A National Guard helicopter arrives at an accident site on Mount Hood. Photo © Portland Mountain Rescue.
A National Guard helicopter arrives at an accident site on Mount Hood. Photo © Portland Mountain Rescue.
  Climber 9-1-1  
  Should mobile communication devices be mandatory?  
  By Rad Roberts  

I n December 2006, Kelly James, Brian Hall, and Jerry Cooke attempted a winter ascent of the North Face of Mount Hood. Forty eight hours later, a storm hit the mountain with winds over 90 mph and several feet of new snow. The climbers had not returned and it was clear that something was wrong. James placed a brief cell phone call to his girlfriend, telling her he was trapped in a snow cave high on the mountain and needed rescue. Unfortunately, search and rescue (SAR) teams could not reach the upper mountain due to hurricane-force winds, driving snow, and extreme avalanche danger. They had to wait several days for safer conditions. In the meantime, television crews converged on the mountain and broadcast the drama on the news every night. The nation held its breath for a week, hoping the climbers would somehow survive the storm. When rescue teams finally reached the upper mountain, they found the frozen body of James in the snow cave. Despite intensive searching, Hall and Cooke were never found. They are presumed dead.

Rescuers gather next to an ambulance on Mount Hood. Photo © Matthew Weaver.
Rescuers gather next to an ambulance on Mount Hood. Photo © Matthew Weaver.
Rescuers gather next to an ambulance on Mount Hood. Photo © Matthew Weaver.

Intense media coverage and public interest in this tragedy spurred debate about what went wrong and how future accidents might be prevented. A bill was introduced in the Oregon State Legislature proposing that Mount Hood climbers be required to carry an electronic signaling device above 10,000 feet in winter. Portland Mountain Rescue and members of the climbing community opposed the bill. It was defeated, but the issue would rise again.

December 2009 brought another severe winter storm and another team of three climbers missing on Mount Hood. High winds, deep snow, and high avalanche danger again prevented SAR teams from attempting a rescue. When the weather broke, the body of one climber was found, but there was no sign of the other two. They were found dead the next summer. Eight weeks later a bill was introduced, this time in Washington, requiring climbers to carry a cell phone or other signaling device when traveling above tree line in the mountains. SAR groups, National Park officials, and climbers opposed the bill, and it was withdrawn. It’s likely that there will be future legislative attempts to require Northwest climbers to carry signaling devices.

The assumption underlying these bills is that climbers would be safer if they were required to carry a mobile communication device into the mountains. To evaluate this assumption, this article will explore several questions:

  • Do mobile communication devices improve outcomes for mountain search and rescue (SAR)?
  • What is the best mobile communication device for Northwest mountain climbers?
  • Will climbers take greater risks if they think they can easily call in a rescue?
  • What equipment is most likely to increase climber safety?
  • Would there be unintended consequences of requiring climbers to carry a signaling device?
Do mobile communication devices improve outcomes for mountain search and rescue?

Park Officials and SAR leaders agree that they can. Examples from 2009-2010 illustrate this (see sidebar). A significant fraction of climbers use mobile communication devices to call for rescues. In 2005, 23% of SARs in National Parks were initiated by cell or satellite phone, 29% in person, 23% by landline, and 5% by radio. Of 19 SAR missions reported in Mount Rainier National Park in 2009, four were reported by mobile phone and five were reported by radio. Three of the nine mountain rescues in North Cascades National Park in 2009 were reported by cell phone and one by activation of a SPOT beacon.

In two North Cascades incidents in 2009, parties tried to use a cell phone in the field but failed to get service. Uninjured members of these parties had to descend and report the accidents in person at the Marblemount Ranger Station. These cases illustrate that cell phones don’t always work when they are needed. Perhaps a different mobile communication device would have enabled these climbers to get help faster.

What is the best mobile communication device for mountain climbers?

There is a growing list of devices capable of transmitting a voice or electronic signal to initiate a mountain rescue operation. No single device works best in all situations. The most important factor in choosing a device is whether it will work when needed. Two things must happen: the device must send a message to its communication network (e.g. cell tower or satellite), and someone must be available to receive the message and initiate a rescue. Below is a summary of some of the pros and cons of these technologies:

McMurdo FastFind PLB.
McMurdo FastFind PLB.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)
A high-power beacon used to initiate a rescue and provide a homing signal to assist searchers.

  • Pros: High transmission power (5 Watts) and low operating frequency (406 and 121 MHz) enable a PLB to effectively transmit a distress signal and act as a homing beacon. Dispatchers are available 24/7 to respond to signals and contact regional authorities to request initiation of an SAR operation. This technology has been used for emergency signaling in aviation and boating for many years.
  • Cons: No two-way communication. The PLB cannot cancel a rescue that has been initiated.
  • Cost: $250 for the McMurdo FastFind. No contract cost.

SPOT beacons
A lower-power beacon with a variety of non-emergency functions.

  • Pros: Private satellites and dispatchers are available 24/7 to initiate rescues. Multiple pre-set messages can be sent, including one to cancel a rescue request. Optional GPS tracking and other features are available.
  • Cons: No two-way communication. Its less powerful signal (0.4 Watts) and higher operating frequency (1600 MHz) make it less likely than a PLB to be able to transmit a signal through trees or snow.
  • Cost: $170 for the SPOT II. $99 or more for the annual contract, depending on options selected.
MLU sewn into a shoulder strap.
MLU sewn into a shoulder strap.

Mountain Locator Unit (MLU)
A device used to help locate victims once a rescue has been initiated by other means.

  • Pros: Low operating frequency (168 MHz) allows reliable transmission from snow caves and in the woods. Units are charged and maintained by County Sheriff’s offices and will signal continuously for many days once activated. Rescuers can use an MLU signal to pinpoint missing climbers using the same methods used to track radio-collared animals.
  • Cons: MLU signals are not monitored unless a rescue has been activated by a report of an overdue climber or a 9-1-1 call. MLUs only work on Mount Hood. There is no communication between victims and rescuers, between victims and other parties, or between MLU units.
  • Cost: $5/day rental. Not available for purchase.
Basic cell phone.
Basic cell phone.

Cell phones
Versatile and ubiquitous devices that don’t always work when needed.

  • Pros: Most people already have one so price is largely irrelevant. Transmission at 850 and 1900 MHz allows increased fidelity compared to single band units. Two-way communication with rescuers and others is possible. A host of other useful features may be available, including texting, internet access, a digital camera, GPS, compass, weather reports, and more.
  • Cons: Cell coverage is spotty in many popular climbing areas and unavailable in more remote locations. Transmission power may be too low to reach distant cell towers.
  • Cost: Unit costs and monthly fees vary widely.
Iridium 9555 satellite phone.
Iridium 9555 satellite phone.

Satellite phones
Expensive but reliable phones with few accessory features.

  • Pros: Can make calls almost anywhere in the world, including Northwest mountains. Two-way communication with rescuers and others is possible.
  • Cons: Expensive. Callers may need to wait a few minutes or more for a satellite to pass overhead.
  • Cost: $1349 for the Iridium 9555 or $45/week rental plus usage charges.

SAR leaders and park officials agree that two-way communication is valuable because they can confirm a distress call and sometimes provide victims with assistance remotely. Such assistance could include first-aid advice or route-finding directions. Two-way communication also makes it possible for a party to communicate that they are delayed but don’t require rescue. One-way signaling devices can’t provide these benefits and are more prone to false alarms. With no way to verify the validity of a call for help, SAR teams must respond to every call and device activation as if someone’s life depended on it. Most rescuers encourage climbers to carry and use mobile communication devices, but some have concerns that these devices may induce climbers to take more risks than they would without one.

Recent Cell Phone SAR Calls

• Summer 2009, North Cascades
A climber fell 60 feet on the North Buttress of Mount Terror, breaking his femur and sustaining serious head injuries. His partners climbed to the summit, hoping for cell phone coverage. They were able to call 9-1-1 and reach North Cascades Ranger Kelly Bush. She dispatched a helicopter rescue team that plucked the injured climber off the mountain and transferred him to Harborview Medical Center. The climber has made a full recovery. (See story in this NWMJ issue.)

• Summer 2009, Mount Hood
A late-night cell phone call was received from a climbing party descending the south side of Mount Hood. They were overdue and disoriented. Monty Smith of Portland Mountain Rescue was able to determine their location and talk them safely back to Timberline Lodge. No one was hurt, no rescue was initiated, and Smith and his colleagues never had to step outside.

• Winter 2010, Crystal Mtn Ski Area
A solo skier was swept down a gully by an avalanche, slammed into a tree, and pinned by avalanche debris. He broke his hip, sustained internal injuries, and was rapidly becoming hypothermic. Fortunately, he was able to make a cell phone call to the Crystal Ski Patrol, who initiated a successful ground rescue. The skier spent five days in Harborview Medical Center and is on the road to recovery.

• Spring 2010, Snoqualmie Pass
A lone hiker was swept off the Granite Mountain trail and buried by an avalanche. He was trapped under the snow but extremely lucky, explaining “My legs were completely cramped, but I had a little space. It was about a foot wide (with) a hole going up to the surface, so I had a little light and air coming through.” He used his cell phone to call 9-1-1 from beneath the snow and initiate a rescue. Rescuers found him and dug him out. Other than bruising and hypothermia, he was unhurt. Like the solo skier above, this individual probably would have died if he hadn’t been able to use his phone to initiate a rapid rescue.

• Spring 2010, Mount Rainier
Two climbers fell 75 feet into a large crevasse just below Camp Muir. They called 9-1-1 from the bottom of the crevasse, but bad weather delayed rescue teams. Fortunately, the party had camping gear with them. They pitched a tent on a ledge inside the crevasse and waited in their sleeping bags until rescuers arrived to pull them up to safety.

Cell Phone Failures
Two rescues in the North Cascades in 2009 involved parties who tried to use a cell phone in the field but failed to get service. Uninjured members of each party had to descend to report the accidents in person at the Marblemount Ranger Station. These cases illustrate that cell phones don’t always work when and where they are needed.
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