Posted by Joseph Anderson
Do you carry a Satellite communication device? When embarking on adventures big and small why would you not carry one? If you get into trouble you just press a button and BINGO! A rescue is on the way.
There are many on the market to choose from today. The two major players are the Garmin inReach and the SPOT. The most frequently used is the SPOT gen3: at right around $150 It’s the cheapest and simplest. Plus highlighted in the upper right hand corner of the SPOTS website is a number that they are apparantly very proud of.
6,172 rescues and counting, (at the time of this article).
I gather most people see this number and develop an intensified resolve to make sure they have one on their next adventure. But when I see this number I can’t help but to cringe.
Why? I think we can safely assume that almost nobody has regretted having some sort of SOS capabilities when traveling in the backcountry. I carry one. I actually have a fairly positive opinion about this kind of device. I believe that people should go into the mountains and recreate. So why do I view 6,172 and counting negatively? What if those people didn’t have a way to sound a rescue? Do my instincts lie?
Online personalities like adventure blogger Allan Dixon AKA Adventure Allan promotes the more SOS calls the better doctrine when he states “Last year we had a local backpacker freeze to death. They’d likely be alive today if they had brought a Satellite Messenger & activated its emergency signal (by the time they were reported missing and the search crews went out, they had frozen to death overnight).” My instinct is that this is the wrong argument to make, I believe the “backpacker” would be alive if he brought a jacket, a warm one preferably. But I digress, I don’t know the whole story.
Don’t’ get me wrong I have witnessed rescue gizmos saving lives and certainly preventing many a bad situations from becoming much, much worse. A common incident I witnessed was for a some poor wretch to become disoriented in a White Out, sit down and press the BIG SOS button on their handy dandy device, and presto! Several hours latter a rescue team would miraculously show up to guide them to safety. I remember one gentleman that was pulled off the top of Gibralter Rock by a Chinook Helicopter in VERY marginal weather. He would have died had he not made contact with the outside world. There was another guy who broke his leg glissading down a steep crevassed fairly remote slope called Meany Crest. Skiing accidents were common, too many result in death but others were luckier and rescues were successful. So that’s quite a lot of saved lives. Quite a few potential tragedies averted through modern communication tools. So what is my major malfunction?
Lets take for example the last unsuspecting lump that was found hunkered down in a soaking cloud of 20 foot visibility who would have certainly died of hypothermia without a rescue. He stated that when he couldn’t see his friends any more and nobody answered his call he sat down in the snow and pressed his “rescue button.” It turned out that in his group, they all three became separated hiking the five thousand feet in whiteout down the Muir Snowfield. One of them was lucky and walked successfully down to Paradise, one of them made probably the best decision sat down and pressed is locator device and the third, get this, hiked all the way down, 2,000 feet lower and several miles past Paradise to (for those that are familiar) arriving at the Nesqually bridge at the bottom of the valley around mid night. Why did this happen in the first place? I happen to have a simple answer to a simple question: None of them knew what the hell they were doing.
Lets discuss the young garcon that was miraculously plucked off of the top of Gib rock, which is essentially a ridge that dead ends in thousand foot cliffs on all sides. This comedian was rescued earlier that same season under similar circumstances off of Denali. It turns out that in both events he argued about route finding with group members, un-roped and forged his own way down only to become lost, dangerously exhausted and costing tax payers close to $100,000 per rescue. Furthermore he was the second boob to be rescued off of Gib Rock that month.
Now for the distinguished gentleman who broke his leg glissading down Meany Crest I’m going to ask you my audience. When you’re sliding on your ass down a 1,500 foot 40 degree snow slope with crevasses in it how do you do it safely? Now I’m confident that everyone reading this came to the same elegant answer, and I agree: You don’t. You don’t do it because it’s not a safe or intelligent thing to do.
The same thing goes with the inundation of “ski mountaineers” parading around the mountain with helmet cam devices on their heads. But skiing Mount Rainier in most conditions is not a good idea for the majority of the people up there. Snow conditions can be tricky and a fall can be disastrous.
Something only a handful of people seem to be taking the time to consider is that quite a bit more serious than skiing or climbing a mountain like Mount Rainier is a rescue off of Mt Rainier. Highly trained vetted and experienced rescue professionals get killed during rescues. Nick Hall, a competent member of the Mount Rainier climbing ranger team fell 5 thousand feet during a 2012 rescue high on the Emmons Glacier route. Tom Claussen, who was perhaps one of the most competent rescue professionals in North America was killed in a helicopter crash during a rescue out of the Grand Canyon. There have been dozens of deaths of rescue personel in the Park Service alone.
Journalist Molly Loomis echoes this sentiment in her 2015 Sierra article when she adds that “As the technology becomes more widespread, so do instances of its misuse, which can put rescuers at risk as well as tax the resources of publicly funded search-and-rescue operations.” Additionally, a very large number of rescue personnel are not paid.
Hazards are considered and mitigated as much as possible but a high acceptance of risk is required for anyone working in the rescue profession. This reality is completely lost on todays outdoor enthusiast. In fact, I would argue that if anything the public’s relationship with reality is quickly getting worse. Working as a Climbing Ranger I had people come up to me at high camp with harnesses and ropes still in store packaging and asking me how to use it…many times. When I recommended that they go down and take a class on the basics of mountain climbing these people were at times argumentative stating, “we came prepared, we have a spot device.”
On one occasion I responded to an injured party high on the mountain where the patient had a large rock crush her foot. I responded because I wasn’t that far and I heard someone scream. She told me that she was about to press the SOS button on her SPOT device. Now, that may all seem reasonable but I haven’t told you what the treatment for her was. Get this, we put her boot back on and hiked out. Not only that her convoy of climbing associates couldn’t keep up with her. Had I not gotten there when I did, who’s to know what the resources that were to go into rescuing someone who was forced to suffer through the devastating realities of a stubbed toe.
But the larger problem is quite a bit worse than my own experience would suggest. Loomis writes that, “Examples of rescue-beacon gaffes now abound, like the infamous 2009 "triple play," when a group of fathers and sons in Grand Canyon National Park activated their SPOT three times in less than 48 hours because their water tasted salty. Another Grand Canyon hiker triggered her device out of concern over her tent mate's loud snoring (she didn't think to wake him up). Then there was the Backpacker magazine editor whose SPOT accidentally went off inside his backpack on a Denali expedition.” These are a just a few examples but the list goes on.
In Dixon’s article comparing SOS devices he states, “In fact, you may get enough information to help yourself and not even need a rescue—the best possible outcome.” I am picking on Dixon because he is endorsing this notion that planning, preparation, experience and knowledge and common sense are downloadable on the go…and that’s exactly how people are behaving. My perception is that Dixon is a competent outdoorsmen but he is not fully aware of his mistake, simply because he has spent more time proficiently planning successful trips than cleaning up after people that forgot to download the brain app on their iphone…But he has exacerbated everything.
While emergency mountain rescue is growing all around the country, and the world, there is a decrease in funding and resources for these public programs. But whether SAR teams are dealing with life threatening call for a real emergency or some kind of moronic lark, the SOS capabilities have given us a different sort of problem:
An accountability problem.
Whenever someone pushes that SOS button they’re passing the risk down the line to someone else. They’re passing the high costs down as well. Ask any rescue team about this driving factor and nobody will disagree "People want to take photos doing extreme actions, something that draws a lot of likes or attention to their social media page," says Jack Ewell, who oversees eight search-and-rescue teams in the National Forest above Los Angeles. "We want people to recreate in the national forest. But unfortunately sometimes people aren't prepared.”
The most unprepared and most dependent on technology are driven by this relatively new social media culture that’s sort of spreading like wildfire. This cultural shift is expensive. And yes the addiction to impress on social media is intense.
Business magnate Nick Woodman, understands this simple fact very well. Woodman, Founder of GO PRO tag line “Be A Hero” is hyped by Forbes magazine as one of Americas youngest billionaires. In my experience this is ground zero for our accountability crisis in the great outdoors. I would wager that the majority of unprepared and unskilled baboons calling for a rescue from their heroism gone wrong have a Go Pro camera attached to their heads. One hand on their smart devices desperately keeping up with their cyber social profiles and a finger nervously clutching their SOS buttons ready to fire at the hoot of an owl or yip of a coyote (yes, devices have been pressed for these reasons). It’s one big heaping mess of outsourced accountability and at the helm, leading the charge is one of the highest grossing digital imaging devices outside of the Smart phone. The name Go Pro: Be A Hero is a huge driver for selling these devices to the highest risk outdoor crowd and I guarantee they are the ones that are the the least prepared.
For the 6,172 rescues and counting that SPOT is touting on their website, it’s important to note that a third of this number are not real emergencies. Somewhere at least around half, are people that lack skill and or training. As I’ve mentioned, the device itself is a good idea but promoting the high rescue number is marketing pressure, pure and simple. It sets a tone to push the SOS button at the drop of a dime.
What SPOT is conveniently ignoring is that as rescue calls continue to increase the funding for public programs has continued to decline. The system is overtaxed and rescues, like emergencies don’t always go as planned. “Everything that could go wrong went wrong.” Said one of the team members when a Climbing Ranger was killed in 2012.
There is however one way to fix this problem: Hold people accountable.
Notice I don’t pick on the inReach at all. It’s marketing is totally different. If you go to the inReach website they promote planning first. Actually they put “if necessary, trigger an SOS” at 6th the very end of the list of functions, after “navigate your route and track and share your journey”. In my experience people carrying inReach devices are on average more skilled and prepared.
But I actually don’t completely blame the un-prepared climbers and hikers either for getting themselves into trouble. I don’t even entirely blame the fools that call a rescue for a stubbed toe. If someone needs, or thinks they need a rescue they should call for one. Setting any other precedent is dangerous. Besides people will do what is socially acceptable. They always have and always will. It’s the ones promoting this philosophy of no accountability, the ones making money on promoting unprepared adventures that need to be held accountable.
Peddling 6,172 rescues and counting (since 2010) is not a sustainable or affordable number for anyone with the grand exception of SPOT. SPOT LLC is a subsidiary of Globalstar Inc it is under quite a bit of pressure to turn a profit. Globalstar is best known for having developed a low satellite global positioning network through experimental technologies and financially risky projects developed from military (taxpayer subsidized) contracts. These projects date all the way back to early WW2. Throughout the 1990s, Globalstar continued to bleed taxpayer money while it fine tuned it’s satellite network. Finally in 2002 it filled for chapter 11 bankruptcy, which essentially transfers the debt onto the public. In 2006 it re-booted, moved its headquarters away from expensive Silicon Valley to tax friendly Louisiana and in 2007 launched the SPOT LLC. Spot wants you to buy their device, of course, but they also want you to push that button. They are very aware that they don’t pay for rescue budgets…And they have no problem with communities, parks and taxpayers covering the cost. It's been the buisness plan all along.
It may be a few more years or maybe even a decade away, but as the cost to the public, the parks and the good will of the rescuers is pushed closer to breaking point SPOT LLC will be forced to take responsibility. I actually believe Go Pro will also be held accountable for promoting reckless activity and endangering the lives of others. But I truly believe that eventually these companies will be required to promote smart and prepared use of the backcountry first. They will need to support the cost that the public has to carry and therefor they will promote the same things that have always been true: The importance of taking courses and going through the long slow process of a formal learning curve. The importance of being prepared. And this is a good thing because there is always someone who has to pay the high price of…
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Michelle Anderson LMHC