The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 37: Calling for Help

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

If you ever need to summon help in the backcountry, you want to know what works. This week on The WildeBeat; Calling for Help.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number thirty seven.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Have you ever thought about how you'd get help if you needed it? You'd probably rather do it in a way you that could be heard by somebody who's listening. And then, it would be comforting to know that they got the message. Out of all the different ways you could let somebody know about your situation, some of them work better than others.

If you look at any kind of outdoor skills training guides, most of them recommend that you carry a whistle. A whistle is light and small. Mine sounds like this...

[Whistle burst]

They're pretty reliable. And you can still make a loud noise long after you might have lost your voice from yelling. Out in the open, the sound of a whistle can carry half a mile or so down wind. Up wind, you'll be lucky if it carries a couple of hundred yards. So when help is nearby, it's a valuable tool. But about the most you can say to anyone is, "I'm here."

The same goes for a signal mirror. If you really know what you're doing, and where the person is who you want to signal, and you're in direct sunlight, a signal mirror can be seen tens of miles away. But your flash of light might also be mistaken for other random flashes reflected by water, vehicles, or aircraft.

Both of these techniques can be improved if the people on both ends of the conversation know morse code. But increasingly, most people don't.

What about smoke signals? Maybe you could get someone's attention building a smoky fire. But who's looking for smoke signals these days? Certainly not the rangers who used to occupy fire lookout towers. Most of them have been replaced by aircraft and satellites.

Now if this was a lecture, someone by now would be waving their hand eagerly, wanting to ask, "What about my cell phone!" Almost three out of every four Americans have one after all.

Of all of the cell phone carriers providing service in California, the only one who would agree to be interviewed was Sprint-Nextel. Caroline Semerdjian works for them as a media relations officer.

CAROLINE SEMERDJIAN: Sprint-Nextel is committed to investing a lot of dollars into expanding the network nationally. But our first focus is to expand it in areas where business are conducted, where people live. So it's business areas, cities, urban areas, and then eventually we'll expand it into rural areas. Right now the strongest network will be in areas where people reside and work.

STEVE: Caroline said that a page on Sprint's web site will tell you if they offer coverage within a particular zip code area. And in general she recommends checking with your particular carrier about coverage in the areas you plan to travel.

A cell phone is just a fancy two-way radio, and it only works when you're within line-of-sight from one of your service provider's radio towers. But the wilderness act prohibits structures like these radio towers in wilderness areas. Perhaps, if you can take your phone to the right high point, you'll have radio contact with a tower outside of the wilderness. So, if you're out of range for a cell phone, what's the next option?

A satellite phone contacts radios onboard satellites. Most of these networks have been designed so that there's always at least one satellite overhead, that is assuming you have a clear view of a large portion of the sky. Satellite phones can be rented for around fifty dollars a week, with airtime rates from a dollar per minute and up. Some of these systems work world-wide, but they might not work through thick foliage, thick clouds, or in canyons. Sergeant Phil Caporale of the Fresno County Sheriff's Department had trouble with his during the winter rescue we reported on in our editions fifteen and sixteen.

PHIL CAPORALE: We were having difficulty getting out with a sattelite phone at base camp. We couldn't use our radios, the cell-phones would not work. When the weather gets that poor, I don't know that any kind of electronics would be helpful.

STEVE: You might think of using two-way radios, such as F-R-S, which stands for Family Radio Service. These radios are designed to work over a very limited range. A lot of them claim five miles, but you might only get that range under ideal conditions. For example, mountain top to mountain top. And, most of the time, it's not likely that anyone would be listening near enough to you, on a similar radio.

Another kind of two-way radio is amateur radio. Known sometimes as "ham radio", it's the choice of most volunteer search and rescue teams. Bill Jeffrey maintains a web site called the Pacific Crest Trail Repeater Guide. It's a directory and guide to using ham radio along the PCT.

BILL JEFFREY: Ham radio has two advantages. One is, you can run a whole lot more power on them, you can also put larger antennas on them. But the bigger advantage is that there's repeaters available on mountain tops. And what a repeater does, is it receives a signal from one radio, say a walkie-talkie, and it repeats that back from the mountain top. So anyone who's in eyesight or earshot of that mounatin top can hear your signal. So it greatly expands your coverage area from two to three miles of line of sight, to basically anybody who can see that mountain top that you can also see.

STEVE: Who would you talk to with this thing? I mean it's not like a cell-phone that you can dial any number in the book, right?

BILL JEFFREY: No, you have to have somebody at the other end listening for you. But in many areas, particularly southern California, the Bishop area, the Sierra areas, northern California especially they're very popular, and so if somebody's out there you can get help.

STEVE: And so you're talking to other amateur radio operators...

BILL JEFFREY: Correct. And you do have to have a license to use these. Once you pass the exam the FCC will give you your call sign. Mine is A-A-6-J. The exam is pretty simple, really. My daughter was eleven when she got her license. She studied for about a week, and she passed the test.

STEVE: You mentioned in your correspondence that there were some — if not life-and-death — at least critical situations where the radio came in handy. Can you tell one of those stories?

BILL JEFFREY: I did take a boy scout troop up in the high Sierras back in nineteen ninety eight. And for those that have been in the area know that was a very high snow year. It was late July, and as we headed over Bishop Pass we ran into show, oh, a bit earlier than we expected. But as we went along about day three, we were quickly realizing that while we're doing OK, we're having a good time, we're getting into camp very late because of the snow and the water situation. And we realized we're going to come out early here. We're going to come out one of these escape routes you're supposed to pre-pan in your trips. So I put out a call on the radio, "Is anybody out there?" Of course, nobody responds. I said, "well, I'm going to leave the radio on." It's better to call somebody tat you hear rather than ust ask anybody to come talk to you. I left the radio there and I said, "if anybody hears that radio make a sound, come get me." Ten minutes later my son says, "Dad, they are talking about Mather Pass." Which was the next pass we were heading up. And what had happened was, somebody had heard my call, got on the telephoneand called my friend who had told him to listen for me, and he got back to us. The even more benneficial part is it so happened that third individual happened to have been in nineteen seventies a backcountry guide in the Sierra. So the escape route which I simply knew as a trail over Taboose Pass, eleven miles long, he knew where we could camp, where we could get water. It's a very steep trail. Every night we made contact. And when we hit the trailhead — and the trailhead at Taboose Pass is a dirt road, ten miles from pavement. It was about a hundred and five degrees down there. No telephone, nobody around. But within a hour, our vehicles showed up for us. So it saved us ten miles of walking across the desert to a telephone to get help.

STEVE: Bill Jeffrey is known among ham radio circles as A-A-6-J, and goes by "AsaBat" among through-hikers.

Probably the best advice on the subject came from Tim Kovacs of the Mountain Rescue Association, as he said in our edition number thirty three:

TIM KOVACS: Tell someone where you're going. Go where you say you're going, or call that person and tell them you've changed your plan. Take the stuff that you need, and never rely on technology to solve your problems in the backcountry.

STEVE: You can find links to more information about backcountry communications, on our web site. I want to thank my fellow outing leader in the Sierra Club, Steve Stearns, amateur radio operator K-6-O-I-K, for providing the research for this edition. Thanks, Steve.

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Next time -- The trail least traveled from Mexico to Canada.

The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant for Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please see our website for ways to support future editions of The WildeBeat. Contribute your comments to webmaster at wildebeat dot net, or call our comment line at 866-590-7373.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number thirty seven. Thank you for listening.

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