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Hikers in Grand Canyon Resort to PLB To Save Themselves

Personal Locator Beacon

Personal Locator Beacon, found at REI

More and more, modern technology allows us to save us from ourselves. A perfect example occurred earlier this week in the Grand Canyon, where hikers who were beaten down by the heat used a “personal locator beacon” to save themselves. The help, incidentally, came from across the country in Florida.

The beacon's signal was detected from the canyon’s Surprise Valley, a remote area on the north side of the park, by the Air Force Rescue Coordinator Center at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.

Air Force personnel called the park about 6:30 p.m. on July 2 to alert them to the signal. Rangers used a helicopter to reach the location, where they found a hiking party of four. One of the hikers was suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion and was taken out of the canyon by the helicopter. The other three remained in the canyon and were given ice and water by the rangers.

The use of the personal locator beacon technology was the first not only in the Grand Canyon, but supposedly the first “legitimate use” of the technology in the state of Arizona, according to park officials.

For better or worse, the park’s chief of emergency services, Ken Phillips, thinks search and rescue teams will see more use of the locator beacons. The use of satellite phones, which have the advantage of offering two-way communication, is also on the rise.

I say “for better or worse,” because there’s the very real possibility that some folks will overlook their own abilities and lean too much on this technology and get into backcountry locations and conditions where they shouldn’t venture.

“A person who carries a PLB should always take the proper measures to prevent themselves from ever having to use it,” Phillips says.


charge them for the costs of rescue. no wonder they are suffering from heat exhaustion, has anyone seen the weather in that area lately? i agree with your conjecture, kurt, people are using technology to overstep the boundaries of their abilities. it's similar to folks skiing in the backcountry without much avalanche experience simply because they have a beacon and a cellphone.

One thing about the beacon: it seems like it would reduce the "search" element of a search & rescue considerably. Some searches take days, whereas the beacon sends a chopper directly to the point of need.

One thing that seems to be driving these more and more frequent call-outs of rescue services is the media romanticism of extreme sports. These media portrayals reduce the public's perception of the risk of the less extreme activities. People don't feel like they need either the training, the skills, or the all-around preparedness because they've got a way to summon a rescue.

Is it still a wilderness if you can make the equivalent of a 911 call from there? Some might convincingly argue, it's not.

A couple of years ago I was on a day-hike with the forest superintendent of the San Bernardino National Forest. He had his radio with him, and during our hike, he had to weigh a difficult decision: Some climbers had injured themselves on the way to San Gorgonio Mountain. They weren't in immediate danger, but it was later in the day, and rescue teams on foot or horse might not get there until dark. They only had a second-hand report on the conditions of the climbers from other hikers who had come down already. The forest superintendent had to decide whether this was enough of a life threatening emergency to justify violating the wilderness act and allow a helicopter into the wilderness. The issues of legal liability and the potential for bad press finally pushed him in the direction of approving the helicopter. I never found out later whether is was really necessary.

Every time someone is made safer in the wilderness, not by their own skill and preparedness, but rather by the use of extraordinary rescue operations using mechanized equipment, it makes that place less of a wilderness.

If I may, let me point readers to part II in your series called 'Counting Up Essentials'. I like the discussion you have with Doug Ritter about these P.L.B.'s and whether they should be included in a list of essentials to toss in a backcountry hiking pack -- especially if you choose to hike solo. I think Doug felt pretty strongly that a PLB should be included in the pack.

I haven't had an opportunity yet to confirm this morning, but I've heard that the Oregon State legislature is considering (or has passed) legislation requiring climbers on Mt. Hood to carry these things. Search and Rescue spent a lot of time on that mountain this past winter. I think S&R is less concerned about the meaning of 'wilderness' at this point, and more concerned with the well being of their volunteers.

It brings up an interesting argument, one that I'd love to see continued in additional stories and comments on this site and around the web, which is, what is the role of wilderness? I have a feeling the answer was fairly clear when the Wilderness Act was created in '64, but that the lines have been severely blurred with the introduction of hand held electronics like cell phones, PLBs, and even consumer grade walkie-talkies which have the ability to reach beyond the boundaries of wilderness and call for help.

Jeremy Sullivan wrote: "It brings up an interesting argument, one that I'd love to see continued in additional stories and comments on this site and around the web, which is, what is the role of wilderness?"

That's a very big discussion indeed. There are plenty of people, I imagine Scott Silver would be one of them, who would argue that any intrusion of modernity into a wilderness degrades the wilderness itself. I actually find it hard to argue against that position. It boils down to the more core question, is wilderness a museum or a park? In the way that it's managed in the U.S., it's in some difficult-to-define gray area in between.

I attended an interesting symposium at San Francisco State University called Redefining Wilderness. The attendees and panelists tried to tackle just such questions. Of course, there are never going to be any really clear-cut answers. I hopew they offer it next year -- I make sure you and Kurt are invited.

As for PLBs, my own opinion is totally conflicted. Putting on my responsible journalist hat, I agree with Doug Ritter that PLBs probably are the best available technology to summon search and rescue services, and it would be irresponsible of me not to report that. Putting on my wilderness advocate hat, I'll argue that PLBs (and similar technologies) allow people to get into the wilderness without the skill and preparedness that would otherwise reduce the likelihood of ever needing a rescue, and that the more frequent appearance of SAR and mechanized assistance like helicopters destroy what wilderness is supposed to be.

Idiots and technology are a dangerous mix. The NPS is already understaffed with rangers, and now this "safety alarm" is going to be standard equipment for any unprepard, over-zealous wanderer who now thinks that the beacon is an entitlement to pursue goals far beyond their reach, with the alledged securing of safe rescue by the rangers at their disposal. Poor babies, suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion........TOTALLY PREVENTABLE UNLESS YOU"RE A COMPLETE IDIOT!!!! Save the rangers for TRUE emergencies, (e.g., injuries, flash flood rescues, etc.). I've got an even better idea. Instead of PLB's, let's mandate WATER and MAPS to be carried by ALL canyoneers. Then, if they can't remember to use and refill their containers, let them suffer the inevitable. It will be nobody's fault or responsibility but their own. It is NOT the job of the NPS to babysit you while you act in an irresponsibe manner.
What a concept........PERSONAL ACCOUNTABILITY!!!!

I'll wager these are the same people who trip over the cords attached to their PS-2 and X-Box, too, then blame Sony or Microsoft for creating a dangerous obstacle intended to maliciously injure in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. And some moron from the ACLU will take up their cause and litigate for every person's right to be an idiot, too. BOY do we need some major adjustments regarding our values as a nation!

Good answer Ken, and I agree 100%. People will rely on this "Get out of Jail Free" card too much and push themselves too far. I even wonder how most people these days can function without a cell phone in their possession. We get so attached to these gadgets we forget how to strategize, plan, and think for ourselves.

Ken's a good guy -- he showed me the ropes (literally) back in 1985 when we were collecting money (a LOT of coinage) and trash tossed over one of the overlooks at Grand Canyon. Lightning bolt came out of nowhere and you should have seen everyone running like rabbits. Right beforehand the hair on my arms was tingling with static electricity and one of the females present had her hair standing straight out from her head when someone suddenly realized what was about to happen. One of my fonder canyon memories that luckily turned out well for everyone!

-- Jon Merryman

The real problem with these devices is not that wilderness values will be lost. It's that more rangers and pilots will be lost if the unnecessary use of the these beacons proliferates.

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