device can offer a guarantee that you will be found: SnoWhere is no exception."
I agree with the first part, but not the second part:  SnoWhere is indeed an exception, as it pretty much guarantees that a fully buried victim will not be found quickly enough to prevent asphyxiation.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Snow-be": The Freeloading Australian Avy "Beacon"

I was about to write "Freerider" but in the skiing context that means something different.

So the "free rider" in question here is more of a "freeloader" as commonly termed:
"In economics, collective bargaining, psychology, and political science, a free rider (or freeloader) is someone who consumes a resource without paying for it, or pays less than the full cost. The free rider problem is the question of how to limit free riding (or its negative effects). Free riding is usually considered to be an economic problem only when it leads to the non-production or under-production of a public good (and thus to Pareto inefficiency), or when it leads to the excessive use of a common property resource."
The resource here is communal avalanche beacon usage and rescue skills.  The free rider is the company Snow Beacon and anyone who buys its "snow-be" transmit-only beacon.

True, transmit-only beacons have been made previously.  But the Ortovox D1/Hunderetter was marketed very explicitly toward hunters and their dogs in off-snow contexts (complete with a hunter green color scheme).  The Barryvox S2 and Arva Life Bip came with straps that suggested usage by dogs (bad if intended in an avalanche context, but fine otherwise).  Various references also seem to suggest applications for tents/gear on remote mountaineering expeditions (probably made sense, pre-GPS).  And the current Pieps Backup transmitter, although it could be misused in lieu of a beacon, is marketed as, well, a backup for beacons that lack an emergency revert-to-transmit function.

The "snow-be" is so cheap as to approach the price of an impulse buy, and its marketing is essentially encouraging potential users who are ignorant of rescue protocol to remain so.

The Snow Beacon website has all sorts of feel-good text about how the company wants to help skiers stay safe, but the product and most importantly its marketing (both on the website and the affiliated Facebook page) instead is encouraging skiers to:
  • remain ignorant of how to search with a true avalanche beacon;
  • depend upon the skills and equipment of skiers who buy true avalanche beacons; and,
  • run away from a rescue site ("it may safer for all if you move away from an incident to a place of safety"), as the website doesn't stress turning off the snow-be instead.
Let's all hope this doesn't sell well...

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Poster Child Speaks

Following up on the Poster Child for Negligent Hiking, the hiker has now spoken:

Hiker says he made a 'very bad decision'


BERLIN — The Cape Cod man who had to be rescued Tuesday on Mount Madison described his White Mountains hike as “the stupidest thing I've ever done in my life”

“I wasn't thinking. I really shouldn't have been there,” Mark Walsh, a 49-year-old unemployed welder, said in a telephone interview from his bed at Androscoggin Valley Hospital on Wednesday. He is recovering from dehydration.

Walsh said his decision to embark on a late-afternoon trek Monday in the Presidential Range with almost no equipment or provisions was “a very bad decision.” 

“I was seriously dehydrated,” he said. “The next step would be death. If not for Fish and Game and the other rescuers, I would've died. All credit goes to them. They're good guys. I was incoherent when they found me. They put coats and a hat on me, and forced fluids into me.”

The rescue team did avoid a carry-out, and led Walsh on a return hike that took the rest of the night. Walsh and his nine rescuers got back at 4 a.m. Tuesday.

Fish and Game Sgt. Wayne Saunders has described Walsh's lack of preparation as “negligence” and is recommending to his superiors that they begin the process of having the New Hampshire Attorney General's Office seek reimbursement from the rescued man.

On Wednesday, the Sandwich, Mass., man acknowledged he'd been lulled into a casual attitude by his success with two recent, shorter, White Mountains hikes. 

He said he had heard a weather forecast that daytime temperatures Monday atop Mt. Washington would be in the 60s and dressed in summer clothing and rubber boots.

He also misfired on the estimate of how long the hike would take, and didn't set out until around 4 p.m. Monday. 

By the time searchers found him, well off the trail at 11 p.m., temperatures had dipped into the 30s.

Walsh said all he'd consumed that day was some Slim Fast, many hours earlier. He had little water with him, no food, no flashlight, and his upper-body clothing consisted of two T-shirts.

Once darkness fell and he lost sight of Pine Link Trail, events started going badly in rapid succession, he said.

“I did drink a lot of water before I started, but I thought the summit was a lot closer. I got very dehydrated. I was dizzy and disoriented. I started to lose my way, and lose my focus,” he said.

At 5:45 p.m., he used his cell phone to dial 911 and summon help. The emergency call was referred to Saunders at New Hampshire Fish and Game's Region 1 office in Lancaster.

From what he was told, Saunders decided rescuers might have to carry Walsh off the mountain. 

He assembled a nine-member crew, including Fish and Game officers, Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue Team members and Appalachian Mountain Club rescuers.

Walsh said he barely made the call before his cell phone quit. That's when he really got scared, he said. Over the next five hours before the team found him, he said he could feel his strength ebbing, along with his ability to form clear thoughts. He said he felt his chances for survival fading.

On Tuesday, Saunders said Walsh was a hiker “who did everything wrong.”

Monday, May 14, 2012

Skier Crevasse Fall

Crevasse falls for skiers are relatively rare as compared to climbers:  the "bridging" effect from skis helps to distribute a skier's weight better, hence decreasing the chance of punching through a snowbridge, plus skis can quite literally bridge some cracks.

Around this time last year on Rainier was the first ever confirmed skier crevasse death in the Washington Cascades (although a missing solo skier in 2008 whose body was never found on Mount Baker might have also died in a a crevasse).  According to Amar:
"However, it looks like a non-standard place for them to have been skinning up, right beside a bunch of exposed seracs and partially open crevasses. It's more dangerous in that area (as confirmed by the accident), while the safer standard route is down the obvious central fall line of the upper Nisqually Glacier, a few hundred feet farther west. That is the most snow-filled and least crevassed portion of the upper Nisqually, and the line that almost all parties ascend and ski as far as I know. The standard line is not very far west of where the accident occurred, but a hundred feet left or right can be an entirely different route in some places on a glacier, with an entirely different degree of crevasse hazard. But it's also appealing to ski and photograph near exposed seracs and open crevasses, so it's easy to understand why they might have taken the line they did."
The 2011 Rainier party of four was skinning up unroped, and the victim did not appear to have any experience with glacier travel (at least according to all the various remembrances).  The other party members sought assistance from another party, although unclear from the various accounts whether this was because the victim's party lacked the gear and/or skill to extricate the victim, or because the crevasse fall was so deep that additional assistance was necessary.

Now almost exactly a year later from the Blackcomb backcountry comes another reminder about how even skiers are not immune from crevasse falls, albeit a relatively short fall, yet complete with a very detailed account from the victim:

Hiking Forum with pictures
Skiing Forum, w/o pictures, but with comment from other skiers

Also available is a SAR account, although it incorrectly describes the party of two (who had just met on the chairlift) as two solo skiers.

Then again, since they were skinning up unroped, and without any crevasse rescue gear, the situation wasn't all that different than two solo skiers, with the lead skier fortunately noticing that the following skier was no longer in sight.

Curiously, the victim's account goes on at great length about how important a partner is crevassed terrain (true, but so true as to hardly merit mention), and about how he probably would not have been able to climb out of the crevasse even had be been equipped with climbing gear (perhaps true). But he says nothing about how he could have been skinning roped up to his partner, or about how even if they had been skinning unroped, then still, his partner could have had a rope and other crevasse rescue gear . . .

Outstanding vantage points in this video:
[Note that both the voice over and the text repeat the mistake in other news stories, grossly exaggerating the the depth by apparently taking the victim's account in feet and then incorrectly applying the meters:feet conversion ratio.]

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Possibly True, But Definitely Funny

Initial accounts of hiker incidents are often far from accurate.
However, this one is so hilarious as to merit repeating (regardless of its eventually proved or disproved veracity):
As the url hints, five lost hikers, in the dark, getting cold, attempted to warm each other up by . . . urinating on each other.
Obviously, this doesn't work.  Well, at least not past the first several seconds.
And while on the subject of urine:
- No, holding your urine in will not keep you warmer.  Yes, urine is warm when it comes out of your body, but only because it's been inside you.  In other words, it's not generating any heat, but rather your body is essentially working to keep it warm.
- Yes, urine is sterile.  Usually.  Assuming normally functioning kidneys, urine is sterile when produced inside the body, although it can become contaminated as it leaves the body, especially with females.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Mt Mansfield VT Avy Video (Feb 28)

Okay, so this is from almost two-and-a-half months ago, and it isn't zoomed out far enough once the slide really gets going, but still, footage like this from a rare avalanche in Vermont is pretty amazing:

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Poster Child for Negligent Hiking

In contrast to another recent NH attempt to charge a hiker for a rescue, this latest one is pretty much the poster child for negligent hiking:

Fish and Game: No 'gray area' for rescued hiker

CONWAY — The lead Fish and Game officer on the rescue of a Massachusetts man lost on Mount Madison on Monday night said he'll be recommending the victim gets billed for the incident.
"It doesn't seem to be in a gray area," Sgt. Wayne Saunders said, adding that the man's negligent actions led directly to his requiring a rescue.
The victim, 49-year-old Mark Walsh of Sandwich, Mass., could hardly be categorized as a hiker, Saunders said, even though he was out for a hike. "Not at all," he said. "Normal hikers have hiking boots on, not galoshes."
Walsh started hiking up Mount Madison on Monday afternoon with two T-shirts, a cell phone and little else. He did not eat or drink during his ascent, bring a flashlight or headlamp or carry extra layers, according to a Fish and Game statement.
Walsh used his cell phone to call 911 at 5:45 p.m. to report he was experiencing medical issues and had lost the trail. It took 10 rescuers until 11 p.m. to find him.
"He was probably 45 minutes off the main trail," Saunders said. It was hard for the team even to get to him through the gnarled trees. Saunders said he couldn't understand why Walsh would have left the trail in such difficult terrain. "I wish I could answer that," he said. "It just didn't make any sense."
Fish and Game often uses cell phone signals to pinpoint a victim's location, Saunders said, but in this case the signal was only hitting one tower, making it impossible to use triangulation to determine Walsh's location. Had Walsh been unable to call out, he said, they never would have found him. The temperatures were hovering in the 30s and rain was on the way. "It could have gone bad really quick."
The medical issues, meanwhile, seemed to stem from Walsh's lack of adequate food and hydration, Saunders said. After the team gave Walsh food and water, he was able to hike out on his own.
It is highly unusual to have a victim this unprepared, Saunders said. Usually someone will go out wearing hiking boots, carry extra layers and have food and water but no light source, or they'll have a light but run out of water. "This is definitely the extreme."