Technology adds to margin of safety for climbers

For many, Mount Rainer National Park is an ideal place to escape the modern world and commune with nature. However, bringing some modern technology along could be the difference between life and death.

Last year, Rob Plankers of Olympia died on Mount Rainier while the couple he was climbing with went for help. The climbing ranger who led the rescue effort, Brian Hasebe, told The News Tribune a rescue effort might have been launched soon enough to save Plankers had the party carried a cellphone.

Here’s some technological equipment that can assist signaling for help:

Personal locater beacons: PLBs allow those in peril to send a distress signal and their coordinates to rescuers via satellite. NOAA credits the device for 71 rescues in 2011. However, rescuers and mountaineers say the devices have drawbacks including the fact that they send no details of the party’s situation.

Not all PLBs work the same. Florida-based ACR’s beacons notify rescuers directly. California-based Spot Inc.’s beacon has more options but requires an annual service plan ($99-$150) and notifies Spot’s emergency response center, which relays information to rescue authorities.

Radio: Climbing rangers, mountain guides and some rescuers carry ham radios. In fact, guides are contractually obligated to carry these radios. Some are equipped with GPS tracking devices that can be tracked so others know their location. At Rainier Mountaineering Inc., they do not have GPS tracking devices on the radio.

“We, as a professional guide service, have never been in a situation where people don’t know where we are,” said RMI guide Alex Van Steen. “We are in communication at all times.”

You must be licensed to use a ham radio.

Two-way radios: The devices can be purchased at sporting good stores and are commonly used by families to stay in touch at ski areas or even the mall. Van Steen says guides use these in remote locations when they have multiple teams climbing so they are constantly aware of one anothers’ locations.

Recco: Many winter recreation clothes have Recco Rescue System reflectors sewn into the garments. Ski area and mountain rescue authorities use radar detectors to locate these reflectors. The detectors can be used from the ground or a helicopter.

Plankers was wearing Recco reflectors on his gear, which enabled rangers to determine the location of his body at the base of Willis Wall. However, he is in an area where it was unsafe for rangers to remove his remains.

Cellphone: Reception is notoriously spotty at Paradise and above, but even if you can’t make a call, you might be able to call 911. All coverage providers are required to pick up your 911 call regardless of with whom you have a contract. Several Mount Rainier rescues have been launched via cellphone.

Avalanche beacons: Not to be confused with PLBs, these are for locating people nearby who are buried under snow. They do not send distress signals to rescuers authorities.

Craig Hill, craig.hill@thenewstribune.com