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Mobile Communication Devices

When a flake broke on Mount Temple, Steve House fell 80 feet, and flipped upside down, fracturing his ribs, pelvis and spine. His partner used a cell phone to call 911.

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When a flake broke on Mount Temple, Steve House fell 80 feet, and flipped upside down, fracturing his ribs, pelvis and spine. His partner used a cell phone to call 911. Within two hours, a helicopter team plucked House off the mountain and flew him to the hospital.

“I would have died,” he reflected later, “if it had not been for a cell phone.”

An emergency signaling or communication device won’t prevent an accident—that’s up to you—but when the shit hits the fan, it might save your life. Ideally, you want one that is small, light and inexpensive, allows two-way communication, and will initiate a rescue if you need one.

Cell phone

Example: Phones can cost $30 to $500 and monthly plans can run $40 to $150.

Pros: Two-way communication. Texting often works when reception is too low for calls. Some backcountry areas have cell reception on high, open ridges.

Cons: Reception is best near
populated areas but spotty or non-existent elsewhere.

Best for: Areas with reception. Partial reception is still useful because it usually allows texting: Josh Kaplan of Seattle couldn’t make cell phone calls from his stormy bivy in the North Cascades, but he could text to tell people he might be late, to receive weather updates by return text, and to ask a friend to feed his cat.

Satellite phone

Example: Iridium 9555, 9.4 ounces, $1,349
plus usage charges, www.iridium.com

Pros: Two-way communication. Allows calls from anywhere on earth with an unobstructed sky view. Can be rented for $45/week.

Cons: Expensive. Probably won’t transmit through tree canopy or from a snow cave.

Best for: People who want reliable, two-way communication anywhere on earth. Mike Libecki of Salt Lake City travels to locations as remote as Baffin Island and Antarctica. His safety net consists of an Iridium Satellite phone, the Solara Field Tracker (GPS + texting)(www.solaradata.com), and Global Rescue, which transports members to medical facilities (www.globalrescue.com). One Global Rescue program comes with an American Alpine Club membership (www.americanalpineclub.org/globalrescue).

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Personal Locator Beacon

Example: McMurdo FastFind 210, 5.3 ounces, $250,
www.mcmurdo.co.uk

Pros: Uses NOAA satellites and dispatchers to initiate a rescue. Can transmit through tree canopy or from a snow cave. Sends GPS coordinates and emits a homing signal to assist searchers.

Cons: No two-way communication. Cannot cancel a call for a rescue.

Best for: Those who want a reliable emergency beacon with no non-emergency functions.

SPOT beacon

Example: SPOT II, 5.2 ounces, $170 + $99 annual contract, www.findmespot.com

Pros: Uses private satellites and dispatchers to initiate a rescue. Can cancel a rescue call and send simple, non-emergency messages. GPS tracking.

Cons: No two-way communication. Might not transmit through tree canopy or from a snow cave.

Best for: GPS tracking and emergency and non-emergency signaling: available messages are “I’m OK,” a distress-rescue signal, and a non-emergency “help” asking friends or family for aid; it allows others to follow your movement and location. Blake Herrington of Denver used a SPOT beacon in the remote Stikine range to send a pre-arranged signal (three “OKs” in one day) to call for an early pickup.