Rainier incidents rekindle debate over requiring beacons

After a two-hour snowshoe hike turned into a two-night battle to survive a blizzard last month on Mount Rainier, Jo Johnson decided it was time to go shopping.

On the Lacey resident’s list of new survival gear was a personal locator beacon that would have allowed her to send a distress signal and her coordinates to rescuers via satellite.

She and her boyfriend, Jim Dickman of Vancouver, Wash., had the skills and enough equipment to survive, but nobody was looking for them, and after a day it became obvious they could use help, Johnson said. Instead they were left to their own wits to survive.

“I will carry one (a beacon) now,” Johnson said. “And I would recommend other people do too.”

Stefan Lofgren, director of Mount Rainier National Park’s climbing program, also recommends visitors use them, but this is not an official park recommendation. At least not yet.

When the park holds a board of review in the wake of the deaths of a snowshoer, two backcountry snow campers and two mountaineers since December, it will examine ways of improving safety on the mountain, said chief ranger Chuck Young. They will look at technology as well.

But PLBs come with concerns, Lofgren said, including misuse and the fear that users will head into the uncontrollable wild with a false since of security.

If Rainier implements new recommendations, it would not be the first time a high-profile tragedy spurred a change.

In 1986, faculty and students from Oregon Episcopal School, a private boarding school in Portland, were trapped in a storm on Mount Hood. Seven students and two faculty members froze to death, and another student’s legs had to be amputated.

Oregon’s biggest mountaineering tragedy prompted the creation of the Mountain Locator Unit, a radio-based locator that can be honed in on from 20 miles away.

Mount Hood National Forest encourages all climbers to rent an MLU for $5, said spokesman Rick Acosta. He said the program, run by the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, costs about $5,000 per year.

“We believe they are a good thing,” Acosta said. “But we believe they should not be mandated.”

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the number of registered PLBs climbed from a few hundred in 2003 to more than 18,000 in 2010.

NOAA requires beacons to be registered. The agency credited 71 rescues to PLBs in 2011 and 70 rescues in 2010.

The increase in use can be attributed to the lower cost ($170-$280 compared with $550 five years ago) and improved technology, said Chris Wahler, spokesman for Florida-based ACR Electronics.

“It’s the best piece of gear you hope you never have to use,” Wahler said.

Unlike MLU units that can only be honed in on, PLBs can send calls for help.

But rescuers, many of whom use beacons, caution that the units have drawbacks.

Mark Cooksley, president of the Tacoma Mountain Rescue Unit, says they can provide a false sense of security.

“We don’t want people minimizing their preparations,” said Cooksley, who owns a PLB. “Some people believe if they get in trouble they can just hit the button and help will come. That might not be the case.”

Had the four who died on Rainier last month used PLBs, storms still might have prevented rescuers from getting to them, Lofgren said.

Lofgren says searchers, many of whom are volunteers, are conservative and each individual has the choice to determine if it is safe to look in a certain area or in certain conditions.

In 2010, Rep. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, sponsored House Bill 2619 requiring all climbers to use an electronic signaling device from November-March. The bill died in committee. In 2007, a similar bill failed in Oregon.

“It’s really sad that there is so much resistance,” Liias said.

Liias got the idea from a constituent and friend, Kevin Stoltz, who owns PLBRentals.com. He said constant attacks about the idea and his friendship with Stoltz soured him on the idea. He does not plan to reintroduce the bill.

Still, he believes PLBs should be required in winter.

He doesn’t think most people will see them as a security blanket. “That’s the same argument we hear against other risky behavior. Maybe that will be the case for some tiny portion of people, but for the vast majority it is a lifesaving link.”

Rescuers fear that requiring PLBs will create an expectation that help will come regardless of conditions and that policing such a law is impossible.

Liias agrees that it would be challenging, but said the law would at least give rangers another avenue for turning around unprepared hikers and climbers.

“Will everybody use them if it’s the law? Of course not,” Liias said. “Will they save 100 percent of people? Of course not. But if it saves just one, or one per season, it will be worth it.”

Liias doesn’t believe recommending PLB use is enough. “The reality is for a lot of people, they aren’t going to do it until the law tells them to.”

While Lofgren recommends PLB use, he opposes requiring them because he doesn’t believe the law could be enforced, would create false expectations and it would “restrict people’s freedom of movement.”

“And, I guess,” he said, “I don’t really like the idea of making laws we are going to passively let people violate?”

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497