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Locator beacons "supposedly" can take the 'search' out of Search and Rescue

A beacon for all?
Use of personal locater devices is a hot topic among local mountaineers
By Mark Morical / The Bulletin
Published: January 15. 2010

They supposedly take the “search” out of search and rescue.

So why are so many mountaineers and rescue personnel opposed to a requirement for Mount Hood climbers to carry locater beacons?

Three more climbing casualties on the 11,239-foot mountain last month have rekindled the debate about requiring beacons. It was the second time in three years that a search-and-rescue operation on Hood failed to turn up climbers who ascended the mountain without signaling devices and wound up dead (or presumed dead).

So, politicians, rescue crews, mountaineers and others are debating once again whether to require such climbers to carry locater beacons.

The issue was a topic of discussion Wednesday night at the Cascade Mountaineers’ monthly meeting at the Environmental Center in Bend.

Most climbers and search-and-rescue personnel in attendance said they oppose requiring beacons.

Many also feel that climbers are unfairly singled out because of the widespread media coverage of the Mount Hood searches.

On an Oregon Emergency Management list of outdoor types who needed rescuing in 2008, climbers ranked a distant 11th.

So the argument for locater beacons should also apply to backcountry skiers, snowmobilers, hikers, hunters, anglers, and so on.

But for now the focus is on climbers — and they have strong opinions on the subject.

“We believe it should be a personal decision you make,” said Bend’s Ian Morris, a member of Portland Mountain Rescue who was part of last month’s search on Mount Hood. “On this last rescue, even if they had a beacon, we probably wouldn’t have reached them. It’s more of a body-recovery device than anything at that point.”

Aaron Lish, the program coordinator for Outdoor Leadership at Central Oregon Community College, said that locater beacons might lead climbers to take more risks because they believe they will be rescued if needed.

“Folks need to go through the old school of hard knocks of learning basic skills,” Lish said. “The ethic of climbing has changed so much, and it’s partly fueled by this false sense of security.”

A variety of locater devices are available, most about the size of a TV remote. The $5 Mount Hood-specific rental beacon is older technology, and rescuers would not tune in until somebody is reported overdue. Outdoor stores sell devices that use Global Positioning System (GPS) and satellite technology to send immediate distress signals. They weigh 5 to 9 ounces and cost up to $400.

The devices discussed at Wednesday’s meeting in Bend included the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger and the ACR Electronics SARLink 406 Personal Locator Beacon.

“I can’t think of a single mission in 10 years where it’s helped save a life by itself,” Morris said of the devices, which he added can give climbers a false sense of confidence. “The people we save are the people who can take care of themselves. Are we going to put search and rescue out in the field unnecessarily, instead of having people self-saving?”

A bill to require Mount Hood climbers to carry beacons on winter expeditions failed in the Oregon Legislature in 2007. Jim Bender, a commissioner in Clackamas County — which is typically involved in search-and-rescue missions on Hood — hopes the Legislature will revisit the question, according to an Associated Press story last month. He said the county commission will attempt to implement a requirement that climbers carry locater beacons.

“We need to find a way to protect them and we need to find a way to protect the people’s resources,” Bender told the AP.

Georges Kleinbaum, search-and-rescue coordinator for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, sees a problem with enforcing a beacon requirement.

“It’s a big mountain,” he was quoted in the AP story. “Are you going to put a ring around it, or force everyone through an entry point?”

As many as 10,000 climbers attempt Mount Hood each year, based on the free permits for which they register.

Morris said the climb is not particularly difficult, though the challenge has increased in recent years due to the shifting of snow and ice. Climbing Mount Hood requires rope, crampons and an ice ax.

He added that climbing incidents on Hood tend to garner more media attention because of the mountain’s proximity to Portland (about 60 miles).

“Mount Hood attracts so much attention, whereas if somebody breaks a leg on North Sister, that’s a major (search and rescue) operation, and you’ll barely see that on the news in Portland,” Morris said.

Morris represents Portland Mountain Rescue in its stance against the requirement of locater beacons. On its Web site, PMR claims that mandating beacons actually increases the risks for both climbers and rescuers. The group argues that requiring beacons would devalue safety education by creating an “unwarranted reliance on technology,” substituting “skill, preparation and sound decision-making in the backcountry.”

PMR also notes that the biggest challenge in a rescue “is not locating a stricken climber, it’s accessing them.” Requiring beacons might foster an unrealistic expectation of rescue in unsafe weather and avalanche conditions, the Web site states.

Sheriff Joe Wampler of Hood River County calls for beacons to be required above timberline on mountains throughout Oregon, according to AP. Wampler led the 2006 search for three climbers on Mount Hood that ended with one climber’s body found in a snow cave. The bodies of the two others have never been found.

Even if a beacon signal does not lead to a rescue, Wampler said, it would help direct searchers to the body, often a concern of relatives.

Cell phones can also be used to locate missing outdoor enthusiasts, but most at Wednesday’s meeting agreed that cell phones are not altogether reliable.

“The cell phone is just not a reliable locater device,” Morris said.

Most who attended Wednesday’s meeting seemed to agree on one thing in particular: Climbers’ best way to stay safe is to count on themselves.

Lish teaches that at COCC.

“Self-reliance is a big thing we talk about,” Lish said. “We teach not being dependent on technology.”

But the question remains: Does that technology help or hinder?

Beacons, at a glance
A look at two of the locater beacons on the market:

SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger
Using satellite technology, the SPOT ($160, and $100 per year for service) offers a line of communication with friends and family and emergency assistance. It features a “Check-in/OK” button and can track progress via GPS. Contact:

ACR Electronics SARLink 406 Personal Locator Beacon
The SARLink ($400) relays a person’s position to a worldwide network of search-and-rescue satellites when activated. As local search and rescue is deployed, a separate homing signal and integrated LED strobe light guide rescuers to a person’s location. Contact:

Search-and-rescue operations in Oregon, 2008
Statistics from the Oregon Emergency Management’s 2008 annual report:
Activity No. of operations
Hikers 136
Motor vehicles 119
Wandering 48
Hunting 39
Aviation 30
Suicide attempts 28
Swimming 22
Snowmobile 21
Fishing 21
ATV 21
Climbers 15
Snowboarding 13
Bicycle 11
Other snow 10
Mushroom pickers 9
Criminal 6
Cross-country ski 6


"Locator beacons "supposedly" can take the 'search' out of search and rescue"??

Note: The following is a copy of my email of January 16, 2009, to my friend Marc Morical, the writer of the story above. Perhaps it will be the basis for an Op Ed to The Bulletin!
--Webmeister Speik

Hello Marc-
I have not been able to contact you today by phone.

Thanks for today's article about "locator beacons". I find a few "problems" with your story, however.

A. First off you say "They "supposedly" take the 'search' out of search and rescue." OpEd to The Bulletin
1. Here is how that works, and no "supposedly" about it! If your exact lat-lon position can be communicated to SAR they do not have to search for you, they just go to your position, guided by their own GPS receivers. Ask the millions of Geocachers, world-wide. Accuracy is about 4.1 meters. How accurate is the GPS?

B. Then you lump three different devices into one basket "locator beacons" and talk about them as though they are the same.
1. The Mount Hood Locator Beacon (used only on Mt. Hood since the 1980s Episcopal School tragedy) employs outmoded technology helpful in finding someone from nearby. It can not call for rescue. It can not take the search out of SAR. Mt. Hood locator beacons

2. The Personal Locator Beacon is a recent adaptation from the venerable EPIRB, a device used by boaters. A PLB without an optional extra GPS can take hours to get Lat-Lon Coordinants from its own seven satellites and the location found may be only only accurate to about a half mile, using triangulation to find the location (a sinking ship) . Searches are initiated by COSPAS-SARSAT Centers operated by the military in only a few centers around the world. They pass minimal information along to local Sheriff's SAR Units, way down the line. Traditional PLBs are costly, heavy, can only be used once and and must be returned to the manufacturer's service centers, have to have a long metal antenna deployed and held upright and more. You can not test the signal or change the batteries. You just trust it will work. There are now better options. What is a PLB?

3. The SPOT II is small, 5 oz. light, inexpensive at $149.00, (plus a $100 satellite telephone connection for a year), has an internal GPS and antenna, and can be tested in all situations you might encounter by sending multiple messages home or to your own cell phone. You can change out and warm up the two ordinary AA lithium batteries you buy at the market. There is no limit on the testing you can do in the field. What is a SPOT?

C. You dismiss the cell phone: "Cell phones can also be used to locate missing outdoor enthusiasts, but most at Wednesday’s meeting agreed that cell phones are not altogether reliable."

1. Actually, I understand that the ordinary cell phone has been instrumental in most climber rescues in the United States over the last ten years. Also, your story is misleading because you do not differentiate between (1) use of the cell phone to locate a person through a request to 911 and (2) the primary use of the cell phone: to call directly for a rescue and tell SAR exactly where the (injured) person is located from reading a $7.00 topo map or from a simple $100.00 GPS. The sense of cell for the Mountaineers?

2. (1) Understand that people can purchase an "application" for their cell phone that will give them driving directions to restaurant! This is done by Providers by triangulation of the cell signals among two, three or more cell towers. (An internal GPS is not used by cell Providers in Central Oregon to give the lat-lon coordinates of the phone to local 911 Operations Managers). If two or more cell towers are contacted by an ordinary "E911 enabled" cell phone, a fairly accurate triangulated lat-lon coordinate position is provided (just as it is for driving to the restaurant).

3. (2) A cell phone call from a climber will be picked up on a line-of-site to the nearest tower. The backcountry traveler can give his or her exact (Latitude-Longitude, WGS84 or UTM, NAD 27) coordinates (from topo map or GPS), to the 911 Operator and his call will be forwarded to the SAR Unit on call for that climber's location. Urban facing slopes (with clear line of site to many cell towers and Providers) in the Cascades usually have good cell phone coverage. For the very best coverage, you must choose a Cell Service Provider with care - giant Provider Verizon, (using CDMA technology), has the best cell tower coverage in Central Oregon. (Providers using other technologies can not see the CDMA towers.)

D. Then, you miss the real point of the "right wing political angst" over the cost of climber rescues on Mt. Hood:
 "Rescues of foolish mountain climbers on Mt Hood cost allot of taxpayer money".
OpEd for The Bulletin

The fact is that climber rescues do not cost much more than the overtime pay for the few Sherriff's Deputies who administer the Volunteer Units. According to the Oregon State SAR Coordinator, no Sheriff in Oregon is willing to charge for rescues (even for the most outrageous conduct), because the SAR Volunteer Units can only claim reimbursement under Oregon Statute for up to $500 per recued person or "the actual costs". It is not in the best interests of (contribution supported) SAR Units to discuss in court, the "actual costs" of volunteer manned operations. Military air support, of course, is provided free as Air Force or other, required pilot training hours.

E. Finally, Mark, you do a good job in pointing out that climbers are eleventh on the list of SAR rescues.
In summary, should all backcountry travelers be required to carry a SPOT satellite Communicator? OpEd: Should climbers carry electronic devices?
1. No, but all who are rescued are now expected by Oregon Statute to carry a topographic map and a means of communication - a cell phone.

2. Education of climbers and the general public is key to promoting safe travel in the backcountry!
That is why I am writing this page.
--Robert Speik


The rest of the story

Deschutes County Sheriffs Search and Rescue Volunteer Coordinator Al Hornish, a 12 year veteran of DCSAR, stated the following in an interview published on January 26, 2012 in the Bend Oregon Source Weekly: "We have grown a lot over the past decade. The nature of missions has changed as well." "There are more Rescues and less Searches, mostly because of the better technology available." Read More. --Robert Speik, 01-26-2012


A suggested minimum standard news advisory for all backcountry travelers

"We would like to take this opportunity to ask our visitors to the backcountry of Oregon to plan for the unexpected.  Each person should dress for the forecast weather and carry minimum extra clothing protection from a drop in temperature and possible rain or snow storm or an unexpected cold wet night out, insulation from the wet ground or snow, high carbohydrate snacks, two quarts of water or Gatorade, a map and compass and optional inexpensive GPS and the skills to use them, and a charged cell phone and possibly a SPOT II GPS satellite communicator. Carry the traditional personal "Ten Essentials Systems" in a day pack sized for the season and the forecast weather.

Visitors are reminded to tell a Responsible Person where they are going, where they plan to park, when they will be back and to make sure that person understands that they are relied upon to call 911 at a certain time if the backcountry traveler has not returned. If you become lost or stranded, mark your location and stay still or move around your marked location to stay warm. Do not try to find your way until you become exhausted, or worse yet - wet. Wait for rescuers."




Mountain climbing has inherent dangers that can, only in part, be mitigated

Read more . . .
OpEd: Yuppie 911 devices can take the search out of Search and Rescue 
SPOT Unveils Next Generation Satellite GPS Messenger at Outdoor Retailer
The SPOT Satellite Messenger reviewed and recommended
How do PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons) work
Use your GSM digital cell in the backcountry and for mountaineering
OpEd: Electronic devices may be required in the backcountry
HB 2509 mandates electronic locator beacons on Mt. Hood - climbers' views
Oregon HR 2509 as approved on March 28, 2007
How do digital mobile phones assist mountaineering and backcountry rescues?
Clinic on Real Survival Strategies and Staying Found with Map, Compass and GPS together
What do you carry in your winter day and summit pack?
Why is the digital cell phone best for backcountry and mountaineering?
Why are "Snow Caves" dangerous?
Why are "Space Blankets" dangerous?
Why are "Emergency Kits" dangerous?
How can you avoid Hypothermia?
Missing climbers on Mount Hood, one dies of exposure, two believed killed in fall
Missing California family found, dad dies from exposure and hypothermia
Missing man survives two weeks trapped in snow-covered car
Missing snowmobile riders found, Roger Rouse dies from hypothermia
Olympic Champion Rulon Gardner lost on snowmobile
Lost Olympic hockey player looses feet to cold injury
Expert skier lost five days near resort in North Cascades without map, compass, gps or cell phone
Mount Hood - The Episcopal School Tragedy
Mount Hood - experienced climbers rescued from snow cave
How can you learn the skills of snow camping?

Lost and Found
Three climbers missing on Mt. Hood, all perish
Missing California family found, dad dies from exposure and hypothermia
Missing man survives two weeks trapped in snow-covered car
Missing snowmobile riders found, Roger Rouse dies from hypothermia
Lost climber hikes 6.5 miles from South Sister Trail to Elk Lake
Hiking couple lost three nights in San Jacinto Wilderness find abandoned gear
Expert skier lost five days in North Cascades without Essentials, map and compass
Climber disappears on the steep snow slopes of Mount McLaughlin
Hiker lost five days in freezing weather on Mount Hood
Professor and son elude search and rescue volunteers
Found person becomes lost and eludes rescuers for five days
Teens, lost on South Sister, use cell phone with Search and Rescue
Lost man walks 27 miles to the highway from Elk Lake Oregon
Snowboarder Found After Week in Wilderness
Searchers rescue hiker at Smith Rock, find lost climbers on North Sister
Girl Found In Lane County After Lost On Hiking Trip
Search and rescue finds young girls lost from family group
Portland athlete lost on Mt. Hood
Rescues after the recent snows
Novice couple lost in the woods
Broken Top remains confirmed as missing climber
Ollalie Trail - OSU Trip - Lost, No Map, Inadequate Clothing

 Your Essential Light Day Pack
What are the new Ten Essential Systems?
What does experience tell us about Light and Fast climbing?
What is the best traditional alpine mountaineering summit pack?
What is Light and Fast alpine climbing?
What do you carry in your day pack?      Photos?    
What do you carry in your winter day pack?       Photos?    
What should I know about "space blankets"?
Where can I get a personal and a group first aid kit?      Photos?

 Carboration and Hydration
Is running the Western States 100 part of "traditional mountaineering"?
What's wrong with GORP?    Answers to the quiz!
Why do I need to count carbohydrate calories?
What should I know about having a big freeze-dried dinner?
What about carbo-ration and fluid replacement during traditional alpine climbing?   4 pages in pdf  
What should I eat before a day of alpine climbing?

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