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143 Spot to the Rescue 2009-10-28

spot rescue beacon

A story from the National Parks Morning Report:

"Grand Canyon National Park (AZ)

Hikers Evacuated After Three SPOT Activations In Three Days

On the evening of September 23rd, rangers began a search for hikers who repeatedly activated their rented SPOT satellite tracking device. The GEOS Emergency Response Center in Houston reported that someone in the group of four hikers – two men and their two teenaged sons – had pressed the "help" button on their SPOT unit. The coordinates for the signal placed the group in a remote section of the park, most likely on the challenging Royal Arch loop. Due to darkness and the remoteness of the location, rangers were unable to reach them via helicopter until the following morning. When found, they had moved about a mile and a half to a water source. They declined rescue, as they’d activated the device due to their lack of water. Later that same evening, the same SPOT device was again activated, this time using the 911 button. Coordinates placed them less than a quarter mile from the spot where searchers had found them that morning. Once again, nightfall prevented a response by park helicopter, so an Arizona DPS helicopter whose crew utilized night vision goggles was brought in. They found that the members of the group were concerned about possible dehydration because the water they’d found tasted salty, but no actual emergency existed. The helicopter crew declined their request for a night evacuation, but provided them with water before departing. On the following morning, another SPOT "help" activation came in from the group. This time they were flown out by park helicopter. All four refused medical assessment or treatment. The group’s leader had reportedly hiked once at the Grand Canyon; the other adult had no Grand Canyon and very little backpacking experience. When asked what they would have done without the SPOT device, the leader stated, "We would have never attempted this hike." The group leader was issued a citation for creating a hazardous condition (36 CFR 2.34(a)(4)). [Submitted by Brandon Torres, Canyon District Shift Supervisor]" The report was found at: http://home.nps.gov/applications/morningreport/index.cfm

I included the report as part of the blog because their site does not index stories and there was no apparent archives.

While planning last summer’s trip to Colorado, my wife and I debated on whether to purchase a SPOT or not. The satellite signaling device was affordable, easy to use, and we could have just left it in the bottom of my pack and it would be there it we ever needed it. We decided not to buy one.

We did however meet several hikers who used a SPOT. One man in particular was a solo hiker. He used the device to signal his wife his position each day. He was a seasoned, experienced, self-reliant hiker. As a solo hiker there is always the chance something could go wrong and it was probably a good idea for our friend to carry a SPOT. (In his case I think his using the SPOT was part of a deal with his wife in order to let him climb solo. What we will do to climb a mountain...)

We live in a world of ease. Inventors everywhere are always looking for the next labor saving device. We want life to be easy. Push a button and we change the channel. Push a button and we roll down the window. Push a button and we get help! In the Grand Canyon Report, when the hikers could not find water they pushed the help button, then when the water was salty they pushed it again, and then finally when they just wanted to be evacuated, they pushed it a third time. The rescued hikers probably expected the hike to be easy. When the hike grew to be too hard, then they expected the rescue to be easy - all you do is push the button.

Then from Summit Post this summer there was a trip report about a couple of teenagers trying to climb the Maroon traverse. The weather turned bad, they continued to climb, the weather worsened, they tried to descend via an icy couloir (sans ice axe or crampons), and they were injured. They activated their SPOT and luckily the rescue team was able to respond and save them.

The SPOT is an important communication device, but it does not make climbing or hiking any easier. The skill and judgement that was once required to hike or climb a trail has not been lessened because the hiker or climber is now carrying a SPOT. What if, for example, we were climbing beyond our means, got in trouble, pushed the button; but nobody came? We can not allow technology to give us a false sense of electronic security. There will be times when a rescue might not be possible SPOT or not. We can push the button, but that does not mean a rescue is on the way to save us.

Our rule of thumb is: if we feel that the only way we can safely climb a route or hike a trail is by carrying a SPOT or any other electronic device, then we probably should not be attempting it. Instead, we should spend time gaining the necessary skills and experience needed for the endeavor or opt for a different route. A SPOT device does not make climbing easier or safer. In the mountains there is no easy button.

Happy trails.


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