How RECCO´s latest innovation helps everyone going into the backcountry


By Arjen on 27 February 2019 · 0

Today RECCO Detectors are used by mountain rescuers worldwide as a fixed part of their avalanche rescue tools. The use of RECCO reflectors is officially recommended by ICAR, the international commission of alpine rescue, that summarizes that to be searchable is relevant for people venturing outdoors, which starts with carrying an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe, but also includes wearing bright clothes, using a whistle and being equipped with a RECCO rescue reflector. These are all means that makes one searchable to rescuers.

Detectors

Since RECCO technology is a two-part system the rescuer can only locate the victim with a RECCO detector, if the person in trouble is equipped with a RECCO reflector. Detectors are used as a standard tool by the rescuers, so it only makes sense, to recommend to users to be also equipped with a RECCO rescue reflector. Many winter sport brands integrate RECCO reflectors in their clothing, boots or helmets. Like Patagonia, Peak Performance, Arcteryx, to name a few. There are now more than 150 brands that use integrated reflectors.

Magnus Granhed, founder of RECCO, presenting the system and a ski boot equipped with a RECCO reflector
Magnus Granhed, founder of RECCO, presenting the system and a ski boot equipped with a RECCO reflector

Tragic avalanche accident

Around 40 years ago, when everything started, there weren't any electronic avalanche rescue tools available for organized rescue or for companion rescue. Avalanche dogs and probe lines had to do the job. Avalanche beacons and the RECCO rescue system more or less evolved at the same time in parallel. The motivation of Magnus Granhed, the founder of RECCO, roots in a tragic avalanche accident in Åre in the 1970s. Being a witness of this accident and being there looking for one of his friends, with his own ski poles, lead to the drive to discover a solution that makes skiers searchable under the snow. He used his engineering knowledge earned at the KTH university in Stockholm, to start researching on the technology, which is today the RECCO rescue system.

Simple solution

The vision was to find a simple solution to give everyone the opportunity to be always searchable and to enable rescuers to locate a buried person under the snow. Soon the principle of harmonic radar and passive transponders was discovered and adopted for the purpose of 'search and find'. Deciding for a none powered, small and relative cheap device to equip the user gives the opportunity to enable everyone to be equipped and searchable to a global infrastructure of rescuers.

The beginning, Zermatt 1983, Bruno Jelk head of mountain rescue holding the RECCO R1, first generation of detectors.
The beginning, Zermatt 1983, Bruno Jelk head of mountain rescue holding the RECCO R1, first generation of detectors.

Air Zermatt

However, in the beginning, there was of course no infrastructure yet. When the very first RECCO Detector was presented in 1983 it was a big bulky and heavy thing. All kinds of features you don’t want to have on a mountain. Still, visionary rescuers saw the potential in the system and so it was partnerships like with Air-Zermatt, that enabled RECCO to become what it is today. Bruno Jelk, mountain rescuer and rescue legend from Zermatt, was a RECCO supporter from the early days. As a true rescuer he knew how important it is to always find someone and every tool that can help here is important. Today the detectors are in its 9th generation and are way smaller and practical than the early generations. They weigh less than 1 kg and give a practical range of 30 meters on the avalanche field. Through air the signal reaches 80 meters, which makes it possible to search large avalanche fields from a helicopter. Today rescue crews train constantly with the RECCO detectors on the ground and from helicopters.

Avalanche rescue by organised rescue using avalanche transceiver, RECCO detector, rescue dog and probe line in parallel.
Avalanche rescue by organised rescue using avalanche transceiver, RECCO detector, rescue dog and probe line in parallel.

3 meter deep burial

It gives them another chance to find a buried person, that’s why it is part of their tool kit. The first live rescue with RECCO happened in Lenzerheide, Switzerland in 1987 and the last rescue took place in January 2019 in Jaun, Switzerland. That victim was buried more than 3 meters deep. The group of skiers didn’t carry any avi-gear this day, so the only thing they could do was to call for rescue. The rescuers from Rega arrived with dogs and the RECCO unit, they could immediately catch a signal, but the probing didn’t give any result, because of the 3 meters burial depth. Knowing the buried person had to be there, the rescuers removed more snow, searched again with RECCO detectors and when around 1 meter was removed, they also got a hit with the probe. The victim was buried more than 3 meters deep for more than one hour, he was very lucky to have an air-pocket, that kept him alive, till the rescuers could reach him.

Air Zermatt on a test flight with the RECCO SAR Helicopter Detector searching over a glacier.
Air Zermatt on a test flight with the RECCO SAR Helicopter Detector searching over a glacier.

Evolution from avalanche rescue to year round missing person search

The idea to look for a buried or missing person with the RECCO technology from a helicopter was there from the very beginning. Already with the first generation of detectors tests and searches with helicopters have been done, as you can see on the picture of Air Zermatt. RECCO presented a bigger search unit, much stronger and with a wider signal range in 2015. The SRA Helicopter Detector is a new generation detector, specifically designed to look for a missing person in the outdoors by helicopter. Sending out a signal like a cone, a 100-meter-wide corridor is searched while going at a speed of 100km/h at approx. 100 m altitude. This enables rescuers to search a square kilometer within around 6 minutes.

More than skiing or snowboarding

Having this potential, rescuers are using the RECCO SAR HD for all kinds of operations to look for a missing person in the outdoors. It does not matter which outdoor environment, whether mountains, glacier or forests or whether it is a hiker, climber, mountain-biker or trail-runner. Anyone that carries a RECCO reflector will be searchable and rescuers will be able to locate a person with the RECCO SAR Helicopter detector. For example, the rescuer can scan a complete glacier very fast with the helicopter detector. It's the perfect tool to search when someone is in a crevasse.

Steady growth

Introduced in 2015 the number of areas with coverage of the RECCO SAR Helicopter is growing steadily. Austria was the first country to be 100% covered since fall 2018 with four units. Seven more units are operational in Europe: in the north of Italy, central Switzerland, Norway and Sweden. North America started with its first three units as well. The growth of the system and current coverage can be followed on the website of RECCO. The first brands that have started to integrate RECCO reflectors into summer products are POC, Ortovox, Haglöfs, Dachstein, Skywalk and Ferrino.


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