Thursday, September 5, 2013

Communicating Mountain Emergencies

Dale Matson

Iridium 9575 (Extreme)

I am usually alone when I am in the mountains. Many would say that this is not prudent but this is reality. I would prefer traveling with trail companions but none are usually available. I usually stick to the trails and always let my wife know my travel plans. I copy extra maps of the areas in which I will be traveling and give her my itinerary. I’m not sure how closely the park and forest services monitor your itinerary on your wilderness permit.

Additionally, I have carried a satellite phone for the last ten years. On multiday trips, I call my wife every night to verify my location and confirm that I am well. There are some locations in the mountains where a cell phone will reach a distant tower but it would be foolish to assume that the cell phone is a reliable means of establishing an emergency connection.

Some would argue that having companions is better than a satellite phone and in some situations, this is probably true. I know of two situations in the last two years however that argue in favor of a satellite phone even when one has trail companions.

In the first case, two men were traveling off trail in the Sierra National Forest high country. The navigator fell and suffered a severe head trauma. His friend put him in a tent and went for help but was lost for quite awhile before he was able to get a rescue helicopter to take him back to his friend. In the meantime, his friend crawled out of the tent and over a cliff. The helicopter flew out his body.

In the second case a woman and two male companions were climbing a dome in the Sierra National Forest and she was cut severely while suspended and swinging from a rope. One friend went for help and the other stayed with her. By the time help arrived, she had perished.

I thought to myself on both occasions, if they had an emergency communicating device both people might be alive today. Additionally a person with an emergency device could help someone from another party if they had a problem.

Ten years ago Globalstar had good satellite coverage and I used their phones. The satellites prematurely degraded and I was left with a small communication window. Eventually they stopped charging me a monthly fee because they essentially had no phone service. Since that time they have developed the “Spot”, a small device (< 8 ounces) that will send one way messages to let people know your status. The purchase cost is relatively cheap and there is a subscription fee.

I bought a 9555 Iridium satellite phone and it had generally good coverage. I have run into problems in canyons. Sometimes a clear overhead sky is not enough.  Iridium has the most subscribers including most government agencies. The back country rangers in Kings Canyon have them and some use a solar charger to recharge the lithium batteries. Two way radios are not always dependable even with mountain top repeater towers. I was with the SAR team in Humphreys' Basin and they used my satellite phone to get out when the radios couldn't.

I recently traded in my Iridium 9555 for a 9575. The newer phone is a tad smaller, weighs in a little over 8 ounces, has a tougher case and is water resistant. It also has a red panic button that functions a lot like a Spot system. One nice feature is that it displays Latitude/Longitude. I pay the base monthly rate and per minute call rate. These phones can also be rented.  Some would say this is a lot of money. I call it a life insurance policy.  

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