Electronic rescue devices in the mountains, yes or no?
In the mid 1990s, before the mobile phone boom, there were some who considered the adoption of this technology as a piece of safety kit unnecessary and even depreciative of the wilderness experience. Ten years later I dare say it would have been considered borderline negligent for one in a commercial leadership role to be without a phone in the hills. Oh how things have changed.
Nowadays there is an array of apps, gadgets and gizmos for rescue and recovery that are highly affordable; but do they indeed detract from the sense of adventure, will such devices give us a sense of invulnerability that affects our decision making or is it a matter of common sense that we should use all available to us for the sake of ourselves, family, friends and rescuers?
GPS functionality with topographical mapping, 'buddy beacons', weather and conditions reports, locators, torch and compass are just some of the apps available now. There is even a Google 'Streetview' of the 1938 Route on the Eiger north face, just in case you have trouble route finding! There may be some rare Pokemon at Death Bivouac too. All this comes with an energy cost of course, one that is exacerbated by low temperatures on lithium batteries. So this is all great, but vulnerable to failure. I carry an iPhone everywhere, it's my second brain. On the hill it's charged and waterproofed. If I'm out for multiple days I take a power pack.
PLBs and SPOTs
Personal locator beacons require a one-off purchase and when activated send a radio signal to an orbiting satellite which is then relayed by various agencies to, hopefully, the appropriate local rescue service. SPOT devices require the purchase of a subscription and use a satellite network to provide text messaging and GPS tracking plus the ability to send a distress signal. Both types of unit are relatively small and are therefore easy to carry. Some rescue teams and adventure organisations use them and personally I'm considering it. In the Scottish Highlands there are still blank spots on the cellphone service map which can obviously be problematic when in need of assistance. As a rough average I encounter, in the course of my work, one incident a year where I need to help and often that involves making contact with emergency services.
Transceivers have been around since the early seventies and used by skiers and rescuers ever since. The units work by emitting a low power pulsed beacon signal that can be detected by another transceiver being used in 'search' mode.
It is now considered standard practice to use this equipment in conjunction with the obligatory probe and shovel when skiing off-piste, back country, side country and even within pisted areas nowadays – given certain terrain and conditions. Historically though winter mountaineers in the UK have not used them for the following reason: mountaineers practice avalanche avoidance, moving on foot is slow and allows observation and decision making, added to this there is the perception that transceivers are of limited use for mountaineers because of low snow volumes and the likelihood of injury by traumatic impact rather than burial under snow. Recent winters may have changed perceptions on that score though and there is work being done to collate cause of death data on historical incidents in Scotland, because what there is currently is anecdotal.
So should we, as mountaineers, carry transceiver, probe and shovel?
For the last three winter seasons Glenmore Lodge have undertaken a trial which involves mountain courses being issued with and given the minimum training in the use of TPS and recording information about the time spent training for minimal competence, time spent training for further information, locations visited and all manner of other data to build a picture of how it affects the day, the decision making, how well the learning is retained and the practicality of the extra equipment.
For skiers it makes absolute sense. Skiers travel fast over changing terrain and seek out gradients with snow on them, by their very nature slopes that may be prone to avalanche. Quite different to winter hillwalkers and climbers then, who will usually attempt to avoid those places? I say attempt because of course winter climbers frequently find themselves on steep, snow laden terrain – when moving on a crag apron en route to a climb.
The prospect of winter mountaineers carrying TPS has been met with (sometimes fierce) resistance as a 'step too far' towards controlling risk in a hazardous environment, but we shall see, what was once considered inappropriate may sometime become the norm!
For my part, it's important that we try these things out, discuss them and be open minded for the future. At this point in time I do not feel it appropriate to carry a transceiver in winter, other than when skiing.
There is a line we walk between successful adventure and catastrophe. When we are out with our peers we have the luxury of deciding on which side, but with clients a duty of care is required so that they can have every expectation of coming home in one piece. What equipment you carry or do not carry to make it so is up to you, but can you justify it?