Is Your Backcountry Safety Net A Personal Locator Beacon or Cell Phone?
Do you skimp on backcountry preparations, figuring you've got your trusty personal locator beacon or cell phone to summon help at a moment's notice? It's tempting, no? Why prepare yourself equipment-wise and possibly skill-wise when help is just a button push away?
Heck, while you might think the hefty, $550 price of an ACR TerraFix PLB puts PLBs out of your reach, the more affordable Spot ($170 MSRP, plus a $100/year service plan) makes it easy to head off the beaten path with a locator that will help you out when the going gets tough and cell phone coverage gets lost. Another benefit it has is a function that allows you to alert either the authorities or your friends when you're simply running behind schedule but are not in trouble, thus averting a full-scale search-and-rescue mission.
Curious about the SAR professional's opinion on these gizmos, I turned to Butch Farabee, who during his 34-year National Park Service career participated in more than 1,000 SARs in such parks as Yosemite, Death Valley, and Grand Canyon, for his thoughts.
He'd didn't mince words.
"Most SAR people will tell you that this kind of technology is great from their perspective and when it is used appropriately and there is a connection, i.e. the cell phone gets the distress call into 911 or that the cell phone can be traced through the various cell phone towers and related sites, etc. That is the good news," says Mr. Farabee. "The bad news is that all too many people are now believing that all they need to take into 'the field' is their cell phone. Forget the rain gear or matches or whistle or tarp or mirror or checking the local weather forecast or letting someone know when to expect them back and where they were going, etc.
"All of this technology is doing a couple of things: Lots of people are leaving their car without anything else in their 'SAR prevention pack' AND it is also luring people into 'pushing the envelope,'" he adds. "Many people, laboring under the assumption that they are more invincible and more safeguarded with this cell phone technology, are now going to places and doing peaks and mountain biking and exploring where they would never consider doing this pre-cell phone. I do think there is a greater sense of no personal responsibility."
When I recently caught up with Mark Hnat at the National Park Service's Washington headquarters, he had mixed views on the value of PLBs and cell phones in the backcountry.
"Some folks will say, ‘Man, we’ve got people with cell phones. They’re going to be calling a lot more and a lot more often.’ I don’t really know," said Ranger Hnat, who at the time was on temporary detail as the branch chief of emergency services. "Some people think that they’re helpful because if you have cell phone coverage we’ll get better contact with somebody so we’ll know where they are sooner, or how to get to them. So I think there are some advantages to that. Whether it’s causing more that are false alarms or not, I don’t really know. I think there are probably some, but I don’t necessary say that it’s bad.”
Perhaps not, but perhaps so.
The May 2008 edition of National Geographic Adventure carries a letter-to-the-editor that tells a tale of a backcountry traveler who was more than happy to activate his PLB and let the rangers come to his rescue.
"This past January I went on a solo backpacking trip into California's San Bernardino Mountains that quickly turned from beautiful to disastrous. I woke up the first morning above a thick cloud cover and began to ascend Ontario Peak. I am an avid backpacker, but because bad weather had never given me serious trouble, I did not feel that I was in danger. I continued to climb, even as more foul weather approached. My logical mind drawing on years of problem-free hiking adventures told me that I would always find my way back to the trail. How untrue this turned out to be. My descent after the successful summit was blurred by a snowstorm and dense fog that left me disoriented and lost. I set off my personal locator beacon, made shelter, and waited for search and rescue crews to come. Luckily they were able to find me and lead me off the mountain."
Mr. Farabee was, suffice to say, taken aback by this letter.
"I know there may be things left out of the letter-to-the-editor, but this guy sets off his PLB and then sets up shelter? Whatever happened to setting up a shelter, getting in a sleeping bag, making something to drink, sleep the night away and see what the next morning would bring in regard to clear weather, finding the trail, seeing the highways below, etc.?" wonders Mr. Farabee. "This guy, it seems to me, has very quickly and all too readily called for the cavalry to come to his rescue. At the seemingly 'blink of an eye' he has put a great many people at risk and to a great deal of trouble. Whatever happened to a little personal responsibility, sucking in his gut and waiting a day or two?"
Regular Traveler readers might recall a story last July in which I recounted an incident in which a group of hikers who were beaten down by the heat near the floor of the Grand Canyon used a PLB to save themselves. The beacon's signal was detected from the canyon’s Surprise Valley, a remote area on the north side of the park, by the Air Force Rescue Coordinator Center at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.
Air Force personnel promptly called the park about 6:30 p.m. on July 2 to alert them to the signal. Rangers scrambled and used a helicopter to reach the location, where they found a hiking party of four. One of the hikers was suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion and was taken out of the canyon by the helicopter. The other three remained in the canyon and were given ice and water by the rangers.
Now, obviously there are times when no matter how well-prepared you are accidents are going to happen miles from nowhere, and when they do it'd be nice to have a way to summon help. At the same time, as Ken Phillips, head of Grand Canyon National Park's chief of emergency services, put it at the time of this incident, "A person who carries a PLB should always take the proper measures to prevent themselves from ever having to use it."