by Kristen Pope
Most hikers, backpackers, climbers, and skiers throw a cell phone or other communication device into their pack before venturing outdoors. Cell phones, satellite phones, and newer technology such as SPOT Connect (which, according to marketing materials, can “turn your smartphone into a satellite communicator”) are useful in offering two-way communication and providing rescuers with information. However, some SPOT personal locator beacon (PLB) devices offer only one-way communication-alerting rescuers to the fact that a user at a particular location is requesting help but providing no additional details.
The question is, does technology provide an additional layer of protection or a false sense of security?
A 2009 incident in Grand Canyon National Park illustrates the misuse of such a device. Two fathers and their teenage sons attempted the Grand Canyon’s thirty-five-mile Royal Arch Loop, which Park Service materials describe as offering “a million ways to get into serious trouble.” They activated their SPOT PLB three times: once upon running out of water, a second time when the water they found “tasted salty,” and then a third time—at which point rescuers required them to leave and cited them for creating a hazardous condition.
Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) officials emphasize that the Grand Canyon episode was not a typical case. “For every one of those, there a lot of people who call for help who actually need it,” park spokesperson Jackie Skaggs said.
In 2011, GTNP received more than 2.5 million recreation visits and performed sixty-nine search-and-rescue missions. Thirty-two of those were classified as “major,” with expenses exceeding $500 (GTNP averages about seventy total rescues per year, with twenty to twenty-five of them classified as major).
Chris Harder, a Jenny Lake ranger who has worked in GTNP for twenty years, estimates that more than 50 percent of accidents in the park are reported by cell phone. “For the most part, people make good choices with their use of phones,” Harder said. “There are always going to be people who call before they think. Those folks put an unneeded burden on the search-and-rescue community. Overall, cell use in the search-and-rescue world is a good thing, and it has saved lives indirectly. Cell phones greatly increase the ability of people to make calls for help. Now, with a phone call we can understand the condition of the patient and have a thorough plan before we arrive on the scene.”
No communication device is completely reliable, though. Many areas lack cell or satellite reception and other factors, such as battery life (which can be shortened by weather, battery age, and the phone searching for reception), affect the reliability of these devices. While there are no comprehensive studies on texting in the wilderness, some users have found that texts will sometimes go through when voice calls will not. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration encourages SPOT owners to register their beacons in order to provide would-be rescuers with supplementary information.
According to a 2009 analysis of search and rescue in the national parks, the top three causes for incidents are: judgment errors; lack of physical preparation and/or fatigue; and insufficient equipment, clothing, or experience.
Another 2009 study published in the International Journal of Wilderness revealed that visitors with more experience in the wilderness, and those with personal involvement in a serious wilderness accident, were more likely to believe that technology creates a false sense of safety than those with less experience and no personal involvement in a wilderness accident. More experienced visitors were also more likely to believe that technology makes people feel that their safety is not their personal responsibility.
In 2005, Matthias Hohlrieder and several other researchers published a study in High Altitude Medicine and Biology that analyzed the impact of avalanche transceivers (or “avalanche beacons”) in avalanche survival rates. They found that, while transceivers reduced mortality during backcountry activities involving ski touring in free-alpine areas, they did not reduce mortality during off-piste activities near organized ski slopes.
They wrote, “Our data suggest that those few off-piste skiers and snowboarders equipped with a transceiver tend to be involved in more serious accidents. The perceived additional security offered by emergency equipment may stimulate skiers and snowboarders to accept higher risks. As a consequence, mortality is unchanged or even increased in off-piste activities despite the use of emergency equipment.” They stated that a false sense of security might also encourage skiers and snowboarders to enter more hazardous terrain than they would otherwise.
Every rescue presents significant natural dangers for rescuers like rock fall, weather, lightning, and avalanches, but high-tech rescue equipment like helicopters are an especially dangerous tool to rely on. If weather or darkness makes conditions too risky, a helicopter will not go out.
“It’s not our emergency, it’s theirs,” Jenny Lake Ranger Harder said. “We are not going to put our rescuers at risk.” Still fresh in the minds of many Teton area residents is the February 2012 accident in which Teton County Search and Rescue member Ray Shriver died when the helicopter he was riding in crashed on Togwotee Pass.
Even when conditions permit helicopter use, there is not always one available. During several months of the year, there is no search-and-rescue helicopter based in either Teton County Wyoming or Idaho; the nearest ones are stationed in Bozeman, Montana, and Ogden, Utah.
While accidents do happen, it is much more important to be well prepared before venturing out than simply taking a chance that technology will save you. “Know where you’re going, let someone know when you’ll be back, and stick to your plan,” Harder said. “Take the equipment you need for the day or overnight or for rain. Have food, water—the basics. [Bringing a cell phone] is not a bad idea, whether or not it works. It wouldn’t work if you didn’t have it, so you might as well bring it.”
For more tales of misadventure with technology, go to rescueandtechnology.wordpress.com.