That old standby, A ham radio saves the day in the backcountry

DOUG MORSE DESCRIBES HIMSELF AS “THE WORLD’S worst ham radio operator” and that speaks to how easy it is to use the century-old tool he loves. Ham (a.k.a. amatuer) radios operate on FCC controlled VHF and UHF frequencies and can connect to radio repeaters which significantly extend their broadcast range. In Colorado, calling for help on a ham radio from the backcountry is quite easy. Morse found this out while backcountry skiing with his wife last February in the Pennsylvania Creek Drainage near Breckenridge. At the bottom of their second run and a little more than a mile from their cars, his wife fell and fractured her fibula near the ankle. For Morse, a rock climbing guide and do-it-all adventurer, calling for help required humility, but he knew he needed help.

“I didn’t have cell service so pulling out my radio was an obvious first step,” he said.

Instead of hiking to higher ground or pushing an SOS button and holding his breath, Morse tuned into a radio repeater tower in Breckenridge which rebroadcast his transmission for help to a wide area. Mike Ranalls of the Colorado Emergency Reporting Net (CERN) heard his call and was able to pass along Morse’s location and situation to Summit County Search and Rescue. With a radio operator on staff, they got back in touch with Morse to facilitate a snowmobile rescue. He and his wife were out of the woods in hours.

Any sort of wireless communication is far from perfect in the outdoors as the signal will have a hard time getting out of deep valleys or canyons to connect with either a satellite in orbit (for SPOT or InReach), a cell tower or an amateur radio repeater. But Morse, who has regularly carried a radio with him into the woods since getting his license in the mid-90s, says the benefits of real-time communication are invaluable. Different from standard walkie-talkies, amateur (ham) radios are more powerful (hence they require an FCC license) and can hit any of the thousands of repeaters scattered across the country—many of which cover remote areas—making it easier to get in touch with someone near a telephone. And, Morse argues, they are simpler and more effective way to communicate with rescuers.

Set up in 2018 as an option for small-towners in areas without cell service, CERN is unique to Colorado. It uses a system of linked repeaters across the state, dubbed the Colorado Connection, that put ham radio operators on one shared airwave all the way from Durango to Denver, and everywhere in between. That network makes it possible for a few dozen volunteer CERN operators, like Ranalls, to tag team listening duties—monitoring the repeater system for radio calls for help from anywhere in the state, and passing them along to the authorities. CERN volunteers have answered calls corresponding to car accidents and other issues, but Morse’s call was the first they had received from the backcountry.

Morse often heads into the backcountry with his cell phone, a more modern satellite communicator, and his ham radio. “That way I can assume that I should be able to get help with one of those items if something goes wrong.” This time, it was the oldest of those three technologies that did the trick.