Does technology help or hinder backcountry rescue?

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Last week, the NYT published an article about National Park visitors using cellphones and other technology during their recreation trips. 

One woman, a visitor at Yellowstone video taped her husband’s close encounter with a buffalo.  She even joked “Watch Donald get gored.”  Turns out, the buffalo attacked her, causing bruises and other minor injuries.

The author of the article goes on to discuss other misguided tourists.  One family, while backpacking into the Grand Canyon, sent out an emergency signal on their personal satellite messaging device, calling in a helicopter because their water “tasted salty.” 

These tourists are certainly taxing the patience and funds of rescuers.   The “salty water” family sent out a total of three emergency signals, all of which were non-life threatening situations.  On the third helicopter assist, the rescuers gave them no choice.  The bothersome family had to return home. 

However, my experience as a ski patroller at Crystal Mountain refutes the examples given in this article.  Last year alone, several backside searches were aided by the injured party’s cellphone calls. 

One man, skiing alone just outside the boundary of the ski area, got caught in an avalanche and severely injured.  It was late in the day and getting dark.  He was partially buried in deep snow, suffering from broken bones and internal injuries and no one knew where he was. 

He was able to extract his cellphone from his breast pocket (only his upper body was out of the avalanche debris) and make a call.  Fortunately for him, he had the Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol number programmed into his phone.  He called our dispatch and within minutes help was on the way. 

Without that phone, it may have been a few hours before anyone knew he was missing.  If he didn’t have good cellphone coverage, we wouldn’t have received a call at all.  Perhaps his wife would have called 911, the patrol may have left for the day, and it would have been too dark to search by helicopter.  Instead, the ski patroller on duty would have initiated a search, and wouldn’t have even known where to start. 

Certainly the buffalo videotaper and the “salty water” family used their technology irresponsibly.  Backcountry travellers should never substitute an emergency satellite locator or a cell phone for good common sense and preparedness. 

Perhaps it is the proliferation of survival shows that have jump-started this surge in ill-prepared backcountry travel.  One of the examples sited in the article was the death of two young men who tried to navigate Utah’s Virgin River on a log raft.  They were video-taping the trip as an entry into the Man vs. Wild competition.  They had no prior whitewater experience.

I’m the first to admit that Bear Grylls is fun to watch.  And not just because he can catch a salmon with his bare hands or float a crocodile-infested river on a hand-made raft.  Let’s face it.  Bear Grylls is hot. 

But he does his homework.  And he has experience.  But most importantly, what any backcountry traveller needs is good judgement.  No amount of rescue technology is going to save you from bad judgement.

But cell phones should be considered an essential piece of equipment in the backcountry.  Just like Bear always has his huge Crocodile Dundee knife and a piece of flint to start a fire, so should we all carry a cell phone and the judgement not to ever need it.

Here’s the link to the article:  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/science/earth/22parks.html

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2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Survival Saw

  2. Pingback: Does technology help or hinder backcountry rescue? | Articles, Grylls' | Blog Crystal

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