On Sept. 1, Chelan County Mountain Rescue Association Volunteers got a text at 4:30 a.m. that two personal locator beacons (PLBs) were deployed near the summit of Dragontail Peak in the Enchantments. I was awake for a different rescue that had resolved itself, so I grabbed some additional climbing equipment from our gear cache and drove to the Leavenworth Hatchery — the landing zone for rescues in this area. By the time I arrived, the two climbers had been located by an earlier reconnaissance flight and seemed OK.
Mike McLeod (Chelan County Sheriff’s Deputy) and I were picked up by helicopter and dropped off about 400 feet from the summit of the mountain. Mike stayed at the landing zone, waiting for the next rescuers to be dropped off, while I hiked up. I made verbal contact with the climbers. They were OK and we figured out our strategy. I came closer, set up an anchor, threw them a rope and belayed them over 20 feet of technical terrain to “scrambling” terrain where no rope was needed.
The easiest and best outcome on a rescue I’ve ever been a part of.
The two climbers were just 150 feet from the summit, uninjured, a little cold from their night out (they did have an emergency bivy sack and warm coats) and were on route.
So why the rescue we asked?
When pressed with this question, they said they were climbing too slow based on their planned return time. They knew they would be unable to contact their safety contact (the person at home who would call for a rescue if overdue) by 6:30 a.m. the next day — the time they had told their contact to activate a rescue if overdue. Because they knew a rescue was inevitable at this point, they determined they would save Search and Rescue (SAR) the problem of locating them by deploying their beacons so we would know exactly where they were.
The purposes of discussing this scenario are twofold:
1. To get you thinking about how much cushion to build into trips before a rescue is initiated.
2. To understand that there are technologies available to keep you in touch, without triggering unnecessary rescues.
Many subjective factors determine how much time you should allow before your safety contact initiates a rescue.
These include but are not limited to: The objective of your climb or hike, how many people are on the trip, you and you partner’s skill set and health, your history and comfort level with your partner, the forecasted weather, the known cell-phone reception along your route, whether or not you are carrying any sort of PLB or satellite communicator, and the type of rescue beacon or satellite communicator in your possession.
The amount of time a rescue might take (which might vary from three hours to several days depending on location, terrain and weather) also affects the decision.
As for the technologies available, there are two basic categories of beacons and communicators.
First are personal locator beacons (PLBs), which our two climbers utilized, that send out an emergency signal with GPS coordinates of where the beacon is currently located. Once the PLB is deployed, a rescue is initiated and there is no turning back.
Second are satellite communicators (SCs), of which there are a few different options, all requiring a monthly subscription.
The more advanced SCs like the DeLorme InReach, allow users to send and receive text messages via satellites. They also allow users to connect via Bluetooth to their phone to make texting easier. The simpler SCs like the Spot Gen3, have three text messages users can pre-program before a trip saying such things as:
1. All OK and on schedule
2. All OK and everyone healthy, but running several hours to half day late
3. We’re OK but in need of help — going to activate the Rescue button. The most popular satellite communicators (DeLorme InReach and Spot Gen3) are also PLBs, meaning all your bases are covered — you can communicate with your safety contact and you can activate a rescue that will mobilize Search and Rescue.
Without nerding out too much, understand that PLBs and SCs utilize different satellite systems. Different people feel different satellite systems are superior. The units are not cheap ($90 to $450) so do your research, understand how these units work, and know how you’ll be using them before you invest. It’s also worth noting that unless you are on top of a high peak and have line of sight to a local town, you probably won’t have cell phone reception. And, just like all cool technologies, these devices are not a substitution for experience.
What the two climbers in my example needed was a way to let their family know that they were OK but running late — this is where SCs come into the picture. I discussed this with the climbers on our hike out. We spoke a few days later on the phone and they had both upgraded to satellite communicators. Had these climbers not purchased SCs and stuck with PLBs, they should have given their safety contacts at home considerably longer timeframes before those contacts activated a rescue. And why not — the climbers themselves had the ability to activate a rescue with their PLBs so they should have given themselves much more fudge factor with the times given to their safety contact. The assumption with a PLB is that all kinds of factors can make you late, so no news (for an extra day or two) is still good news.
In Washington state, rescues do not cost the victims. Unnecessary rescues (even simple ones like the one described here) cost thousands of dollars and pull rescue authorities and volunteers unnecessarily away from other important work as well as putting them at risk. That being said, all these authorities and volunteers are passionate about assisting people who are truly in dire straits. Properly used and with good protocols established with people back home who are monitoring your progress, these technologies can make you safer in the mountains and can help rescue authorities when rescues become necessary.