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Evolution of backcountry communication

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A member of the Bellingham Mountain Rescue Council uses a Garmin Reach Mini to communicate. Ben Groenhout photo

By Jason D. Martin

In the old days if there was an accident in the backcountry, the general thinking was that you would send a runner out to call for help. Often it would be several hours until a message made its way to the authorities that there was an incident in the mountains. Following that, it would be several more hours until anyone came to assist.

In the old days, Bellingham Mountain Rescue didn’t have radios or GPS units, cell phones or satellite messaging systems. No. Instead, to communicate they found a lost person or a mission was over, they would shoot fireworks into the sky and hope other rescuers got the message.

As time progressed, guides and SAR teams began to carry radios, then satellite phones, then cell phones, and then finally, satellite messaging systems (e.g. Garmin inReach). It’s uncommon in this era for a mountain professional not to have multiple means of communication. Indeed, professional guides generally use the PACE acronym to define their communication strategy in their backcountry risk management plan.

In backcountry communication, PACE stands for Preferred, Alternate, Contingency and Emergency. At the American Alpine Institute we employ this in a way that could be educational for recreational backcountry users:

American Alpine Institute PACE backcountry communication plan

Preferred: Satellite messaging system — Guides will communicate with the office (other guides, rescuers, etc.) via their satellite messaging system. The problem with these systems is that the messages often have lag times. And if your device is old, or you haven’t updated your software in recent months, it can sometimes take a long time to get a message out.

Alternate: Cell phone — As we all know, cell phone service can be spotty. However, sometimes a cell phone in the backcountry will be able to send and receive texts. Often a phone without service will still work on 911, as these calls are prioritized on all telecommunications platforms.

Contingency: Radio — Radios tend to be best when they operate within sight of one another. A UHF/VHF radio can work in an emergency if you’re high and you’ve obtained a HAM radio license. But, it should be noted that a UHF/VHF radio is not a cell phone and requires practice to use effectively. You do not learn how to use one of these radios in a HAM radio licensing class. It’s something you have to put time and effort into.

Emergency: Runner — Sending a runner is the old school technique noted earlier. If you elect to send a runner for help, make sure that you send as much information as possible. This should include why you need help, your location, what you need and your current evacuation plan.

The very first item on this list is the satellite messaging system. Though these have a tracking feature, many don’t use it because they’re concerned about battery life.

A rescuer communicates with a helicopter via radio during a search and rescue mission at Baker Lake.
Ben Groenhout photo

Over the last few years, there has been an uptick in solo backcountry travelers that carry satellite messaging systems for emergencies. The idea is that they would trigger an SOS call if something went wrong. The problem is that sometimes the thing that went wrong was so catastrophic they were not able to trigger such a call. This has, unfortunately, resulted in a handful of cases where people went missing and were not found in the days immediately after, and sometimes not at all…

If you’re on a solo adventure in the backcountry, it is now considered a best practice to track your travel on your messaging system. This means that your loved ones can see a digital breadcrumb track as you travel. It also means that rescuers will still be able to find you if something goes catastrophically wrong and you are not able to trigger an SOS.

Cell phones are slowly becoming more and more reliable in the backcountry. Obviously, cell phone service providers are always competing with one another. One of the ways they do this is by building more towers, which in turn, offers more service. Historically, Verizon has been the best provider for mountain travelers in the Pacific Northwest.

But change is coming.

In August, Elon Musk announced that his Starlink satellite internet network was teaming up with T-Mobile to launch a project called “Coverage Above and Beyond.” This project will allow limited cell service­ — mostly text-based service ­— in every dead zone in North America.

This new service is supposed to be available sometime in 2023. However, the current Starlink network was not designed with cell coverage in mind. In order for this to work, new satellites with special antennae will need to launch. It is possible that, between the number of new satellites required and the fragile nature of the technology, it could be awhile until this system is truly online.

Similarly, the newest iPhone ­— the iPhone 14­ — has a feature called the “Emergency SOS via Satellite.” This feature allows you to connect directly to a satellite in the same way that a satellite messaging system works to call for help. But, unlike the Starlink system, there is no preferred provider network.

The iPhone emergency feature launched in November. As such, it’s not yet clear how well it works. It may take some time before rescue teams get calls through this system. And it may take yet more time for Apple to work out the inevitable kinks.

The world of backcountry communication is continuing to evolve. Every day it gets easier to ensure that you can check in or call for help from a remote place. But the ability to call for help should never take the place of sound judgment. Backcountry travel, backcountry skiing, mountaineering and alpine climbing are dangerous sports. The ability to communicate with the outside world should never take precedence over caution in backcountry settings.   x

Jason D. Martin is the executive director at the American Alpine Institute, a mountain guide and a widely published outdoor writer. He lives in Bellingham with his wife and two kids.