BY AMANDA EGGERT | OCTOBER 23, 2020
When Brianne Howard found out she was pregnant in January of 2016, her husband Corey Lynam planned an upgrade to his backcountry gear with their growing family in mind. An experienced and onetime competitive skier who regularly logged 20-plus days in the Whistler backcountry per season, Lynam bought a new avalanche airbag and swapped out his old beacon for a popular, modern transceiver, the Pieps DSP Sport.
About a year later, Lynam was caught in an avalanche in Callaghan Valley near Whistler, British Columbia, while using that beacon. When a 150-meter-wide slab buried Lynam under 80 cm of snow on March 4, 2017, his five skiing partners found to their horror that Lynam’s beacon was not transmitting a signal. They hadn’t seen the events that triggered the avalanche, Howard said, so they didn’t have a visual reference where he was likely to be buried. A long search started.
She believes her husband’s beacon was moved into the wrong position by the force of the avalanche due to a design flaw.
As the minutes, then hours, passed and the grim realization set in that their rescue mission was turning into a body recovery, Lynam’s ski partners started asking themselves what happened with their friend’s beacon. As was their habit, Lynam and his friends had done a beacon check before starting their tour. Howard said Lynam’s ski partners didn’t have any reason to believe his beacon, which features a slide mechanism paired with a lock button, would fail to transmit a signal when they most needed it to.ADVERTISEMENT
Based on conversations Howard had with Lynam’s ski partners, search and rescue members involved in the recovery, and the coroner who prepared the report on her husband’s death, she said she believes her husband’s beacon was moved into the wrong position by the force of the avalanche due to a design flaw.
Howard would spend a lot of time thinking about her husband’s decision to buy that particular beacon in the days, months and years following her husband’s death as she urged Black Diamond (who acts as a North American distributor for its sister company Pieps) to redesign and recall the model of beacon her husband was using when he died.
A newly single mother of a 17-month-old boy, Howard said she didn’t feel like she had the resources or emotional wherewithal to pursue a lawsuit against Black Diamond, but she urged the company to recall the product in a Dec. 8, 2017 letter she sent them with the help of a law firm in Vancouver. She knew that Black Diamond would be required to keep it on file, and she said she said she tried to find some solace in that.
“It is alarming how easily this beacon switched modes during the avalanche that took Corey’s life. I constantly ask myself: What if this was to happen to someone else? What if another young father is buried in an avalanche and dies because he is unable to be located as a result of beacon failure? I do not want this tragedy to happen to anyone else – and neither would Corey,” she wrote in the letter.
Howard said the coroner also reached out to Black Diamond, but that apart from a letter to her extending condolences and saying the company would conduct an investigation of its own, neither of them heard anything further from Black Diamond or its parent company Clarus Corporation.
As part of an investigation launched by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, TÜV, a third party in Europe involved with product inspection and certification, tested Lynam’s beacon. The report found no damage to the beacon, but Howard kept reading product reviews online where users reported stopping for lunch or removing their beacon at the end of the day only to discover it had switched modes on them. She said she isn’t convinced that it performs as promised in an avalanche—under the exact conditions it’s supposed to be designed to withstand.
Howard started speaking up about her concerns in online forums and even approached individual stores and asked them to pull the DSP beacons from their shelves. Her efforts were not always welcome. A moderator on a local online backcountry forum deleted one of her comments, and retailers told her that without something official coming directly from Black Diamond, their hands were tied. So they continued to stock what’s become one of the industry’s most popular and affordable beacons.