It was a classic bluebird day in the Pemberton, British Columbia backcountry. Standing atop a sizeable chute with a TGR Film crew below, pro skier Nick McNutt dropped into a pillow line that wouldn’t even register as rideable on most people’s radar. As he navigated the technical section with relative ease, the mood took a drastic turn. Within seconds Nick was swept up in a mass of snow he had set loose above, carrying him into a set of trees with debris piling fast on top of him. He was buried.
Guide Christina Lustenburger, pro skiers Ian McIntosh and Sam Smoothy, along with the TGR filmers, went into auto mode to save their friend. In a few short minutes they were on the scene, beacons switched to “search” mode and ready to put their training to a true test. But there was one critical problem: They couldn’t find a signal coming from Nick’s Pieps avalanche beacon.
Luckily the group was able to rescue McNutt using probes, a needle-in-a-haystack situation that could have easily been too little, too late. McNutt is alive to tell the tale, and for the past few months has been vocal in his criticism of the design flaw in his Pieps transceiver after the avalanche’s destructive force flipped the device out of “send” mode. Basically, he and other backcountry users say the Pieps DSP Pro and DSP Sport have a faulty action that allows them to essentially be turned off when jostled during the force of an avalanche. And backcountry experts have spearheaded a social media campaign against Piep’s parent company, Black Diamond, trying to force the brand to recall the faulty avalanche transceivers. BD doesn’t see it the same way.
This was not the first instance of this happening. But another story didn’t have a happy ending. In April 2017, while touring with friends outside Whistler, Corey Lynam was buried in an avalanche. In a similar situation where a violent ride flipped the lock mechanism on his Pieps, disabling the signal, his friends couldn’t find him. Days later, with the help of many more friends and local search and rescue, Lynam’s body was recovered. He left behind a wife and a baby.
Lynam’s widow, Brianne Howard, didn’t stay silent on the issue, doing her best to hold Black Diamond accountable for the design flaw. She wrote letters trying to sound the alarm to prevent another tragic accident. But what she got in return wasn’t what she was hoping for: “It never went anywhere,” said Howard in Whistler’s Pique Newsmagazine. “They said they were sorry about what happened, that they’d do their own internal investigation and get back to me. I never heard back from them, they never followed up.”
Being a new single mother still in the grieving process, Howard didn’t pursue legal action with Black Diamond, instead opting to warn local retailers. But they kept the device on the shelves, citing its popularity as a best seller.
The Backcountry Community Speaks Out
Last week, Lustenberger posted the video you see above on Instagram. The attention the post received spread far and wide, and even across the desks of media managers at Pieps. Their PR team whipped up this post in response:
If you take a moment to view the comments you’ll see McNutt, McIntosh, and many others within the backcountry community slamming the brand and its inaction. When the message went viral Black Diamond shut down its phone lines, claiming a very conveniently-timed power outage as the reason they weren’t picking up the multitude of calls that kept pouring in. Many concerned consumers sent messages demanding a recall, and while BD had a chance to make good on a faulty product, they instead doubled down, using PR speak about valuing customers, but their actions spoke louder: they would not issue a recall.
The message below was sent to me by Jarrett Brian Vaughan, a Vancouver, British Columbia resident and avid backcountry skier. He received it via Facebook Messenger when he inquired about having his Pieps product replaced (see the full message, here):
The Social Media storm we are experiencing right now has eroded the trust of many of our customers, such as you. We can ensure you that the PIEPS DSP Sport and Pro are perfectly safe to use. However, we from PIEPS always encourage our users to maintain their beacon with the same care they maintain the rest of their outdoor equipment.
1. Make sure the mechanical parts of your beacon are unbroken and feel confidently fixed in position.
2. Check the battery compartment for signs of corrosion.
3. Check the beacon with your PIEPS app or with a different beacon for transmitting and receiving.
4. Please always carry your beacon as advised in our manual.
These simple steps ensure your beacon works and is applicable not just for our beacons but for any beacon you or your friends should have.
I hope this helps and gives you back the confidence in our product, which it very well deserves.
For any further solution regarding the lack of confidence in our product, I would like to refer you to our statement which will go public today around 5 p.m. (CEST). Thank you and all the best. Your PIEPS Team.
That statement did not come at 5 p.m., and the only thing we could find was an instagram post offering anyone who saw it to send in their DSP Pro or Sport and “upgrade” to the latest generation (read that here). Zero admission of a faulty device, despite videos as old as three years (right after Corey Lynam died) and as new as today, by Ian McIntosh (below), demonstrating the faulty mechanism.
This was all I could find in response to the onslaught of the past few days. I’m not sure who is more to blame, because anyone with any sense can see that the lock mechanism on the Pieps can be dislodged with relative ease. It’s a design flaw that should be recalled before another person dies. With as much information now, any action less than a full recall of the DSP Pro and Sport models certainly seems like negligence.
So where does that leave us?
Black Diamond did admit that “moderate force” can jar the lock mechanism loose. Anyone who knows anything about the force an avalanche carries understands a slide packs a few more newtons than what most would call “moderate.” McNutt had the transceiver in his harness with the screen facing inward. Yet Black Diamond is not bearing the financial burden in a recall, instead rolling the dice that lawsuits will be cheaper. It’s a situation reminiscent of Fight Club in which Ed Norton’s character flew around the country for an insurance company trying to decide whether or not to issue recalls or just pay victims out. It’s one of the dark sides of our capitalist economy, with the price — at least on one side of the equation — being human lives.
But it’s a sign to fight. Already many people online have vowed to stop buying Pieps’ products. A class action lawsuit is brewing in British Columbia. The PR team for this has one of the world’s most undesirable jobs. The question is, will they flinch? Can they even recover the damage done? Time will tell. The fact there hasn’t been anything done in the three years since Lynam’s death speaks volumes to me.
If this situation has taught us anything, it’s that consumers DO have power. Black Diamond is getting back to people because of pressure from the masses, and from my perspective, their response has been underwhelming. The ball is in Pieps’ (and Black Diamond’s) court. The next few days will be telling. To me, turning ones back on responsibility in the world of life-saving equipment isn’t really an option.
Editor’s Note: Steve Andrews is a longtime contributor to The Inertia and an expert in backcountry riding. He writes and guides out of Whistler, British Columbia.