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Technology a boon to backcountry rescue

Charles Agar
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Your cell phone could save your life.

Global-positioning technology and a handful of new gadgets are changing the face of backcountry travel, and many rescuers and backcountry hikers rely on it.

Just ask Ron Ryan, Pitkin County Sheriff’s investigator.



Ryan recently fielded a call of a man lost in the Hunter Creek Valley near Aspen.

“He got confused where the trail went,” Ryan said.



But when the man realized he’d lost his group, he used his Blackberry, sending text messages to conserve batteries. He was able to stay in touch with Ryan who dispatched 15 Mountain Rescue Aspen searchers to the scene.

And unlike many people who are embarrassed and wait until they’re in real trouble, the man phoned police with plenty of daylight left and gave rescuers time to find him.

“It did confirm that we were in the right area,” Ryan said of the GPS function on the man’s phone, which helped searchers pin the man’s location down to about a 3,000-meter area, Ryan said.

As cell phones have become ubiquitous in recent years, local law enforcement officials receive more calls for service, including reports of reckless driving. And though most of rural Pitkin County has no cell service, calls for help from the backcountry or from trailheads are on the upswing, Ryan said.

Rescues, however, are still done the old-fashioned way, Ryan said, and that’s where Mountain Rescue Aspen comes in.

One of the biggest benefits to carrying a cell phone is that hikers and climbers can check in when they return to cell range, according to Hugh Zuker, president of Mountain Rescue Aspen.

Before the advent of cell phones, people often miscalculated their time or forgot to check in. But thanks to technology, Zuker said, “We don’t go searching for people who are at the bar.”

Often on high peaks, climbers can get reception and can tell folks where they’re headed, their schedule, and give friends their “last seen” point.

Depending on the service provider and the GPS capability of the phone, Zuker said rescuers can either pinpoint the last call point (if GPS enabled), follow a vector, or the direction the call came from in relation to the nearest cell tower.

“It can give us an idea,” Zuker said.

And additional technologies, such as GPS mapping units and personal locator devices have “changed the game,” Zuker said.

Mountain Rescue staff have not yet responded to a call from one of the new personal locator devices, but Zuker said rescuers are excited about the new technology.

“We’re still getting the same rate of people getting lost,” Zuker said, even with evolving technologies. He said he is relieved that people don’t seem to be taking more chances because they are backed up by some gadget.

“No technology is going to carry you out of the back country with a broken leg,” Zuker said.

All cell phones made by Verizon, the most common carrier in the Roaring Fork Valley, are equipped with GPS and have been for the last few years, according to Verizon spokesman Bob Kelley.

“That is a major initiative for Verizon Wireless,” Kelley said.

When someone dials 911 in an area that has a newer version of “enhanced 911” common in metropolitan areas, they are automatically tracked.

Aspen and Pitkin County operators have an “enhanced 911” system and when reached by cell phone can know the cell number, the cell tower transmitting the signal and in which sector it is, but cannot find a cell phone caller’s exact position yet.

Otherwise, police can triangulate the signal.

“It doesn’t give a precise pinpoint, but it allows law enforcement and others to get a pretty good fix on their location,” Kelley said, but it takes time.

Newer phones can be on GPS all of the time, Kelley said, and newer programs allow people to use their phones as online mapping devices.

And Verizon is extending its footprint all the time, Kelley said.

“It’s a tremendous safety advantage,” Kelley said.

Cell phones have played a role in countless incidents in Colorado and across the country, and Verizon is extending its network area coverage constantly, Kelley said.

Dick Jackson, owner of Aspen Expeditions and a longtime mountain guide, said he relies on a handful of technologies, including cell phones, line-of-site radios and GPS locators.

Jackson and his guides have been using a newer product called Spot locators for more than a year.

“The Spot really does work well,” Jackson said, especially when groups are running late and need to get a message out without alerting rescuers.

The device can be programmed with a few pre-arranged messages that go from the hand-held device via satellite then as a text message or e-mail, which also provides the exact location of the transmission.

“Most of the time when it’s used it’s: ‘We’re fine, we’re OK,'” Jackson said.

Personal locators were once more than $600, but the Spot costs about $160 plus an annual activation fee, Jackson said.

The market is opening up to new products, and Jackson and his guides also rely on GPS mapping systems.

Jackson, who climbs regularly in the European Alps, said cell phone service there is blanket coverage, and mountain climbers rely on it heavily.

Elsewhere, such as on his trips to Kilimanjaro, Jackson said many climbers use expensive satellite phones, which people often “overuse.”

And calling friends back home from the summit of Kilimanjaro changes the nature of adventure, Jackson said.

“You’re no longer remote,” Jackson said. “Part of adventure is not knowing the outcome.”

cagar@aspentimes.com


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