Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Avalanche Locator Beacons - Not a Perfect Solution

Currently there are 2 climbers missing on Mt. Hood. Now Mt. Hood is like Mt. Whitney in that it's near civilization and attracts all sort of people and thus is a major amateur hour. But there's a difference here - these are experienced climbers who chose to climb in winter and the conditions when they left at 1am were nearly perfect and they could have easily returned in the 13 hours they'd planned. But an accident has happened and one climber is dead and two others are missing and conditions do not look good for their rescue (Google: mt hood climbers - there are at least 100 matches right now). But they chose not to carry avalanche locator beacons/transceivers and again the debate of whether we should require climbers to carry them has sprung up again.

On paper it all sounds great. Require climbers to carry a locator beacon (aka transceiver) and in this case, there's a very (very!) remote chance it would have helped, but there are some major problems. Beacons are (1) expensive and (2) you have to activate them (but as I read more - you should activate them when you leave on your trip anyway) and (3) most important - they have a very limited range. The debate is raging here: http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2009/12/mount_hood_another_tragedy_ano.html#postComment

I contend that the beacon prices need to come down for them to be more readily used - even rentals are pricey unless someone has started subsidizing them (need to check on that - yes, they have see next blog entry). You need one per person which drives the cost up. However that said, the frequency has been standardized (457kHz) so even random rescuers could find you if they were within range (BIG if - I give ranges below). REI has a great article on them here: http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/avalanche+transceiver.html

The climbers were also carrying a cell phone and rumor has it that there is cell service on the mountain (I haven't climbed Hood yet but will - ahem, during the spring climbing season - not winter.) If there is cell service and we haven't heard from them this has some very grim implications. The phone is either lost or they are not able to use it. While I very much hope they are holed up in a snow cave (which is a fantastic if slightly chilly shelter), the possibility of this is fading if it ever was a possibility at all.

It's likely that the accident that resulted in one of the climbers dying from hypothermia (the climber had a "long, slow fall" but did not die from it) happened before the weather turned bad. If they were up high when a fall happened (he was at 9100 feet on an 11,200 mountain - a great diagram is here: http://media.oregonlive.com/news_impact/photo/hoodgrfcjpg-fe5b745a63b3f0ed.jpg) they could have ended up most anywhere though an aerial search hasn't turned up anything. This implies that they are under snow either of their choosing or not.

Some transceivers from REI
Ortovox Patroller - range "up to" 70 meters (analog then digital when closer) - price $289 -
the cheapest

Backcountry Access - range up to 40 meters - price $289.50

Pieps - range 60 meters - price $450

Mammut - range up to 60 meters - price $450

Othovox S1 - 60 meters - price $499

What does more money buy you? Speed of searching, depth measurement, more graphics, and ability to mark a spot and continue on searching for other victims. It does not buy you more range. What you want is to be buried with the cheap Orthovox Patroller with the rudimentary locator tools and have the unburied person have the snazzy "look they're right here" version. Easy right?

So if you're off with other people and you get buried in an avalanche and they don't (which is one reason people traveling in a avalanche area are spread out - a surprisingly lonely feeling for me at least) then having transceivers, shovels and probes is a Very Good Idea. However as a general tool that Search and Rescue could use, it's not really all that useful unless they have a good idea of where you are, which is so not the case right now on Mt. Hood. To sum up, beacons are a great tool within a climbing party and not much use beyond that.

But just to avoid ridicule by an uneducated public, you probably should carry them anyway just so people can say you had them. Think of it as something you do for your loved ones left behind so they don't have to put up with the stupid implications that people always leap to. Such as filing a flight plan which is totally not required for most small plane trips, but is always the first things reporters ask about. Think of it as reputation insurance.


My friend Holly and I have been having a conversation about an intriguing alternate that has recently become available. It's called a SPOT tracker. (http://findmespot.com), and it uses GPS technology to locate a beacon that you carry. There are even options where someone could track you online. It's not a cheap service at all $100-$200/year, plus the cost of the unit ($50-$150). This is not something the average poor mountaineer is going to be willing to pay for (mountaineers with money use guide services anyway), but you know right about now their families sure wish they had it.

Now if you have taken a GPS backpacking you know that there are limitations. In particular they work poorly in the woods, but even if a tree fell on you in the woods, rescuers could go to the last place that it was able to check in and that would be a heck of a lot closer than nothing.

About the only place it wouldn't work is with spelunking/caving (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caving), something that can be quite fun and really dangerous. They would be of questionable use in slot canyons which can be even more dangerous than caves (but are stunningly beautiful in places - stunningly beautiful as they have been recently carved by really violent water that may just be right around the corner.) A satellite has a better chance than anything of getting a signal in though usually you need multiple sats for triangulation and that may be hard to come by, but slot canyons and caves are limited in size so it comes back to telling someone in grand a glorious detail (on a map!) about where you are going.

I kind of wish the forest service in the more hazardous locations could have some SPOTs that people could rent. Wonder if there's a way to subsidize such a thing. That might make it more palatable since Hood is usually a very short hike (1-3 days tops), but unlike Shasta, there are many places to get lost there. Though as I type that I realize that you can get lost on Shasta but it's a lot harder and deaths on Shasta happen from falls not cold or crevasse cave-ins. Though even Shasta has major searches (I had a helicopter land near by last year looking for someone - my purist guide was totally offended, but I found it pretty fascinating), but usually they are found down at tree line walking in the wrong direction. SPOT would actually have helped locate those errant hikers and would have saved money as those lost (and poorly prepared) hikers actually walked out on their own unaware of all of the commotion they caused by one stupid "we're lost" 911 phone call.

AND In the next entry I discover that Mt. Hood has developed their own solution.

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