Professional skier Nick McNutt was buried in an avalanche in March 2020. While he was under the snow, his Pieps DSP Pro beacon failed to emit a signal, making it impossible for the group searching for him to discover his location using their transceivers. It was only a random strike with an avalanche probe in the slide zone that found him. The incident led him and the skiers he was with that day to question whether the switch on the transceiver had unknowingly toggled between send and search modes—a worst-case scenario that McNutt was fortunate to live through.
The athletes worked with Black Diamond (the distributor of the beacons in North America) and Austria-based Pieps to investigate the alleged problem. But in October, frustrated that the two brands hadn’t made a public statement addressing the potential issues in the seven months since the incident, the group went public with the story. The backlash in the backcountry community was swift: people demanded that Pieps and Black Diamond immediately pull all the devices from shelves before someone else got hurt or died.
Instead of issuing a full recall at the time, the brands worked with consumers on a case-by-case basis to test devices and address individual concerns. But now, six months later, both Pieps and Black Diamond are offering a voluntary recall and product correction to all North American owners of models featuring the switch in question, including the Pieps DSP Pro, DSP Pro Ice, and DSP Sport. (The recall is considered voluntary because the companies initiated conversations with regulatory agencies to issue the recall before the agencies reached out to them.) Everyone who contacts the brands will receive a hard case-carrying system to replace the original neoprene harness that’s designed to avert incidental switching between modes. There are about 78,600 units in circulation in the U.S. and Canada, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Rick Vance, vice president of quality at Black Diamond and Pieps, says that through the fall and winter, the design and test teams continued to investigate just how the neoprene harness interacts with the beacon. In January 2021, they reached out to the respective safety commissions—the Rapid Exchange of Information System (RAPEX) in Europe and the CPSC and Health Canada in North America—to validate the new hard case as a solution and begin the recall process.
“Early on in our conversation with the CPSC, we said, ‘Put this on the fast-track program so we can get through this as quickly as possible,’” Vance told Outside. The April 12 North American recall follows the one that kicked off on March 3 for customers in Europe, South and Central America, and Asia. Vance says the difference in timing is based on how the separate regulatory bodies handle recalls.
In its recall announcement, Black Diamond said that it received 63 reports during the fall and winter of 2020 about transceiver modes switching unexpectedly while in use. “When this occurs, it will prevent the transceiver from transmitting a discoverable electronic signal and can make it difficult to locate a skier in an avalanche, which can result in severe bodily harm or death,” Black Diamond wrote.
When worn correctly, the new hard case covers the face and screen of the beacon, preventing accidental interference with the lock button and switch—the community’s main complaint with the design. It also features two clips on the back side that keep the sliding mechanism in place. The case connects to straps that wrap over the user’s shoulder and around their waist. Black Diamond and Pieps recommend that the DSP beacons only be used with the hard case and not worn in a pants or jacket pocket. Each case will come with an updated user guide.
Manuel Genswein, a Switzerland-based snow-safety educator for 29 seasons in 30 countries and a technical consultant for transceiver developments, says that if a blunt impact, let alone a gentle one—like some skiers alleged—can override the unlocking mechanism and move the switch, there is a design flaw that must be addressed. So far, he says, the hard case seems to solve the issue. “I do not see a reason to believe that the replacement carrying system would be unsafe,” he says. (Note: Genswein is not employed by Pieps or Black Diamond, but he does consult for companies that develop and manufacture transceivers for competitor brands.)
Overall, Genswein is far more concerned with other beacon issues and user errors, such as leaking or ill-fitting batteries, improper placement of the device against the body, poor compliance with manufacturer instructions, and failure to routinely check its functionality before and after an outing—regardless of who made the device, how new it is, and a skier’s experience level.
The fact that the company did not swiftly move forward with a recall is unsurprising in this industry, Genswein says. Other avalanche-safety equipment manufacturers would have handled a recall similarly, he adds.
But that doesn’t satisfy the people who have been asking the companies to recall and stop selling the transceivers since last fall. Acknowledgement of an issue is what the community was calling for all along, but guide and professional skier Christina “Lusti” Lustenberger says the new harness does not entirely solve the problem, because many people prefer wearing beacons in their pockets rather than in the harness. (Beacons should only be carried in an internally sewn, beacon-specific pants pocket, if not in the harness.) She was part of the team that rescued McNutt and shared her distrust of the device on Instagram. “I think the harness is a 3D-printed Band-Aid on a bleeding wound,” Lustenberger says. “The issue is getting these transceivers off of people, no matter the cost.” She said the community still hopes for a recall that takes the beacon off the market.
McNutt is equally dubious, even though he says he’s glad to see the brands take some kind of action. “I’m still really concerned that this is something that could happen to someone else, and it seems like [the brands] are doing as little as possible to try and save money at the expense of their customers’ safety,” he says.
Many in the backcountry community remain unsettled by the accidents and upset over the companies’ reaction, given that the beacon is considered a lifesaving device. Comments on Black Diamond and Pieps’s social media posts about the recall are largely negative.
But Vance relates the beacon recall to that of one by a car manufacturer. “If you have a recall on your car, you bring it in and they replace the part that’s affected by the recall,” he says.
Lead Photo: Courtesy Pieps