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VHF Radio Use in Oregon - Fact vs. Myth
Accident victims saved by use of a VHF radio

Radio Use in Oregon - Fact vs. Myth
On June 20, 2000 two OMA members were caught in rockfall on the Sandy Glacier Headwall on Mt Hood. They had a VHF with various frequencies programmed into it, including the state SAR frequency. After the fact there was public criticism of their use of such a VHF radio. While it is unusual for somebody to carry one it is very ironic to be critical of those who do. The criticism turns out to be inappropriate, and the true reason for it remains unclear. This entire incident was shrouded in mis-information which was deliberately fed to the press by government officials who would not consent to their names being on record. While most of the mis-information given to the press was part of a concerted effort by the US Forest Service and was politically motivated the radio criticism came from the Clackamas County Sheriffs office. However, the deputy in charge of this rescue works on a contract between the sheriffs office and the Forest Service. It remains unclear whether the Sheriffs office didn't know who the licensee was or whether there was an ulterior motive. (Neither reflects very well on the agency.) 

The licensee of the state SAR frequency is the Oregon Department of Emergency Management and they have clarified that such emergency use is entirely appropriate. Carrying a VHF radio would also appear to be fully in accordance with HB 3434. This was enacted (in knee-jerk reaction style) in 1996 or 1997 and attempts to mandate that climbers carry "mountain locator units, cellular phones or other technological devices". A VHF radio has many compelling advantages over both a cell phone and a locator unit. So on one hand we have legislators attempting to mandate the use of communications technology for safety purposes and on the other hand we have the US Forest Service and the Clackamas County Sheriff criticizing a party which does so. 

To carry a VHF radio, and to listen to one, is entirely legal. This is the frequency band that common scanners cover. To transmit on a frequency requires that you license that frequency or have the permission of the licensee. We have confirmed with the licensee that permission in an accident such as that of June 2000 is implicit. The Oregon Department of Emergency Management licenses the SAR frequency for emergency use. It turns out that they were also confused by the criticism in the press, and they have stated that the use of the frequency by the climbers involved was entirely appropriate. 

When the SAR operation began the climbers were contacted by the sheriffs deputy on the VHF radio. And by the ground crew on standby. And the 939th rescue crew as they approached. Conversations were initiated by these organization and the climbers replied. At no point were they instructed that they should not transmit anything due to a lack of permission from the licensee. The sheriffs deputy did not hesitate to transmit questions requiring a reply. 

A rescue where the stranded party has a radio should be much better for the rescue groups responding. They can get direct information on the location, condition, and other factors. In most rescues they are left guessing until they arrive on the scene. 

While climbing parties with such a radio are not common they sometimes exist. These climbers owned one and therefore carried it for emergency use. The University of Oregon equipment "library" includes radios as well as cell phones and avalanche beacons. Members of rescue units have been known to carry such a radio when climbing recreationally. 

We sincerely hope that the Oregon press will not mis-report the facts on radio use in the future. This is a great dis-service as it may discourage some people from carrying or using radios and may reflect poorly on people who actually demonstrate foresight and preparation

Oregon Mountaineering Association


The rest of the story

Since this story was posted in the year 2000, a much more advanced digital cell phone system has taken over communications in the Backcountry from ARS amateur radio, CB radio, FRS radio, etc. Read More below for links to the evolution of emergency communication between the traveler and SAR through a phone call to 911.

Al Hornish, a 12-year veteran of DCSAR was quoted in The Source on January 26, 2012 as follows: "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."



Here are some Basic suggestions for all backcountry travelers

1. Practice the Four Basic Responsibilities of the Backcountry Traveler. They work!  Basic Responsibilities

2. Carry the new Ten Essential Systems, sized for the forecast weather and the adventure in a light day pack. This includes a map, compass and GPS and the skills to use them. In the winter, this includes enough extra insulation and waterproof clothing to keep you dry and warm if you become stranded. In snow, you must have a shovel and insulating pad and the skills to make a shelter in the snow to avoid hypothermia and frost bite damage. It works!  Ten Essential Systems

3. Carry a fully charged digital cell phone and periodically check where it can communicate with any cell towers to assist authorities to triangulate your position from cell tower pings. (Most cell providers do not use cell phone GPS signals to locate customers under FCC E911 regulations - they use triangulation). Cold disables batteries. If the weather is cold, carry the cell phone in a pants pocket near the femoral artery. Report your UTM NAD27 coordinates, your condition, the conditions where you are and discuss your plans with SAR.  Ordinary Cell Phones   If you may be out of cell tower range, carry a SPOT.  SPOT-2 Satellite Messenger

4. Always stay found on your topo map and be aware of major land features. If visibility starts to wane, reconfirm your bearings with your map, compass and GPS and quickly return to a known location. A GPS is the only practical way for a trained individual to navigate in a whiteout or blowing snow.  Lost Mt Hood Climbers

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 take minimum extra clothing to provide protection from a drop in temperature and possible rain or snow storm or an unexpected cold wet night out. Each person should carry high carbohydrate snacks, two quarts of water or Gatorade, a topo map and declination adjusted base plate compass and an optional inexpensive GPS (and the skills to use them together). Each person who has a cell phone should carry their ordinary charged cell phone (from a service provider that has the best local backcountry coverage). An inexpensive SPOT-2 GPS Satellite Communicator is a good additional option for some. Each person should carry their selected items from the new 'Ten Essentials Systems' in a day pack sized for the individual, the trip, 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. Call 911 as soon as you become lost or stranded. You will not be charged. Do not try to find your way until you are benighted, exhausted, or worse yet - wet. Your ordinary cell phone call to 911 can take the 'Search' out of Search and Rescue."


"To provide information and instruction about world-wide basic to advanced alpine mountain climbing safety skills and gear, on and off trail hiking, scrambling and light and fast Leave No Trace backpacking techniques based on the foundation of an appreciation for the Stewardship of the Land, all illustrated through photographs and accounts of actual shared mountaineering adventures."

TraditionalMountaineering is founded on the premise that "He who knows naught, knows not that he knows naught", that exploring the hills and summitting peaks have dangers that are hidden to the un-informed and that these inherent risks can be in part, identified and mitigated by mentoring: information, training, wonderful gear, and knowledge gained through the experiences of others.

The value of TraditionalMountaineering to our Friends and Subscribers is the selectivity of the information we provide, and its relevance to introducing folks to informed hiking on the trail, exploring off the trail, mountain travel and Leave-no-Trace light-weight bivy and backpacking, technical travel over steep snow, rock and ice, technical glacier travel and a little technical rock climbing on the way to the summit. Whatever your capabilities and interests, there is a place for everyone in traditional alpine mountaineering.



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




Read more:
Lost Mt. Bachelor skier rescued at Nordic shelter
FCC requirements for providing mobile phone geographic locations
Four lost in forecast storm on Mt. Rainier
Mt. Rainier snowshoe leader falls, rescued after two days
Climber dies in forecast storm on Mt. Rainier
The Episcopal School Tragedy
SPOT Satellite Messenger "PLB" reviewed and recommended
How do you use your map, compass and GPS together, in a nut shell?
Why is the GSM digital cell phone best for backcountry travel and mountaineering?
How do GSM mobile phones assist mountaineering and backcountry rescues?
FREE Clinic on Real Survival Strategies and Staying Found with Map, Compass and GPS together
Two climbers become lost descending Mt. Hood's standard South Side Route
What do you carry in your winter day and summit pack?
Why are "snowcaves" dangerous?
Why are "Space Blankets" dangerous?
Why are "Emergency Kits" dangerous?
How can you avoid Hypothermia?
Final Report to the American Alpine Club on the loss of three climbers on Mount Hood in December 2006
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

American Alpine Club
Oregon Section of the AAC
Accidents in North American Mountaineering

Four Basic Responsibilities
Ten Essential Systems
How to use your GPS, map and compass, together