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HomeHomeDiscussionsDiscussionsGeneralGeneralThe Ethics of Personal Locator BeaconsThe Ethics of Personal Locator Beacons
New Post
4/30/2013 7:23 AM

Ken, I didn't answer a question you asked. I got the older InReach. I didn't know there was a newer one, and would have opted for the simpler one anyway. Complexity leads to failure. The way I figure it, all of the Bluetooth tethering and two-way texting is simply gravy that can fail completely without harming the ability of the InReach itself to send an SOS and receive an "SOS received" message. Build more of the cell phone capabilities into the InReach, and I trust it less.

Lots of questions asked here and some good evocative comments. I spent quite a bit of time last night reading a report on the Sheep Creek avalanche here in CO that killed a few folks. (thanks for sending Mark)

The report was useful, but the follow on discussion comments were even more useful as people speculated why a group that had a moderate amount of avalanche awareness did something so obviously dangerous. Many of the comments had bearing on this conversation. Much of it boils down to the decision making process which I'll circle back to later.

I said it, and DaveC said it again. There are genuine freak accidents, but they are very rare. A knot got tied wrong? That was somebody's fault. A rock fell? Might have been unexpected, but there's a good chance that the guy standing downhill was at fault for not anticipating it. I heard a story that took place on a 4wd tour in Moab. A guy ran behind a vehicle to get to his own vehicle as the group was starting to leave a lunch break. The vehicle he ran behind was a clutched vehicle and rolled backwards as the driver started it, pinning the pedestrian between it and the vehicle behind. Freak accident? Nope. The guy who ran around behind didn't have enough focus to anticipate a danger zone. His head was somewhere else. Am I setting the bar too high? I don't think so. I went without medical insurance for a small handful of years. I'll tell you what -- I did a lot of things different. Things that you might take for granted. If I started feeling tired and maybe on the verge of sick, I went to bed until the feeling passed. An ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure that I couldn't afford.

What all of this has in common is that we tend to feel safer and go on autopilot when surrounded by other people and the trappings of civilization. Heck, many people in the outdoors never get out of autopilot because they lack the mindset and knowledge to do so. I don't want to go too far off track, but the same exact scenario plays out when people choose not to take personal responsibility by carrying a concealed weapon. In the comments about the avalanche deaths, one thing that was repeated more than once is that there was probably a feeling of safety because people had just gotten out of their cars at a highway turnout, skinned up, and headed out. In truth, they were literally in a slide zone as soon as they left the turnout. But in their minds, they had just gotten out of their cars and hadn't acclimated to the truth of where they were yet. Can a PLB provide a person a false sense of security? No doubt in my mind that that could be the case. I don't think that's what I'm talking about in my case, but I'll get more into that when I come back a little later and answer Brian's questions.

We are fortunate in this matter that your conduct will be your marker and, thus, your reputation. The conduct of others on this forum has been, and will continue to be, their marker, and thus, their reputation. In the west, a person invests in one's reputation carefully. - 112Papa
New Post
4/30/2013 8:45 AM

Evan....good copy.  In regards to health insurance if the "bad day" we're to ever happen, you and others on this forum might consider joining the American Alpine Club.  As frequent backcountry travelers, you certainly qualify for membership and they offer automatic rescue insurance to members.  If memory serves it's $30k worth.  Also, there are discounts and such for members.  On a preservation/conservation level, the AAC is a noble organization in its efforts to maintain access and conservation of the high and wild places in America.  I've been a member since the mid 90's.  One of the things they send every year is a compilation of accidents in the mountains and crags called "Accidents in North American Mountaineering".  Morbid reading?  Yes, but the reports offer good analysis and often provide tips on how the accident could have been avoided.  Not Monday-morning quarterbacking, but rather a way to be forewarned and hopefully forearmed for folks that take the lessons to heart.  Also, membership is tax deductible. 

Hill People Gear Coureurs des Bois (Brand Ambassador). Victoria faveat paratam. De Oppresso Liber.
New Post
4/30/2013 9:00 AM

Stepping back for a moment, you have to consider what "unacceptable risk" is for you personally. A person can live their entire life within less than the golden hour of definitive care. Most Americans probably do. You could easily make the argument that stepping outside of that is unacceptable risk. I would argue that what you gain is well worth it, but I also consider some things unacceptable risk that others don't.

At this point, I don't go into avalanche terrain in the winter. Partly, I don't have enough training in avalanche awareness. Partly, I fail to see the point. It seems the only reason people do so is to find hills to ski down. The aforementioned discussion following the avalanche article included the observation that, if you're a BC skier, you have already lost friends and acquaintances to avalanches. Good people. Experienced people. The payoff is the joy of skiing down a hill. For me personally, I observe that by the time the terrain looks like that, the elk have already pulled freight for more hospitable climes and the bears have dug in. Why would I behave or think any differently? Do you think Native Americans spent a lot of time touring through avalanche areas? Hell no. Why would they?

Peak bagging is another one. At one point in my life, I was into climbing fourteeners. I summited a small handful, and then it struck me that there weren't any elk doing summits of fourteeners. At least in CO, you're three to four thousand feet above timberline. If plants don't grow there, and only a handful of rodents live there, it's called a clue. I love getting up high and looking out, but don't need to find a peak at an arbitrary height to do so. I do think a person ought to climb a peak or two in their lives because of the spiritual dimension. I'm doing another 14er this summer to take a couple of family members up. I haven't completely abandoned a goal I had earlier in life of doing the technical route up the Crestone Needle. Not sure on that. So, I won't ignore the value of climbing a peak from time to time for specific reasons. In general, peak bagging strikes me as contrary to a backcountry ethic. It's a crutch city people use to interface with the outdoors because they don't know how to settle into a landscape. A peak is identifiable, quantifiable. Exploring a wilderness area, not so much. Yin versus Yang.

So, both of those are examples of things that objectively carry a higher risk profile that I choose not to do. I don't have a problem with people who do choose those activities, but they both illustrate the point of how individuals have to choose their own level of "acceptable risk", and that a person should know what they're risking and why.

For me, the ideal is roaming the backcountry, mostly off trail, and being a natural part of the landscape. Sometimes high, sometimes low, mostly where the other animals are, sometimes a place that just looks intriguing. The risk of injuring myself and the difficulty of extraction add to the commitment I make to being a part of that natural landscape and living by its rules. My belief is that our life in civilization is a subset of that larger world, always subject to its rules - though we sometimes forget that reality when we are resting in the collective insurance policy of close proximity to others. I go out to remind myself, to strengthen my connection to that larger reality, and to cultivate the intuitive faculties that are dulled by life in the hive. Is there an increased level of risk? Yes. When I am out there in that way, I am taking individual responsibility for a level of danger that is usually assumed by the collective which mitigates the degree to which individuals feel that danger. That isn't just the risk, it's part of the reward.

We are fortunate in this matter that your conduct will be your marker and, thus, your reputation. The conduct of others on this forum has been, and will continue to be, their marker, and thus, their reputation. In the west, a person invests in one's reputation carefully. - 112Papa
New Post
4/30/2013 10:10 AM

Circling now back to the decision making process and the illustrative example I started the thread with - but with a LOT more context.

Now you know that I set the bar pretty high in terms of the risk I expect to mitigate personally. There are two sides to that, mindset and knowledge. I have a mindset that says I can and will maintain the focus necessary to anticipate and avoid "accidents". Anticipating accidents means that I have to have the knowledge necessary to know what is dangerous. By definition, I don't have the knowledge necessary to anticipate dangerous situations that I've never encountered before. That means I have to be learning on the go, which requires a lot of focus to gather data, an open mind to continually evaluate the data and revise assessments, and enough knowledge of self to know when that internal process is compromised.

That is the context behind "loss of focus precedes accidents". You show me an outdoor accident, and 8 or 9 times out of 10 I'll show you a situation where the person either wasn't gathering data and evaluating it, or was in a physical state where their decision making apparatus was compromised. So, for me, the first red flag has always been when I started noticing that my decision making apparatus is compromised. Colloquially, "tired and not thinking clearly". In the past, that has been reason enough to stop then and there when I'm out solo. I'll leave off there and go to Papa112's questions:

What was your trip plan going in?  Day hike only, overnight?

It was a planned overnighter

What was your understanding of the area/route you were in/on, and your destination?  Water available at your destination?

To start with, I didn't even know if I could make it to the TH. I was able to. I'm guessing that a week or two previously I wouldn't have been able to. My goal was pretty amorphous - to "open up" a favorite low country drainage in the West Elks for the season. Get as far in as I could go, see if the critters were in there yet, assess snowpack, etc. Superbadger and I were the last folks out last December, and I was the first guy into the basin this spring. Water was everywhere.

What was your equipment load out?  Sleep/shelter system, cooking/heating, water availability, etc?

Full sleep system and shelter, probably good down to 10f with comfort. 2-3 days of food. No wood stove, standard alcohol stove. As it turned out, my water filter quit working between last trip and this one so I ended up using tabs instead. Also burned more alcohol than usual boiling water because the tabs weren't disintegrating very quickly and I wanted to be sure. Wood fire would have been no problem, although I didn't use one.

How far to your destination from where you made your decision to go forward, how far back from the same place to an acceptable camp site?

The decision point (red flag mentioned above) came when I was about halfway up a steep trail-less drainage. I'd been on snowshoes all day (mud half the time, drifts the other half the time) and was now doing some pretty gnarly 3 dimensional cross country sidehill stuff for the last 3/4 mile. Climbing over logs, edging into snow banks, grabbing bushes to help climb, etc. Part of the learning process was paying attention to places I was likely to break through the snow. My biggest concern was breaking through, getting my leg wedged in between hidden logs and trapped by the snowshoe, and then breaking a leg as I fell. It suddenly hit me that it was rather late in the day, I'd mis-judged a couple of foot placements (loss of focus), and overall, I felt like I was "pushing it" a little bit. I was also in a place I wouldn't necessarily be easy to find if I had such a bad break I couldn't make it out under my own power. I figured I was about the same distance back to the last flat as I was to where the basin opened up again. The problem is I'd never been into the upper basin and didn't know what the ground truth of it was. Looked good on a map, but I had no real idea. No question there'd be water there, but some question about whether there would be any real place to make camp. I was also a little worried that I'd end up boxed up in some steep terrain with the big mama bear and cub I'd seen the tracks of. I wasn't worried about them if there was lots of open area for them to get away, but I didn't want to find myself in a situation with them where neither of us had a good exit.

How did the self generated focus process work out(undertsanding the outcome that you made it to your destination)? What critical factors, and at what levels of severity, and cues did you consider in your decision making process?

As I mentioned in the beginning, I probably would have erred on the side of caution and gone back down to the flat without the InReach. A couple of days wait at least if I became too injured to move, get back to a location on-trail where I could be easily found.  Instead, I decided to re-double my focus and move ahead. I knew that if I broke my leg so badly I couldn't move or mixed it up with a bear that I could have help on the way right away and they would know right where I was. This was the way in which having the device changed my thinking. Re-assessing got my focus back. I stopped mis-judging foot placements, and then performed a difficult creek crossing (downside risk - wet up to my knees, twisted ankle) flawlessly. Climbing up into the upper basin yielded a wonderful camp and also got me into an area that I've been wanting to get to and hadn't in two different trips with that as its goal.


Would you compare and contrast the decision making process you used on this trip with the decison making process you used last fall on your trip, when you decided to turn around and withdraw before making the ridge.


Last fall in the same area, I had a partner with me. That's the plus. On the downside, we had no snowshoes and were working extra hard to travel when there was snow. At the apex of our journey, we had day hike loads and not full overnight loads. There was a weather threat that we were facing, and I had the sense (correctly it turns out) that it might be pretty significant. I'd summarize by saying that our ability to execute was probably similar to what I had this spring, but the set of external threats was more significant.

BTW, my mind isn't yet made up as to how I should think about the InReach and whether or not I should be willing to lean on it as I did in this case.

We are fortunate in this matter that your conduct will be your marker and, thus, your reputation. The conduct of others on this forum has been, and will continue to be, their marker, and thus, their reputation. In the west, a person invests in one's reputation carefully. - 112Papa
New Post
4/30/2013 10:17 AM

 Just to add some color for discussion. 

Elk are less likely to be on 14ers, becasue of the people. I have seen numerous Elk on rarely visited 13ers in the summer.

Peak bagging, I partake in. I love it, but I don't do a lot of 14ers. I do mostly remote, and rarely visitied peaks that hold a certain scenic view or have a nice profile. Yes it is somewhat spiritual. I wouldn't call myself a city slicker really, and I have been known to take nap on top to help settle in to the landscape. As mentioned, I have a tendecy to do the more remote , less visitied peaks. Many that I have done are in the area you frequent. You know that Mount Gunnison has a spectacular view off to the east towards Davenport ranch ?  Mount Guero, is a nice, pretty long day of off trail back country figuring it out. I personally think it would be fun to go in near soap park (blue mesa), and follow that ridge of low peaks over to the baldy's and west elk peak finally exitiing near swampy pass and probably out by the Anthacite range(Ohio peak has a terrific view as well).  Marcellina in the fall ? Now that is a peak everyone should do. It sets by itself amoungst all those aspens. Absolutely striking, looking at the rageeds, and the beckwiths.  Those are the types of peaks I usually do, and there is a lot of backcountry wandering involved in them outside of doing the peak. Now, I will say, it isn't always that way. I've done Mount Sneffels for time before via the high 3rd / low 4th ridge. It's a blast and a good workout to boot. Sometimes, I bag a peak just for the physical fitness aspect.  There is that feeling, not only of the landscape, but after you have done a hard day, after you have figured out the best way to do a peak, when you are physically spent, that makes the reward very worth while. 

Avalanche terrain, well that scares the you know what out of me, and a lot of times you are in avy terrain as soon as you leave your car. There are almost 40 avy slide areas that cross Red Mountain pass between here and SIlverton. I try to avoid the high danger times, and I have been in areas where the risk was well above my comfort level (last years crossing of the San Juans for example). I don't blame anyone for trying to avoid it, but at the same time, in the winter and spring the mountains can hold a certain slendor outside of just skiing down.  There is very little public land in this area that does not have some avy concern. | sig added by EH... go check out Kevin's stuff!
New Post
4/30/2013 12:48 PM

Kevin, great counterpoint on the peak bagging thing. I'm thinking that you may not be the only one to provide a counterpoint!

In the comments below that avalanche article, someone made the statement and others agreed that you can ski every day every winter even in high avalanche conditions in perfect safety. I'm sure that's true at a certain level of expertise and with good consistent decision making.

We are fortunate in this matter that your conduct will be your marker and, thus, your reputation. The conduct of others on this forum has been, and will continue to be, their marker, and thus, their reputation. In the west, a person invests in one's reputation carefully. - 112Papa
New Post
4/30/2013 9:25 PM


Great subject to discuss.

And thanks for posting Lou's article on the Sheep Creek Incident. He has a very thorough understanding of risk and risk managment having taken his own near death slide in 1981.

I do not have a Spot/PLB but do carry a cell phone if there is reception( which is very spotty in MT.) I don't have problem with a PLB if it really is going to work If/when I really need it( my research has shown them to be a bit lacking in the reliability dept.). However I don't think I would push myself any further beyond the edge than I already do if I carried a dedicated PLB.

From my own experience of solo travel through the years my conclusions come down to (at least in my mind) a few basic truths, or axioms. In no strict order they are: Understanding risk managment and recognizing what those risks are before they become a problem.

Understanding and accepting reality ( ex: the rock climbers mantra, "gravity never lies").

Acknowledging the difference between  my "wantsies" vs my "needsies", (which basically relate to ones ego and whether or not I have some semblance of control over it).

I found this article last night that relates very well to this subject:

It's a bit long but has some good insight into the psychology of safety.

"..One of the ways Bill is trying to understand why some pilots crash while others don't is to put pilots through stressful simulator sessions. The flight is what we call LOFT (line oriented flight training) in the jet world, where the challenges the pilot faces are comprehensive and include decisions on preflight planning, weather conditions, diversions and so on instead of simply airplane system failures. Bill is trying to analyze flying skill, but more importantly the psychology of pilots.

Already two groups have emerged from the study. One group that Bill calls the "experts" or the "pros" demonstrates different cockpit behavior and almost never crashes the sim. No matter what their total experience, these pilots respond well to the stress, act methodically and make conservative decisions. Many will divert the simulator to an alternate airport when the weather changes; they are able to ignore the distractions of passengers and controllers that Bill interjects, and they are able to prioritize tasks during stressful situations.

During and after the session, Bill measures stress indicators such as heart rate, breathing, speech pattern changes, posture, facial expressions and so on. The pilots who do well all show some signs of stress but are able to handle it. For example, they will often turn off the intercom so they can't hear the intruding passenger, tell controllers to stand by and make very deliberate movements.

The nonexpert group shows essentially opposite behavior. These pilots press on in deteriorating weather, stretch fuel reserves, make very quick decisions and actions and usually try to do several things at once. For example, when under stress, many of the pilots in this group will find it hard to tune the radio because they are spinning the knob so fast, or they will repeatedly push the wrong mode buttons on the autopilot. They also are unable to tune out passengers and controllers and become easily distracted.

It appears that pilots who are less able to handle stressful situations are the ones more likely to take on added risks rather than minimize them by making conservative decisions to divert, or to not even take off in the first place. There are no conclusions yet, but it looks like some pilots are out to prove something to themselves, or maybe to others..."

 Here is another article that more closely relates to the perception that gadgetry/devices aid in safety when in reality mindset is still key.

( yeah, I've been on an aviation kick lately. No real plans but a little super cub would be fun!) | sig added by Evan. Go check out Rod's work.
New Post
4/30/2013 10:31 PM

PLB’s and Sat-phones are forms of precautionary insurance that can be used to buy a margin of time not necessarily measured in critical minutes, hours, or even days…but years. Years of a good, long, productive lifetime well spent with loved ones, family and friends alike. If one doesn’t make it through some crucial minutes, hours or days…the gift of all those years that could be…will be, forever forsaken. Lost. Wasted.

And so it seems that a couple hundred bucks and a handful of ounces is, at most, an absurdly small amount to pay for what could potentially help buy many years worth of the most priceless commodity of all.
New Post
5/1/2013 12:32 AM

This is an excellent thread, and the conversation has provoked some good critical thinking.  I'm going to re-read all the posts, as I'm sure I've missed a few nuggets the first time. My contribution willl be a short and simple one.

I carry an ACR brand PLB.  It was expensive, and adds 9oz to my gear list, but I consider it a non-negotiable, just as I do many other forms of preparedness, such as home/auto insurance, a concealed carry handgun, fire extinguishers and FAKs, etc.  I do my very best however not to realize a true return on any of those investments.  I hope to never actually use those emergency items.  I'm hypervigilant, and tend to "sweat the details" in most aspects of my life, and for the most part, this approach has served me quite well.  So just as I wouldn't leave the house with a cake in the oven, or shoot pool at a seedy tavern at 1AM, I don't do anything outdoors that I feel is risky enough to create a situation I can't work my way out of.   I think Evan already said it, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure................sometimes a ton.  We each decide for ourselves what "reasonable risks" are, and our values, interests and skill levels define "reasonable" for each of us.

Admittedly, a few years ago I did get in way over my head with a wicked combination of fatigue and exposure, but even then I never considered popping a flare.  If I had reached the point of things "going dark" I'd have activated my PLB just to let my family know where to find my body, but my stubborness and will to live kept me moving all night until I reached my truck.  But that's another story.   

New Post
5/1/2013 9:17 AM

This is a very interesting discussion and one that I have thought about and one that I have come to a conclusion about for myself. As some here know I am a bit older than most of you.I did a lot of my real "wilderness" and high risk stuff in my youth. We didn't have any of these devices then and so without, went gladly into the wilds knowing we had to deal with whatever came our way. As I aged, aquired a family and much more responsibility I toned down my outdoor risks some, no more roped mountain climbing, no more taking drift boats and canoes through rapids rafters avoided, no more pushing the limits as it were. Whenever I did go out it was with the knowledge that there was more at stake than just me and I took less risk. Now I still get out but realize that even with the constraints of family lessened, age has kept the caution there, I don't "bounce" as well as I did when I was younger! All that said, as I contemplate a solo wilderness hunt within a few years when the tag is drawn, I will be doing it the same old way with no tech devices etc.. The reason.... because that is the way I know how, I am not very tech saavy and I find that for me the experience is not and would not be the same if I used something. When I was younger with family and all the responsibilities of life ahead I would have embraced these things and used them gladly. Probably would have eased some hairy moments that are still with me. I don't know that these devices would have changed the way I interacted with the experience but I know that the bit of peace of mind they would have afforded would have been welcome sometimes. Imagine if the first person to use a compass had thought he shouldn't use it because it might make them do something stupid or go beyond or where they shouldn't. Keep using your brains and don't let high tech push you to do something stupid but enjoy the peace of mind they afford both you and your families.

PS My wife still doesn't like it when I go it alone but has learned that that is the way it is and will be. She also knows that each and every time I go out I am prepared and fully intend to come home (so far I always have).

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