High-tech devices can save lives, but are no substitute for common sense when hiking the back country
By Erik Eisele
CONWAY — When rescuers took to the slopes of Mount Washington two weeks ago, conditions were harsh. It was dark, the winds blowing in excess of 50 mph, causing ground blizzard conditions, and temperatures hovered around zero.
The rescue team, made up of U.S. Forest Service rangers, Fish and Game conservation officers and Mountain Rescue Service volunteers, was on the mountain to search for four winter hikers lost somewhere above Tuckerman Ravine. The conditions were borderline intolerable, with winds strong enough to rip the goggles off rescuers' faces.
The weather was bad enough that searching for the missing hikers almost didn't make sense, according to rescuers, save for one fact: The rescue team had GPS coordinates telling them exactly where the victims were.
That information was enough to shift the mission from dangerous and reckless to worth trying. Search teams spilled into the wind and darkness armed with little more than a blinking dot on a map. By early the next morning, the four missing hikers, who would have otherwise died huddling under a rock, were riding to the hospital in heated ambulances.
What saved them? A team of skilled rescuers willing to risk their lives. But there was something else too: technology.
The missing hikers had with them a SPOT satellite emergency beacon, a device that sends out an emergency signal when activated, including GPS coordinates pinpointing its exact location. Without the GPS information from the SPOT, according to rescuers, a search in such extreme conditions would have been pointless. The four likely would not have left Mount Washington alive.
"More and more people are carrying these devices," said Chris Joosen, the lead U.S. Forest Service snow ranger on Mount Washington. And if it isn't a SPOT beacon, he said, it's a cell phone. Technology is becoming more and more a part of the mountain experience, he said, and often finds its way into rescue missions, with mixed results.
The mission two weeks ago on Mount Washington "was a demonstration of how effective these [devices] can be," he said, but it doesn't always work that way. A rescue several weeks earlier in the Northern Presidentials involving the same type of device was essentially someone who got a leg cramp. The victim pushed the emergency response button, prompting a full-scale response, far more, in hindsight, than was necessary.
Technology like cell phones, like the SPOT, are a double-edged sword, he said. They will save lives, but they will also prompt unnecessary rescues. "I don't think there is any way out of this."
Other rescue experts have seen the same trend.
"I always carry a cell phone with me in the back country," said Joe Lentini, a mountain guide with more than three decades of experience and a team leader on North Conway's elite Mountain Rescue Service, "but it is my last resort."
Whenever he goes out in winter, he said, "I'm prepared to spend the night. I also have navigation equipment." The cell phone is just one tool in the quiver, he said, and it is not the most reliable one: Batteries go dead and signals can be hard to find.
Some hikers, however, take a different approach. "People are carrying these devices as opposed to carrying common sense," Lentini said.
That has been a theme on recent rescues, according to Rick Wilcox, owner of International Mountain Equipment and president of Mountain Rescue Service. Rescuers responded to one night call recently where the victim "didn't have a headlamp, but he had a cell phone."
Other times "they'll have all that technology without a headlamp and in summer boots," he said.
Fifteen years ago, Wilcox said, there was a big debate about whether cell phones were appropriate in the outdoors. That time has now passed. "Almost every rescue has some sort of cell phone interaction," he said.
The fact is, Joosen said, cell phones and SPOTs do save lives. But they also prompt more rescues. In the past, he said, when people ran into darkness or difficult conditions, they didn't sit down and make a 911 call. They might stumble out of the woods at 3 a.m., he said, but there was no one else to turn to. Without a SPOT or a cell phone "you don't hunker down because you don't know who is coming," he said, as opposed to today where "hitting a button" is seen by many as a viable option.
"People are just not being prepared and taking responsibility for their actions," Lentini said. Instead, he said, they take the view "if I have a problem I just press the button."
That perspective of a safety net may mean technology instigates as many rescues as it helps, according to Wilcox. Without a phone, he said, or some other way to call for help, people might be more conservative in their decisions. Technology like a SPOT may save people, he said, but it also "may have caused the accident."
"A lot of these devices are useful tools," Joosen said, but not more important than other gear outdoor enthusiasts ought to be carrying. That is crucial for people to remember. It is also crucial for people to understand how emergency gear affects decision-making. Having a cell phone does not make a risky decision less risky, he said, and factoring it into the decision can be dangerous.
Most people are actually prepared, Lentini said. The fact is often times phones and SPOTs are important tools for rescues — they can give searchers coordinates, information, etc. — but, "If you have a cell phone, but you don't have a map and compass, I have a problem."