We asked our readers whether or not they carry Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) like ACR or SPOT when they head into the wild. While some thought the question was too broad, results were mixed. 56 percent said they carry one, 44 percent do not. So we asked Steve Howe and Timmy O’Neill, two adventurers who spend lots of time in the wild, to give us their thoughts on why they do or do not carry an electronic lifeline.
I once made a 60-day solo trip down the uber-remote Colville River in northwest Alaska. Friends recommended I take a VFR radio or emergency beacon. I said no. I wanted to embrace the remoteness and commitment.
Hoo boy! No problem there! I paddled Class III rapids dodging ice floes and ice jams and slush banks. Grizzlies and wolf packs probed me for weakness. A moose tried to stomp me. Microburst winds nearly destroyed my tent. I didn’t see anyone for 43 days and only heard four planes in two months. And when I reached the Beaufort Sea after 450 miles, I knew I’d been very lucky to avoid a full-on Jeremiah Johnson epic.
Since then I’ve done tons of month-long treks, trail runs, and mountain bike rides, often alone around my southern Utah home where the backcountry is rarely traveled. And ever since they became widely available I always carry a SPOT or other personal locator beacon stashed in my pack, because on every trip, long or short, a knee might have blown, a ledge crumbled, or a tire slipped. And deep in a winter night or alpine hailstorm, being immobilized can kill you quick, even if your buddy got the day off and is now running for help.
There’s a t-shirt that says “confidence is that feeling you get just before you fully understand the situation.” The truth of this became clear once I started writing and blogging about survival incidents. Injured adventurers often lie undiscovered for days on mundane routes. Intensive searches routinely miss frantically waving victims. And the biggest time and expense isn’t the rescue; it’s the search.
Lemming-sports culture is really good at risk denial, so poor suckers who made the same mistake we got away with last weekend magically become stupid newbies, while obituaries for friends say “I never thought this would happen to….” Expertise is zero insurance because you just walk closer to the edge for your buzz. As a Sierra ranger once told me “the hikers we’ve never found all had 20 or 30 years of experience; they just never had anything go wrong before.”
Sure, electronic widgets can break just like maps get waterlogged and one of my compasses reads 60 degrees off ever since I dropped it, but I’ve grossly abused sat beacons (and GPS units) for thousands of hours and never had one ‘fail’ because I actually read the directions, do test transmissions and bring spare batteries.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand the Luddite attractions of escaping technology, and hey, it’s your rodeo. But there are beaucoup chances to die out there regardless of ropes, helmets or beacons and electronics come with an off switch, just like your life.
A field editor at Backpacker, Steve Howe has been punching it into the woods for 45 years. He’s never needed rescue… yet.
When people ask me why I climb, or more sharply why I risk my neck, I tell them that in light of the inherent danger, heck, sometimes because of the inherent danger (think sledding and ding dong ditch), the reward of the experience outweighs the potential of losing life or limb. For me, much of the value of the experience is found in the self-reliance required to negotiate challenging terrain. The fact that there is no safety net is the draw, and in order to completely immerse myself in the adventure, I need to be off the grid and in the wilderness.
Now just because you’re in the sticks doesn’t mean you’re up shit creek without a payphone. Meet the terrestrial PLB, a Luddite’s bugbear and the new “it device” promising technology salvation. To understand the search and rescue applications of this lifesaver I visited the survival website “Equipped To Survive” and its 150 topic FAQ where I learned that the device “isn’t practical in a kidnap scenario” in the Middle East, and that it’s possible to be stuck in a slot canyon so slim and ill aimed that this, “…could cause problems.”
I know a cell phone recently saved climber Steve House and SAT phones routinely save lives but the personal locator beacon runs counter to what the backcountry represents to me. I go to there because it’s a place where no one can get in touch with me for any reason. The PLB feels like a self-induced Orwellian locator chip embedded in my skull. Also the need to evaluate your personal threat level smacks of TSA’s perpetual orange alert and our legislators seem ever more intent on saving us from ourselves by Quixotically orchestrating a risk-free world, informed and sustained with regressive litigation. The essence of risk in the wilds is to sever the uninterrupted connectivity that pervades every aspect of modern life. I recall an ice ledge bivouac on Torre Egger, amidst the most inhospitable landscape, nothing alive save for me and my climbing partner, when I realized the absurd predicament of impossible rescue and savored being so far out there. I am aware of the paradox of death informing life but there isn’t a more effective motivator to seize the day than the thought that it may be your last one on the planet.
Does the PLB give you an extra edge? Perhaps, although it seems more Hail Mary than lifeline (maybe they’ll at least find your tortured corpse) but what works in the end is personal salvation. Period. YOU have to make it out in order to write your book, see your kids or get that root canal. And does the advent of the PLB mean there’s no more getting lost? Nope, there are leagues of ocean and behemoths of rock and ice from where extraction is unlikely.
There will forever be the naysayer decrying foolish disregard for those who don’t take every precaution just as there will always be the egocentric thrill seeker shouting from the top of the mountain about their joy of life. Existence is terminal, our time short and for me being cut off in the back o’ beyond is much less a death warrant and much more a birth proclamation.
Timmy O’Neill is turning off, tuning out and on a PLB-less climbing expedition in Africa.
Gear up for our next question, dear readers. 29ers… phat or fad? Let’s us know and butt heads at ElevationOutdoors.com