Turn Off Your Beacon

The San Jacinto Wilderness

You can do this experiment at home, or wherever you happen to be at this moment, but for maximum effect do it in the mountains, on a day where you believe there is significant avalanche danger.

At the parking lot, proceed as usual through your pre-trip protocols. Greet your partners. Tease the stragglers. Talk about the new snow. Get excited. Gear up and do your beacon checks. Be safe.

While ascending the skin track, do everything as you normally would. Assess. Observe. Communicate with your partners. Take some pictures. Enjoy the rhythms of skinning through fresh powder; breathe crisp deep mountain air.

When you get to the top of that sparkling untracked snowfield, when you've ripped your skins and checked your buckles, when you're grinning and the butterflies and buzz are rising, when you've clacked your poles or clapped your hands, when it's exactly that magic moment to push off and drop in, I want you to stop yourself.

Stop, and in your mind, turn off your beacon.

Yes, switch it off.

Take off your gloves. Imagine unzipping your jacket—or your pants pocket, if you keep your beacon there. In your mind, pull your beacon out of its harness—if it has one—twist open that weird battery cap, and, just to be safe, pull out the battery and dump it on the ground.

Replace the battery cap and put your beacon back where you found it—harness, jacket, pants, whatever. It doesn't matter, just put it back. Don't forget to zip up your jacket. Put on your gloves.

Excellent. Your beacon should now be absolutely useless.


Take another look at that line you were just about to drop.

Are you still willing to ski it?

If not, why not?

Would being forced to ski it, right now, without your beacon, change your behavior in any way?

Would you, without your beacon, prefer something less consequential? Those trees off to your left, maybe? That ridge you and your partners just ascended?

Would you feel naked, in some way, with your beacon dead and useless in your pocket?

Well, relax—your beacon's fine!

This is just a thought experiment, remember? We never touched your beacon. It's still there, in your pocket, blinking happily—you can check, just to be sure.


You can just jump right in and ski that slope you were already going to ski because your beacon's fine.


You...seem to be hesitating.

Okay, I see you want to give this a little more thought.


How about this: conditional on getting buried by an avalanche, wearing a working avalanche transceiver significantly increases the probability you will survive. In fact, my best guess is it more than doubles your chance of survival.

So we're good, right?


You...don't like that word 'conditional.'

Well look, we have to use it. I mean, the beacon only helps if you're buried in an avalanche. That's obvious, right? Actually, you have to be fully buried and not already dead. And also not buried too deep.



I see.

You do have a point, there.

It would be very bad if the presence of a working beacon in your pocket changed your behavior such that you were actually increasing the likelihood you'd get caught in an avalanche in the first place.

That would be bad.

Bad, bad, bad.

Avalanches are pretty seriously deadly things and your chance of surviving a full burial sucks even if you double the odds.


We skiing this thing or not?

Well, it looks okay to me, but this is your experiment—not mine. I'm probably sitting on my sofa right now drinking jasmine tea and watching football. You're the one with skin in the game.

Oh—you meant about the beacon.

That's easy. Keep it switched off—in your mind. That way, you'll be using it as a tool, not a talisman.

Keep the beacon in your pocket, keep it turned on, but always climb and ski—and make decisions—as if it wasn't there. That way, you nab the positive conditional survival bonus without the negative expected value. Or in other words,

If you think you need a beacon, act as if you don't have one.

→ Next: Bomb the Hell Out of It

— December 23, 2023

Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents

Dan Conger December 24, 2023 at 7:55 am

Excellent thought experiment! We, as a species, have become far too dependent on technology to safeguard us, and thus we become less skilled at surviving without it. Carl Sagan lamented a future where our lives depended on technology but nobody truly understood how it worked. Were there.

To extend your thought experiment … turn off the traction control and collision avoidance systems in your car. Do you still drive the same way or do your choices change? Many ways to apply this line of reasoning to our lives and thus perform a sanity check.