‘So, did you buy the suicide transceiver?’ asked my ski-touring mentor, Nisse. He was referring to the new Vector, which is the most cutting-edge avalanche transceiver to date, released by Pieps, the Austrian ski-safety company. The Vector is a new breed of avalanche transceiver, making the transition from single purpose radio transmitter/receiver, to something more than that. Pieps themselves are going through a big transition, as they recently got bought up by Black Diamond. That change in ownership might be a factor in the strange release of the Vector. It was supposed to come out last year, however it was delayed until this season, and a source from within Pieps told Steve Achelis (of the superlative Beacon reviews) that the transceiver had been delayed yet again until next season in order to allow Pieps time to work on the user-interface. However it appears the launch has gone ahead, and I was able to order the Vector from the crazy cheap Sport-conrad, and just got it into my grubby paws a few weeks ago for a quick review.
When I asked Nisse for advice on a transceiver, his take on the offerings was that there were no bad choices, except for anything by Pieps, which he disliked on the grounds of their product, the Freeride. The Freeride is why he called the Vector a ‘suicide transceiver’ by the way. Pieps have a branding problem with quite a few ski tourers I’ve met, none moreso than Nisse, and the Freeride is often given as the reason for the acrimony. In a market where every other modern transceiver is engineered so effectively, and designed so well, that they all uniformly receive a maximum score on beaconreviews.com, the Freeride sticks out like a sore thumb, designed to cut costs, sacrificing safety for a low price. The Freeride has only one antennae, when the standard across the board is three (the Vector setting new standards by having four, one dedicated to just checking the others), meaning the Freeride is going to be an effective search tool only in the hands of an expert. The chip on Nisse’s shoulder stems from the fact that this budget transceiver is exactly the kind of thing that’s going to be bought by, and for, younger cash-strapped and inexperienced beginners to ski touring, rendering them much less capable of searching effectively for buried avalanche victims in an emergency. It’s ironic how suitable the name for the Freeride really is, giving their users an effective and cheap safety net while others that might rely on rescue from those users would be more at risk.
However, I needed to buy a transceiver and the Vector seemed to be the one with most bells and whistles, which I love. I wrote a little about my jump into ski touring here, it was an incredible experience and I highly recommend it. I even got to see a little avalanche, which was amazing. I rented an avalanche beacon for those trips, but I want to own and practice with my own transceiver.
To start out with the basics, an avalanche transceiver is a radio-transmitter and receiver, that emits a signal at 457 Hz. If you get hit by an avalanche, and buried, the idea is your friends will take out their transceivers and switch them to ‘Search’ mode, and rapidly find your burial site. Then they can use extendable probes to poke around in the snow until they find your body, and then they can use their collapsible shovels to dig you out, hopefully alive. Mammut have a fun flash game that shows the basic stages of such a rescue here, and the Avalanche-centre goes into a fun bit of history about transceivers in the first article of this gazette.
The Ortovox 3+, the Mammut Pulse or Element, the Arva Link, are all supremely well engineered transceivers that have been in use for years and are the definition of bulletproof gear, they are the black boxes of the back-country. Perhaps the one shared feature of all those offerings, is the simplicity of the product. Even the top-of-the-line transceivers have the basic, simple software and UI of a 1970’s calculator. The interface is simple, the options are limited, the capabilities are basically sending a radio signal, and searching for a radio signal. I can only imagine that the software running on these transceivers is as relatively simple and failsafe as the software running your toaster.
Enter the Vector, Pieps effort to make a new tier of transceiver, a versatile, multi-faceted unit capable of much more than just sending and receiving, but also tracking waypoints and journeys with the built-in GPS, measuring slope angles, measuring atmospheric pressure and altitude, showing compass data with waypoint finding, as well as being capable of using the GPS data to triangulate the locations of multiple buried avalanche victims in the search, displaying them clearly on a map rather than just displaying direction and distance data as with other transceivers. No other transceiver on the market has anything even close to the level of features the Vector has.
The Vector was a very lofty and ambitious project, and that’s basically what attracted me to it despite the warnings. Why spend cash on a one-trick-pony transceiver that sits in a box for most of the year, gathering dust, when instead you can buy something versatile like the Vector that acts as a transceiver during your tours, and acts as a basic GPS receiver the rest of the year? Anyone with a brain might guess that the transition from transceiver as a basic, simple radio sender/receiver to a ‘smart’ transceiver with complex software might not be the easiest transition in the world. Anyone with a brain would realise that the best thing to do would be to watch from the sidelines as the early-adopters get frustrated by the bugs, and pick up the product after all the beta-testing has been done by the brainless guys. Brainless guys like me just can’t resist the urge to be first, and always burn themselves on the buns straight out of the oven. Brainless guys like me can expect a nice new piece of gear buried in issues and firmware updates. And that’s exactly what I got.
A stark illustration of the importance of rapid rescue of burial victims after an avalanche. (Falk, M., Brugger, H., & Adler-Kastner, L. (1994). Avalanche survival chances.Nature, 368(6466), 21-21.)
The Vector is a gorgeous, Star-Trek looking thing, with a big, bright display, a rubberised body with big, tactile buttons, and the swivel antennae acting as a send and receive toggle is something that seems like a real improvement over the usual buttons and sliders. The joystick allows quick and easy movement and selection in the menu system, and the speaker can belt out a really loud ping when the volume is set high. Rather than saddle the unit with a delicate USB connector, a system of tough contacts embedded in a plastic bevel allow a springy plastic dock to attach, which connects via a USB micro B connector, allowing for charging, firmware upgrades and syncing data.
Battery life is seriously excellent, with a long life even with GPS updates set to the ‘High’ level of 1 Hz. I spent a weekend testing the Vector out with some other transponders, in temperatures between -10°C and -20°C, culminating in the timed rescue of a couple of hidden transponders. Despite the GPS updates being set to high during all of this, the battery life only dropped a few percentage points over the whole weekend. Getting a full season out of one charge should be possible, especially with the updates throttled down to once a minute (‘Eco’ mode) or once every 15 minutes (‘Low’ mode). One of the most common concerns I’ve had from more experienced skiers about this unit was that adding in all the bells and whistles would kill battery life, but this is obviously not the case. Once, late at night and in sick weather, I was heading out to a GPS co-ordinate where my snow cave was, and thought my iPhone would be OK to get me there. The totally charged iPhone lasted less than an hour before shutting down (annoyingly when it was still displaying over 30% battery life left). This was the wrong tool for the job, the Vector would instead be the perfect match for that kind of winter waypoint locating.
There is a nifty feature called ‘Auto-high’ for the Eco and Low modes where you can press the joystick for three seconds, and the unit beeps loudly and tracks in High mode for five minutes. This would be a useful setting for tours, Eco mode when slowly trekking uphill, and then ‘Auto-high’ to track the downhill section, the ‘shit my pants’ part of touring for me. As the joystick faces out when the Vector sits in the holster, it’s very simple to press the unit in, even through many layers of clothes, and activate this feature.
GPS data is very nice to work with on the unit, with waypoints and tracks very easy to create or save with names (using the joystick to navigate an onscreen keyboard, which is surprisingly easy even with gloves on). The ability to navigate to a saved waypoint sounds great, although in practice the Vector showed both compass heading and the GPS heading to the waypoint, neither of which agreed or seemed to be totally spot on. The altimeter shows altitude both by pressure and by GPS. Barometric data is also a nice feature, showing QNH (normalised barometric pressure adjusted to sea-level), but I am not sure how accurate it is yet.
The unit weights in at only 226 grammes (without the holster, which is another 117 grammes). This is fine, although Pieps do list the weight at 200 grammes. They probably fibbed a little in order to match specs on their competition, almost all the transceivers on the market weight in at 200 gr or less, as that used to be part of the transceiver spec under the old the European Telecommunications standard ETS 300 718 V.1, but is no longer in ETS 300 718 V.3. The back of the unit shows a simplified set of instructions for searching, which is also part of the ETS spec.
As far as the actual transponder part of the Vector, it’s thankfully excellent. It picked up signals easily, singly or mixed, showing distance and direction simultaneously for up to five transponders. The information is updated rapidly without any lag (although at very low temperatures the LCD display started to be slow in updating). Flagging for multiple burials is easy and quick, and the loud tone varies in pitch, tempo and duration as you close in on a beacon.
The distances shown on screen were off, consistently overestimating the actual distance, as did the Arva Evo3+ beacon I had with me. The most accurate was the Ortovox D3, which measured out the exact distance to the other beacons decimetre by decimetre. Below you can see it at the end of a 320 cm Stubai avalanche probe, the other end of which was exactly at the Vector. It wasn’t so hot at directions or multiple burials though, which is where the Vector really excelled.
That’s all in the ‘Find mode’, but there is a ‘Map mode’, which is one of the key selling points for the Vector, but probably shouldn’t be in the ‘Good’ section. It’s a bit messy, and a bit hard to orientate with. In this mode, the screen shows ground covered with a clear section, uncovered ground with a black ‘fog of war’, your position as an X, and detected beacons as little round dots. This has the potential to be a ground-breaking interface, showing via the GPS/transponder data a neat map with all beacons highlighted, in practice it was just not reliable or intuitive. It’s probably good for the initial search, when no signals have been detected and the avalanche site has to be strip searched without any spots being missed.
If you just look at the Vector as a basic transponder, to either send a signal or find others with the ‘Find mode’, it’s absolutely fantastic.
More bug hunting time is definitely needed for the Vector, so far the massively overwhelming impression is Windows ME-level ‘buggy’. Everything from the unit itself, to the software, to the online resources shout out that this was a rushed product launch. Even before opening the box warning bells were going off. The unit I received was already opened, there were a few marker scribbles on the dock, and it showed the GPS unit had been turned on a few days prior to shipping. Maybe there was a unit-by-unit check going on?
The documentation was mostly online, no manual was included but some faded quick-start guide in German showed how to logon to a Pieps website for a full manual or registration. The online guide to registration gave two links, one was a dead link (as was the supplied link for declaration of conformity to the EU radio transmitter directive 1999/5/EC) and the second had a typo in it, which thankfully Google autocorrected. This lead to the website for registration, firmware updates and presumably GPS data downloading, although so far that hasn’t worked. This website, which I guess is the only interface between computer and the Vector, is a mess. It’s entirely built on the Microsoft answer to Flash, ‘Silverlight’, which is about as enticing as you can imagine an MS version of Flash to be. It’s a horrible, buggy and laggy piece of shit, replete with random logouts, and interface hiccups that tear at my soul. A failed attempt to supersede a dead technology. So far all my efforts to sync data with the Pipes website have failed, and choosing the ‘connect to local unit’ option is grayed out, and despite trying the usual bag of tricks (restarting, re-plugging, updating and praying), I have yet to manage syncing any data from the Vector to a computer.
The bugs in the Vector itself are harder to pin down, they happened often and varied constantly. You can see all three transmitters showing a ‘Fail’ on the startup check in the picture above, although a restart fixed that. I am often not sure if what I am seeing is a bug or not, because so much of the interface is sparsely documented. For example, in order to use the entire spectrum of capabilities of the Vector, you have to either tell the Vector that it is Summer, and you are using the Vector outside it’s job of being a transceiver, or you have to tell it you have a Pieps Backup, which is a simple, single antennae transceiver that is designed to be worn deep under clothing and simply send a signal in the event your main transceiver is out of action.
So the first thing I did was to save the setting for Summer use. The Vector refused to believe it was Summer. Maybe it’s smarter than I give it credit for and it can tell from the internal clock that I’m lying, but it point-blank refused to show a menu without instead being told I have a Backup, which I don’t. Then, 4 out of 5 times, the full menu was available. I am not sure why it’s not 5 out of 5 times, but that is probably a bug too. I also guessed from the title of the menu option ‘Beacon Mode Summer 457 OFF’ that the Summer mode would turn the 457 Hz transmitter off, but it still displayed a ‘SEND: OK’ screen once booted up.
There are numerous other bugs that have cropped up from time to time, the display will suddenly be set to 100% contrast, or the volume will be set to 100%, or the boot-up screen will overlay the display, or the centre joystick button will refuse to actually ‘OK’ a menu choice (even though the unit makes a tone to indicate the button has been pressed). Right now as I write this, the Vector is having trouble displaying a charge screen, when plugged in to recharge it flashes up the battery percentage and then goes blank. There are a LOT of bugs, that I hope will be quickly ironed out.
Finally the holster does orientate the Vector so its screen is pointed out at the world, exposed to whatever knocks you receive. This is true of some other transceivers, but I don’t think other transponders have such a large, delicate screen. The orientation also means the joystick is pointing out, and I accidentally activated the ‘Auto-high’ GPS mode a bunch of times in my first day skiing while wearing the Vector. However, I really like that it’s so easy to activate that feature, especially seeing as it doesn’t come with much of a battery penalty, so I don’t mind this at all.
One issue with avalanche beacons is how they deal with the eventuality of a second avalanche. The scenario is that you witness an avalanche, you see someone get buried, you take out your transceiver and start to search. However a second avalanche hits, and you are buried with your transceiver in ‘search’ mode. In order to allow you to be found, many transceivers have either a timer, or a motion detector (or both) that can return the transceiver to send mode. (In addition, many units have the switch that toggles from ‘send’ to ‘receive’ designed in such a way that it can very easily pop back into send mode, and the act of toggling from ‘send’ to ‘receive’ is usually a little more tricky, with some kind of protection involved to make it impossible for accidental switching). The Vector has a big issue here. Although the hardware is certainly capable of it (it has a clock function and an accelerometer), the software doesn’t have a timer or a motion detector method to revert to send mode. The reasoning for this choice is obvious once you look at how the Vector differs from the competition, and how the Vector forces you to make some choices before allowing you full access to its capabilities.
All of the capabilities of the Vector are inaccessible in normal winter mode. In order to access them, you have to tell the Vector that you are in Summer, or you have a backup transmitter. Pieps had a pretty obvious dilemma here, the transceiver is designed to be worn deep under clothing, strapped tightly to your body. Avalanches are violent, turbulent things, and it’s not very likely a device in your hand is going to be found anywhere near you if you are caught in an avalanche. So if you made a transceiver that has a lot of cool functionality built-in, like GPS and barometers and altimeters, you are making a unit that is much less likely to be worn deep under layers, strapped tightly to your body, and is more much more likely to be found in your hand. So the options Pieps want to give are either you are using the Vector as a transceiver, in which case it’s boringly functionless and strapped to your body, or you aren’t using it as a transceiver because you have a Backup, in which case you can use the functions and can run the risk that it gets torn from your grasp in an avalanche. It’s not optimal to think of the Backup as a real transceiver though, it has just one antenna, and can only transmit for an hour. An hour is fine if you want to be recovered alive, however only having a single antenna sending means that the transmitter can’t do what some of the rest of the triple antennaed competition can do, which is to change the transmitting antenna to the most optimally orientated one, or to switch antennae if an antennae is damaged.
The second, and biggest, ‘ugliest’ feature of the Vector is how it adds all these bells and whistles to what has been until now, an object designed to do only one thing. Here’s a quote from ‘Backcountry skiing‘, one of the great Mountaineer books series.
Avalanche transceivers are designed to do one thing and one thing only: to decrease the burial time of the person caught and buried in the avalanche.
When I mentioned to an extremely experienced ski touring friend of mine that I was testing the Vector and that it had GPS, he was genuinely horrified with this break away from the single function of previous transceivers. In fact I found a lot of interesting mails between various members of Alpine organisations which all reiterated what he said, that the transponder should not be something with functions that take it out of the holster and put it into the hand.
Compass, altimeter, inclinometer are used in particular moments (poor visibility, snowfall, difficulty finding the way, on steeper slopes) as well as in situations where avalanche danger is present. In a critical, not harmless, situation the avalanche rescue transceiver needs to be “protected”, on the body. We rescuers don’t want to rescue avalanche beacons, but people. Are – in a critical moment – transceivers in the hands instead of on the body we risk to find only the device instead of the person.
For obvious reasons, an avalanche rescue transceiver should always be worn in a safe and protected position while touring in the outdoors. The “new” functions (as mentioned above) would be mainly used when the avalanche danger degree is fairly high and people start to feel unsafe. This means, that the user would then take the avalanche rescue transceiver out of the safe place – normally on the innermost layer of clothing – in order to access those “additional functions”. In reality, this means clearly, that the avalanche rescue transceiver will not be protected exactly in those moments when the user in very likely to take higher risks.
Most of the critique in these mails has been anticipated by Pieps with the Vector. It was thought that battery life would suffer with more functionality, that the transponder would be more complicated to use compared to more simple models, and that interference from the extra electronics would render the transponder less sensitive to detecting signals. However the battery life is excellent on the Vector, the search interface is intuitive and easy to follow, and the detection and sending capabilities seem as good as with other transponders.
The point about the danger of having the beacon in hand instead of under a layer of clothing still stands though. This is perhaps the real crux for the Vector, does it ask for trouble by having so many useful features? Pieps have obviously tried to anticipate this also, with the need for a Pieps Backup or the confirmation that it is Summer before allowing access to all the extras. Will that be sufficient?
For me it feels like a non-issue, the Vector is a perfect machine for me. Most of the time I want a GPS with killer battery life, for navigation and track recording on very safe terrain. For those times I am actually in avalanche territory the Vector will be so firmly attached to me it may as well be up my arse. I’m not the kind of guy that accepts risk easily, and no sudden urge to know what the atmospheric pressure is would get me to pull the Vector out of its safe warm little holster (in my arse).
From reading what members of other transceiver companies have said regarding the issue of adding new functions to transceivers, it seems that Pieps are on their own with this new, riskier direction they are taking with the Vector. And I guess this acceptance of some risk for their users fits well with their new parent company …
“In this sport,” Chief executive of Black Diamond, Peter Metcalf said, “death is part of life.”
Bottom line of the first look.
I’m reading over what I’ve written, and to be honest it sounds very negative. I want to try and pull back on the negativity for a bit. Yes, there are bugs, and yes, right now the whole experience feels very much like a Beta-test. At the same time if I had the option to go back and just buy a solid, reliable and bulletproof Ortovox 3+ or Mammut Pulse, I don’t think I would. The Vector is a real step forward for transceivers, with the possibility of real, genuine improvements in search times because of the GPS technology. The rechargeable battery, the tough and tactile body, and the promise of a less buggy future firmware update bringing the software up to check, all keep my opinion of the Vector pretty high. It’s flawed, but a big leap forward.
That little guy (on his first ever cross-country ski trip) is the reason for few updates on my blog and few trips in real life recently, but I’ve already booked in a good bit of touring for the next few months, and will return to take another look at the Vector after a little more active use and a lot more practice rescues. Here’s hoping to a firmware update or two to handle some of the issues, and maybe a less horrific computer interface too.
”Two thirds of avalanche fatalities in Utah as well as nationwide are not carrying basic rescue gear. This indicates that ignorance is the leading cause of avalanche death. These statistics are very similar to the number of drowning victims who don’t wear personal flotation devices.” (http://utahavalanchecenter.org/)
I should also add a caveat. When you look for ski-touring gear it seems like the trifecta of Probe/Shovel/Transceiver are the garlic to the vampire of avalanches. Spend a couple of hundred euro, strap on the transceiver, stick the shovel and probe on your back and you’ll be fine. Statistically however, if you do get buried you have less than a 50% chance of getting out alive. The beacon/probe/shovel only gets used after you’ve already fucked up your decision making process, which happens even to the experts. The best way to survive an avalanche is to not get caught by one, and the best way to do that is to know your avalanche criteria, slope angle, route finding, islands of safety, etc. Just like with climbing, the biggest danger is either total ignorance of safety issues, or just ignoring the safety issues. Here’s another relevant quote from the great ‘Backcountry skiing’ book …
Nothing, including modern beacon technology, can replace Avalanche avoidance when it comes to keeping you alive in avalanche terrain.