My SPOT Non-Emergency on Denali

The First-Hand Skivvy
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The First-Hand Skivvy

OK gang: Here's the horse's mouth version of the SPOT non-emergency call that went out on June 9th as Sibusiso Vilane and I were climbing Alaska's 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley. (Yes, we summited, on Day 13, and Sibusiso Vilane became the first black man, and black African, to climb the Seven Summits. More on that in later posts.)

We'd begun climbing on June 1st, and our 9th day on the mountain was perfect. The weather was stable and we made good time climbing from the busy, cosmopolitan 14,200-foot camp, up the strenuous Headwall fixed ropes and along the exposed West Buttress ridgeline to a cache at 16,500 feet. There we dug a hole and stashed 8 days of food, fuel and high-altitude clothing in a snowdrift just below the granite pinnacle of Washburn's Thumb.

I'd been running the SPOT's tracking function every day, turning the unit on and letting it self-locate for about 5 minutes before each day's carry, then activating the Track Function (which sends a waypoint every 10 minutes for 24 hours) as we moved out of camp. When each day's carry was over, I'd turn off the unit for 5-10 minutes. Then power up again and send a separate "OK" e-mail message that showed where we were camped. The track logs go to my SPOT account, where my editors can review and publish them if desired. The OK and Help messages go straight to several e-mails which I change depending on the trip I'm taking. In this case, the OKs went to my e-mail, and my wife Jennifer's. The "Help" e-mail list included my e-mail, Jen's, and Editor-in-Chief Jon Dorn's...due to the potential publicity implications of a big/bad/Backpacker editor being rescued in the woods.

I also tailor the "Help" and "911" messages to the trip I'm currently taking. SPOT users do this by accessing their account on the web, and customizing each message. For Denali and most daily use, my Help message specifically indicates a stranding or injury, but not a life-threatening one that would require Emergency Medical Support. "Help" is the message I'd send for routine accidents like a broken ankle while trail running, or a 4WD breakdown in remote country. Based on the Google Map details of my position, those e-mail friends could then send a rescue team, or just come get me. The 911 message (also never needed and thankfully not sent) indicates a life-threatening medical emergency, and includes relevant info like my age, lack of allergies, blood type, and a request for immediate EMS and evac to a hospital ER.

The SPOT beacon sat atop my pack. I was already worried about losing it, or having it flap around and press some button or other, so I had it hung out of the way. I'd reinforced/closed the belt clip with several wraps of non-aluminized duct tape, and used a Nite-Eyes S-biner to clip it to two separate loops on my pack's top pocket. It sat with the logo facing straight upwards for best reception/transmission.

Mostly, this was all for test purposes, not emergency reasons. The West Buttress route on Denali is fairly popular, and unless one strays from the route, travels during the "night," or decides to climb into a storm when few people move, remote signaling is somewhat of a non-issue. As well, the NPS now monitors FRS radio channel 1, security code 1. (Your basic "Motorola two-way" radio, set on default channel.) Since those radios have a two- to five-mile range, depending on conditions, they'd probably be my first choice for emergency signalling and general communications on "The Butt." I'd also warned Jen that if I triggered an emergency signal, it might be because we'd encountered someone else who was trashed.

The SPOT performed quite flawlessly for the first 8.5-days, but apparently as I flipped my pack top lid open and began digging our cache, the Help button was inadvertently pressed. When the unit is left on while hiking, or if the tracking function is working, pressing either "Help" or "911" immediately defaults to the emergency message and sends out. Since we were climbing and digging, rather than obsessing over the beacon, I never noticed the send-out.

Happy with our progress, Sibu and I descended to 14,200-foot camp. About 300 feet above camp we were met by NPS climbing ranger Tucker Chenoweth, who was skiing up in a t-neck with his jacket wrapped around his waist. We assumed he was just making some turns above camp. He told us the beacon had initiated an emergency call. We were like "Huh?" It was our first inkling that the day was anything but perfect.

So we looked at the SPOT, still atop my pack. The Power and OK lights were blinking in unison as per normal for the tracking function. There was no indication anything had changed. The time between "Help" alert, and our meeting with Tucker, was approximately 2-3 hours. Theoretically, the SPOT would require holding down the "Help" button for 3-5 seconds. Then it would transmit "Help" for an hour, then default back to a blinking power light, with no other lights up. Why the tracking function resumed, after an hour, is still an open question that may never be answered.

In the meantime, however, much mayhem had ensued, and a lot of that was due to the unreliability of internet and phone lines in rural Utah, not anything to do with SPOT. (As a note, Sibu gets better internet and phone service in rural Swaziland than we do in the rural U.S., but don't get me started on telecom deregulation, the 'free' market, and corporate America's lack of infrastructure reinvestment.)

It was embarrassing, walking into camp with people staring at us, but when we got back to 14,200, Tucker, another ranger named John, and I checked out the beacon to see how easy it was to trigger "Help" when the unit was continuously on. It only took a slight bump with a heavily gloved finger to activate. That "Help" message went out quickly, within 30 seconds. Then we canceled it. The cancellation went out even quicker, as indicated by the red LEDs. Satellite reception was clearly excellent, even there, near the edge of SPOT coverage maps. (Their coverage is now expanded to include all of Alaska.) But the "Help" and "911" buttons can be triggered pretty easily. SPOT contends the buttons are recessed enough that you'd need to intentionally poke them with a bare finger, pencil or some such, and hold them down for 3-5 seconds, but I'm calling a genial 'B.S' on that.

The upshot: I'm still a huge fan of the SPOT. It's a 7-ounce wonder that's performed almost flawlessly for me since October, when I first began testing it, and I'm still shocked by how reliably it sends signals from difficult transmission conditions. (But you've got to give it some time. It's not an 'instant-gratification' button push in heavy timber or slot canyons.) In normal use, where you leave the unit off during your trip, then power up and send your chosen message, the SPOT is fine as is.

However, the SPOT is also a first-year product. And most such products, revolutionary or not, contain a few rough spots. In the case of the SPOT, if you're using the tracking function, or leaving the SPOT on during your travels, then false alarms are a possibility. Nor is such a problem exclusive to SPOT; Glove-friendly buttons, secure belt/carabiner hanging devices, screen locks, button caps, and sun-capable LCD screens are all too rare in the electronics world, and that goes for everything from iPods to camcorders to emergency beacons.

In SPOT's case the solution, however, is simple: The "Help" and "911" buttons need to be capped, like a PLB. Doing so wouldn't involve tinkering with any of the electronics, just a re-molding of the plastic cover. Simple. Done. Liabilities avoided. As a distant second suggestion, SPOT should perhaps re-work the blinking light notification patterns. As is, it's tough to know if a message has been successfully sent or not unless you witness the relevant LED light go solid for 5 seconds as the SPOT communicates with a satellite. And if you're moving, or cooking dinner, or working on a friend's injury, you're not going to be staring at the LED. According to Derek Moore, SPOT's public relations coordinator, the LED patterns and button layout are already being changed.

Those are my only beefs, and they're more suggestion than complaint.

What I'll probably do with my own SPOT unit is to carefully Super Glue a couple appropriately-sized fiber washers around the "Help" and "911" buttons, creating a deep, recessed well for those buttons.

Mike Gauthier, Mt. Rainier's head climbing ranger, who was working at Talkeetna Ranger Station during the alert, put it simply: "Ninety nine percent of the time, beacons and signalling devices like this are nothing but help. In fact, last month we had a person die not a quarter mile from Camp Muir, when he and his partner got lost in a whiteout and their snow-trench shelter was buried by a five-foot snowfall. He undoubtedly would have survived if he'd had one of these. But very occasionally, they can cause problems."

When the alert came in, the first thing the NPS did was check our climbing permit for our background, consider the weather, and ask around 14,000 camp to see who'd seen us. Multiple friends we'd met on the mountain told them they'd seen us an hour or so earlier and we were doing fine. This preliminary investigation is standard SAR operating policy during searches and alerts. Night wasn't descending. No storm was imminent. We'd been seen recently and healthy, so the rangers were standing ready, but they never really thought an emergency was underway. My wife Jennifer's anxiety was heightened by the grossly unreliable internet/phone situation in southern Utah -- another soap opera altogether.

All in all it was a good beta test, and my only regret is the anxiety, and preliminary scramble, it caused for friends and the NPS rangers. A lot of phone calls and radio communiques flew around, and some serious blood pressure elevations occurred. Everyone's heard my multiple apologies already, but again, please accept my abject regrets all around. Unfortunately, such occasional embarrassments are the unavoidable result of being a high-tech test hamster.

On a related note: At least four other parties had SPOT beacons on the mountain. Mike Haugen and his partner Zach, climbing a '50 peaks in 50 days' project for Coleman, were also running a SPOT track log. I warned them about the potential for false alarms, and they went on their way forewarned. Sat phones are also everywhere on Denali now, although a lot of people still clearly don't know how to use them. Many parties carried FRS radios. All these were rare only five years ago.

Wow! 204 'missing hiker' newsfeed alerts since I've been gone! More on those in later posts. In the meantime, hike safe. -- Steve Howe