Reviewed by Chris Marshall, AMGA Certified Ski Guide, AMGA/IFMGA Aspirant Mountain Guide. Chris spends his summers guiding for Timberline Mountain Guides and Mountain Madness and winters guiding backcountry skiing, ski mountaineering, and teaching avalanche education courses for Sun Valley Trekking. Chris has 10 years of experience teaching and guiding throughout the west and Alaska.
Clear, accurate communication is a critical tool for all adventure-based activities involving risk. In fact, clear communication is critical for our daily activities involving risk. Think about driving through a busy city or highway. Communication is everywhere, just not in the verbal format that we often associate with the term. Stoplights communicate when it is appropriate to cross an intersection, make a left turn, or if there is a change on the roadway. Brake lights from a car communicate that it is slowing down, a turn signal that it is about to turn. You get the point. Backcountry Access (BCA) has designed the BC Link Group Communications Radio to enhance our ability to communicate where visual clues are unavailable. This is good.
Accident statistics have pointed to communication breakdown as a factor in both climbing/mountaineering related accidents (Accidents of North American Mountaineering) and in avalanche related accidents (McCammon, Atkins). Having reliable, in-group communication can help to mitigate this communication breakdown.
I was given the chance to test out the BC Link Group Communications Radio (BC Link) the past few weeks in Red Rock Canyon climbing area outside of Las Vegas. I’ll put a disclaimer in here; the radio was designed with the backcountry skier/rider in mind, and thus the build and function reflects that. I did, however, find it to be a very useful tool on long, multi-pitch rock climbs.
In a rock climbing context, especially at a venue like Red Rocks, where wind and other parties can make communication between belayer and climber very difficult, it was nice to have direct, clear communication to know when the climber was secure at the next belay and could safely be taken off-belay. Also, on off-fall-line rappels, it was nice to communicate the direction that the rappeller should go, and to be able to warn them of any features, such as loose rock, or rope snagging chicken-heads to avoid.
In a backcountry skiing/riding context, this is where the radio comes into its own. Communicating when the skier/rider is in a safe location and it is appropriate for the next to descend, or to communicate slope-scale features to avoid helps to mitigate avalanche accidents. Furthermore, with multiple groups in a backcountry zone, it allows reporting of relevant snowpack and avalanche observations between groups.
While testing the BC Link, there were a few notable things. Upon opening the package, I was impressed with the overall build quality. The base unit itself is about the same size as a standard FRS radio, but the smart-mic was bigger than those sold as an aftermarket product for other FRS radios. The connection between the base unit and smart-mic is robust, which is important, since the base unit stays in a backpack. No worries about a connection problem leading to radio malfunction. The increase in size is due to the smart-mic’s increased function. The base unit has buttons to program basic functions like sound, roger beep, and the ability to program the preset channels. What I really like about the smart-mic is that the volume/on-off dial, and the six channel presets are located on the smart-mic. This is significantly more convenient that having to go into a backpack and make these changes. Furthermore, the oversized dials on the smart-mic, and the large push-to-talk (PTT) button are easy to use with winter gloves on.
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BCA’s claimed weight of the unit is 12oz, which is not insignificant, but this is due to the battery that BCA chose to put into the unit. BCA claims a 4-day battery life in extreme cold, which is great if it’s true (I haven’t had the chance to ground-truth this yet). The radio is also waterproof to IP56 standards, which means that: “Ingress of dust is not entirely prevented, but it must not enter in sufficient quantity to interfere with the satisfactory operation of the equipment; complete protection against contact” and “Water projected in powerful jets (12.5mm nozzle) against the enclosure from any direction shall have no harmful effects.” In layman’s terms, it is protected again aggressive wear and tear.
BCA has set up this unit so that it has 22 FRS+GRMS channels and 121 sub-channels to create many options for non-interference. The thorough manual that comes with this unit goes into the specifics of this, but the take home is that you can preset 6 channels on the base unit, which are controlled by a dial on the smart-mic with letter (A-F). Transmission power is 0.5 watt on the FRS channels (shorter range, better battery life), or 1.0 watt on the GRMS channels (longer range, worse battery life). You need a FCC license to operate on GRMS, and BCA provides a link with instructions if you want to go that way. Also included in the channel options are 14 NOAA weather radio frequencies, which is a great function on extended backcountry trips.
In summary, the BC Link is a no-frills, functional and well-built unit. BCA has done an excellent job making the unit user-friendly and bombproof. I will be using these units when I ski guide this winter, as it’s easy to give one to my guests. Thanks to the smart-mic, they won’t have to fuss with keeping a FRS radio in their pocket and dealing. All in all, I’m a fan of this product since with proper use, it enables clear, accurate communication that has the potential to mitigate accidents in adventure-based activities.