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  HB2509 Approved by the House:

OpEd: Electronic locator beacons, a mountaineer's viewpoint

Published as a Guest Editorial
The Bulletin

Robert Speik
Saturday, March 31, 2007

Bulletin Reporter James Sinks broke the news that House Bill 2509 might require “mountain climbers” and guides to carry an electronic beacon when they venture above the tree line on Mt. Hood.

A controversy erupted between experienced mountaineers and those who would reduce government costs by controlling irresponsible thrill seekers asking for expensive search and rescue efforts while endangering volunteers.

According to an Oregon State report, climbing accounts for 3.4% of rescues, mushroom picking 3.0%, hiking 13.8%, vehicle, ATVs, snowmobiles 20.5%. Enough said.

Bulletin Reporter Lily Raff wrote about the controversy in an excellent in-depth nine column front page Sunday Perspective: “Locator Beacons, Lifesavers or Unnecessary?”

Lawmakers recalled the 1986 Episcopal School Tragedy where seven teens and two adults died in an unmarked snow cave while for days searchers combed the broad snow slopes of Mt. Hood. The leaders had made many common sense basic mountaineering errors. This tragedy led to the invention of the electronic Mountain Locator Unit (MLU).

For ten days in December last year, the world’s media focused on the plight of three experienced mountain climbers missing in a storm near the summit of Mt. Hood. Two of the three north face winter ice climbers may have fallen, stranding Kelly James. He called his home in Texas using his cell phone, triggering the rescue effort. Days later, when the weather cleared, searchers quickly found Kelly who had died from hypothermia shortly after his one phone call. Kelly did not call 911 for rescue.

In February, eight adventurers challenged Mt. Hood by climbing north up the snow slope from the parking lot to Illumination Saddle to camp in two snow caves. The next morning, while descending the easy slopes in a forecast snowstorm, three became separated from their five companions. Very poor navigation had led them 90 degrees east to a steeper snow slope. Three slid down uncontrolled, abandoned two of their backpacks and then hiked for forty minutes until forced to spend the night ill equipped and un-prepared. They called for rescue. Searchers found them next morning, inexcusably wet, cold, hungry and thirsty. The group committed a comedy of mountaineering errors.

Note that they called rescuers every hour by cell phone. None of the three had their personal GPS to report their exact position or to find the nearby parking lot. However, searchers easily figured out where they were from their phoned information.

By chance, one of the two rented MLUs among the eight climbers was with the group of three. Portland Mountain Rescue (PMR) used the Mountain Locator Unit system. Searchers commented that the MLU was “hard to use and not very precise”.

PMR advocates the use of electronic communications with GPS receivers but does not believe the State should require anyone to use “MLU electronic signaling devices”.  I agree.

The following is my observation, speaking from the experience of a traditionally trained mountaineer.

First, a rescue does not begin until a Responsible Person calls 911 if the adventurer does not return by an agreed time.

Second, when a person becomes stranded due to illness or injury to themselves or others, or are forced to overnight un-planned, or shelter from a storm, it may be better to phone for help then, rather than waiting for the Responsible Person to call 911 hours or days later. Experience tells me personally, to have this option.

MLUs: Mt. Hood Mountain Locator Units are simple radio transmitters. They are managed by Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, which is liable for maintenance, battery replacement, Mt. Hood rental and user instruction.

Note that MLUs require a separate radio or phone call to 911 before any search begins. They are only available on Mt. Hood.

PLBs: A better option is the Personal Locator Beacon. These strong radios broadcast a signal to satellites that is relayed to the local County Sheriff often within five minutes with GPS Latitude and Longitude coordinates. They cost about $450 at local stores and do not require a subscription. The batteries last for years. They weigh a reasonable 12 ounces. Serious backcountry adventurers may want to own one.

SAT-CELLs: A third option is a Satellite Cell Phone. These units work like a PLB, but you can verbally send your GPS coordinates and chat. They are heavy, expensive and require a monthly subscription.

FRSs: "Family Radio Service" Walkie-talkie radios are a short range low cost option, but someone must be listening.

Best option: Carry your own everyday digital Cell Phone and your simple GPS.

A good cell phone is FREE with a $20 per month, two-year subscription including 200 free monthly minutes. One can call for help and give their very accurate GPS coordinates and their current condition.

My friends choose to bring their own cell phones, GPS receivers, base plate compasses, USGS topo maps, and the knowledge of how to use them together. The cost of a quality map, compass and GPS is $136.
--Robert Speik pursues an active retirement while writing for


The rest of the story:
The SPOT Satellite Messenger had not been introduced to the recreational market when I wrote this Op-Ed piece. Read More:

The SPOT Satellite Messenger reviewed and recommended
How do Personal Locator Beacons PLBs work?
--Webmeister Speik May 2008




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

Mount Hood - Three hikers and a dog rescued on Mt. Hood
Mount Hood - What happened to the three North Face ice climbers?
Mount Hood - Solo climber falls from Cooper Spur
Mount Hood - climbing accident claims three lives -Final Report and our Analysis 
Mount Hood - Notable mountain climbing accidents Analyzed
Mount Hood - Solo hiker drowns while crossing Mt. Hood's Sandy River
Mount Hood - Solo climber slides into the Bergschrund and is found the following day
Mount Hood - The Episcopal School Tragedy 
Mount Hood - experienced climbers rescued from snow cave 
Mount Hood - a personal description of the south side route
Mount Hood - fatal avalanche described by Climbing Ranger
Mount Hood - avalanche proves fatal for members of Mazamas climbing group
Mount Hood - snowboard rider dies on Cooper Spur
Mount Hood - fatal fall on snow, Cooper Spur Route
Mount Hood - fatal fall on snow from the summit
Mount Hood - climb shows the need for knowledge
Mount Hood - climb ends in tragedy
Mount Hood - rescue facilitated by use of a VHF radio 

Lost and Found
Oregon State Search and Rescue Statues   six PDF pages 
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 

Longacre Expeditions teen group rescued from the snowdrifts above Todd Lake
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

Real Survival Strategies
FREE 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 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?   Prospectus

 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?

  About Alpine Mountaineering:
  The Sport of Alpine Mountaineering
  Climbing Together
  Following the Leader
  The Mountaineers' Rope
  Basic Responsibilities       Cuatro Responsabiliades Basicas de Quienes Salen al Campo
  The Ten Essentials         Los Diez Sistemas Esenciales

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  Participant and Group First Aid Kit   
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