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“Yuppie 911”

October 26, 2009

This morning’s paper brings word of hikers and backcountry wanderers in “trouble.”  That is to say, suffering from a gross lack of self-sufficiency.  Technology has bestowed upon mankind affordable personal locator beacons and now it appears that we’re abusing them.  Like we couldn’t have seen that one coming.

The Associated Press article interviewed some California search and rescue folks who scathingly refer to the beacons as “Yuppie 911.”  The amazing “rescue” that was recounted in the news story concerned the Grand Canyon party that summoned helicopter assistance three times in three days.  The helicoper crew forced them on board and a trip out after their third emergency summons, which was about the water the group had found that “tasted salty.”  My other favorite was the camper that hit the button because she was frightened by a thunderstorm.

The point being, beyond that this conduct is enormously expensive, people are venturing into  places that are far beyond the level of risk they are equipped to handle.  Growing numbers of people are going into backcountry that they do not have the knowledge, experience, and endurance to handle.  They apparently figure that a personal locator beacon is an acceptable substitute for those qualities. 

I particularly liked the comment by John Amrhein, Bernardino County’s emergency coordinator, “In the past, people who got in trouble self-rescued; they got on their hands and knees and crawled out.  We saw the increase in non-emergencies with cell phones; people  called, saying, ‘I’m cold and damp. Come get me out.’ These [personal locator beacons] take it to another level.”

On a related note, a week ago our local search and rescue was called out because a backpacker was reported missing in the Black Elk Wilderness Area.  His family called in, concerned that he had not checked scheduled and now was a couple days overdue.  The hiker was on a 2-month spiritual quest; had made all his call-ins during that time; and was last heard from when he left Hill City heading into the Black Elk.  Since the Black Hills was experiencing its first heavy snow and extended period of single degree temperatures in the higher Hills, everyone was duly concerned.

Fortunately, before the search and rescue got fully into the field, the hiker walked into Sylvan Lake Lodge in Custer State Park.  None the worse for wear and blithely ignorant of all the fuss he’d created.  Presumably the local S&R leaders and his family reamed his ass before he refilled his backpack and disappeared again.

Our tardy Black Elk packer is no doubt better fit, equipped and experienced than the majority of people we’ll run across in the woods, but his story does have some overlap with the disgustingly sad tales of the rescuees that hit the button on their personal locator beacons.  There is a common thread of responsibility that runs through all these stories.  The Black Elk hiker was experienced enough to know what would happen if he was overdue in checking in; Jeez, he was supposed to call his mother, what’d he think would happen?  The inexperienced beacon crowd has a responsibility to make a searching self-inventory before jumping off into the backcountry.  Is this trip better delayed until next season?  If I used this season doing an intermediate level trip to gain experience, would it make next year’s trip a better, more enjoyable one?

A lot of self-sufficiency is all about appreciating risk — and accepting responsibility for taking it.

— Margadant

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