Satellite messengers can save your life in the backcountry. Press the SOS button on your palm-sized Garmin or Spot device — the two most widely used brands — and search and rescue rains resources down on your emergency, no matter where or what it is.
Colorado leads the Rocky Mountain region with 103 search and rescues initiated by satellite messenger this year through Dec. 9. New Mexico had 34.
There were 26 in Wyoming. I was one of them.
Although I’d been carrying a Garmin inReach satellite messenger for several seasons, I’d never given much thought to how the emergency SOS function worked — what happened after you pushed the button. I simply turned the device on, hung it from my pack at the trip’s beginning and forgot about it. That was about it — until I accidentally triggered a risky and expensive search and rescue mission in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.
The heavy thumping of helicopter blades woke me that morning. Somebody’s having a bad day, I thought. Rain, hail and snow had lashed my tent all night long. Temperatures were in the misery zone. When I poked my head outside the door to have a look around, small frosty avalanches cascaded off the sides. Moving across the horizon, the chopper zig-zagged a search pattern and then disappeared into the clouds.
When not obscured by storm, the mountains glistened with snow. The weather was steadily deteriorating. Not a good day for hiking. Not a good day for flying. Laying over for the storm was going to be a great excuse to sleep and eat all day.
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An obnoxious drum beat of rotors announced the helicopter’s return. Whoever they’re looking for is close. Other hikers dispersed around the lake were waiting out the weather. So cold and wet, someone’s probably experiencing hypothermia. The emergency could be anything of course. Stroke. Lost. Sick. Injured. I was happy it wasn’t me.
Floating above the pines, the chopper darted toward my camp and hovered. Climbing out of the tent, I stood barefooted on frozen ground, staring up through drizzling sleet. Were they looking for me?
Aside from Ric Samulski, my friend in Pinedale, Wyoming, only a few other people had even a vague idea of where I was.
Wyoming. Wind River mountains. Continental Divide Trail. I was off course, but that wasn’t anything new. Then a bolt of adrenaline shot through me. Diving back inside the tent, I dug down into my sleeping bag and retrieved the gadget bag where I stored electronics at night. I’d been sleeping with the Garmin under my head to keep the batteries warm. A faint beep came from inside the bag.
For years I’d resisted buying a satellite messenger.
I liked being on my own in the backcountry, dependent upon and responsible for no one but myself. But my long solitary jaunts through wild country had become worrisome to those at home, so I caved in and bought the Garmin inReach. Along with the emergency SOS button, the inReach has two-way texting and emailing capability. At least if I got into a jam I’d be able to describe the situation.
There’s a big difference between sending out an “I’ve got a bad sprain” text and reporting “someone’s unconscious.”
The Garmin had GPS. I could check the weather forecast. By turning the tracking feature on, family and friends could follow my progress on their computer screens.
My hiking partner, Morgan Dzak, and I had relied on our Garmins for the five months we’d spent walking north from the Mexico border on the Continental Divide Trail. When we’d misplaced each other, our Garmins reunited us. After an intense lightning storm in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, we used a Garmin to rendezvous with a friend who delivered us to lower ground in her pickup.
Morgan used her Garmin to stay in touch with family and friends, as did I occasionally with mine. When the need arose, and cell coverage was non-existent, we used the Garmin to summon a much-needed mountain taxi. But we’d never, ever thought about using the SOS function.
That morning in Wyoming, a glaring red “SOS IN PROGRESS” message flashed across the top of the Garmin screen. It was me they were looking for! Impossible. I turned the unit off every night. I kept the screen-lock safety switch on. I thought these things had to have an unobstructed view of the sky to work.
There were texts from the search and rescue responders and messages from everyone I’d listed as an emergency contact and anyone I’d sent a tracking link to. My son Sean was already en route to Pinedale from Denver. Laine Walter, a friend in North Carolina, had gotten a call from the Sublette County sheriff.
“Text me back when you get this,” Morgan messaged from Colorado. “Dude, do you know a rescue is going on? People are looking for you. Are you OK?”
I couldn’t respond to the texts and I couldn’t cancel the SOS, no matter how many buttons I pushed. When I attempted to turn the unit off I was reminded that a rescue was in progress. I know! I know! Jumping out of the tent, I gave a thumbs up to the helicopter, then held the inReach aloft in my right hand and pointed to it with my left, shaking my head in an emphatic “no” motion. As if they would ever be able to interpret what that meant.
Ever so slowly and carefully the chopper landed a hundred feet away.
My SOS signal was received by an Iridium satellite orbiting 485 miles above my camp.
Almost all satellite messengers — Garmins, SAT phones, GPS units — use the Iridium network. From Iridium my SOS was pinged to Houston, Texas, home of GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center, the only global first responder for emergency satellite devices.
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, GEOS teams monitor SOS calls in more than 170 countries. According to Emily Thompson, the company’s emergency operations manager, they handled 6,457 emergency alerts in 2017 — 2,614 of those alerts were from backcountry users in the United States, people just like me.
GEOS received my alert on Aug. 26, 2018, at 7 p.m. “We identify the location of the incident and the agency responsible for that particular area,” Thompson said. “In your case, we contacted Sublette County.”
Responders also kept trying to contact me and talked to my emergency contacts wanting to know what I was doing. They wanted to know my experience, age, medical history and itinerary. Was I solo or in a group? What was my food and gear situation?
At 7:07 p.m. the sheriff’s department in Pinedale was contacted by GEOS and alerted Tip Top Search and Rescue.
“The weather was really bad. There was a lot of snow up there. You had every factor against you,” Tip Top’s chief coordinator Kenna Tanner said.
It would take an hour and half for Tanner’s team to gather, assess my situation and gear up. U.S. Forest Service officials had to approve flying a helicopter into the Bridger Wilderness, a non-motorized zone. Since beginning a rescue in growing darkness and a worsening storm wasn’t prudent, Tip Top delayed an attempt until morning.
“We’d talked to Ric,” Tanner said. “You should have been following the Highline Trail. You weren’t doing what you said you were going to do. You weren’t where you were supposed to be. We figured you’d taken a wrong turn and gotten into a bind.”
Retired Sublette County Sheriff Dave Lankford was manning the command center that night. “He called every hour just to update,” my friend Laine said. “He wanted to know if you were the type of person that changes plans a lot.”
My son told Lankford: “My dad would have to have two broken legs before he’d push that button.”
Lankford said he suspected a false alarm, but they still had to prepare for the worst. A search and rescue team treats every rescue the same. When they get the call, they respond.
Tip Top attempted to launch the helicopter team three times the next morning. The weather wasn’t cooperating. Tanner and two other volunteers began riding into the mountains on horseback. They’d gone 4 miles before the helicopter’s takeoff was finally cleared.
A small gathering of hikers had been attracted by the helicopter commotion. Some had waded Pole Creek’s frigid knee-deep waters to watch. Walking barefoot across the meadow to meet the search and rescue team was one of the lowest moments of my outdoor life.
“Are you Dean?” yelled Milford Lockwood, the first out of the helicopter, closely followed by Lesta Erikson and Thomas Rinker. They all were members of the Tip Top short-haul team — specialists in doing rescues with fixed lines — just in case I needed to be pulled out of a tight spot.
The pilot never stopped the rotors from turning. We shouted to hear each other.
“We all know Ric! You’re way off route!” Rinker shouted.
“I’m Dean,” I shouted back. “I’m OK.”
The Garmin had sent the SOS accidently, I told them. I was on a route, just not on the one I’d planned. I handed Rinker the Garmin. “I don’t know how to cancel it. I couldn’t respond to anyone!”
Rinker punched buttons on the Garmin that finally canceled the SOS. “This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of people having problems with this thing,” he said.
“Do you want a ride out?” Erikson yelled.
“No,” I yelled back. “Until this morning, I was having a pretty good time.”
I apologized as profusely as anyone can in a loud voice. “For us, this is a happy ending,” Rinker said.
The clouds were closing in again. Time to go. The three trotted back to the chopper, climbed aboard and roared off. The whole exchange had taken fewer than 10 minutes.
“I heard about a false alarm in Canada that cost like $10,000,” one of the other hikers told me as everyone dispersed. Thanks, buddy.
Since finishing my Continental Divide hike, I’ve had time to think about what happened in the Wind Rivers.
In a careless moment while shoving gear around in the tent, or by lying or sleeping on the Garmin, something or some body part pressed on the emergency button and sent the SOS. Should my device have been capable of sending out an SOS while powered off with the screen-lock safety on? The units do beep when the SOS is activated but I’m notoriously deaf to high-pitched sounds.
I wasn’t alone with my inReach failure. A blog post by Nathan Shoutis described being “rescued” on the second day of an 18-day packrafting trip in Kamchatka, Russia, when their inReach accidently tripped.
The bill was $4,400.
Ultra-long-distance hiker Andrew Surka devoted a blog post on his site to faulty inReach lock-screen switches. Sure enough, when GEOS’s Thompson and I tested my inReach unit, the SOS button triggered the signal despite being powered off and the lock-screen safety being turned on. The ping was so precise, Thompson knew my address in Crested Butte.
According to a Garmin spokesperson, the failing lock-out screen switch is a flaw in a small number of older inReach SE and Explorer units manufactured by DeLorme before the company was acquired by Garmin in 2016. Those devices have been replaced by newer models, with the SOS button moved to the unit’s side (mine was on the device’s front) and covered with a removable plastic shield.
Including helicopter time at $3,000 per hour, along with personnel, horses, equipment and transportation, the cost of my search and rescue could have run into five digits. But I won’t get a bill. There is zero cost for a search and rescue in Sublette or any other Wyoming county.
“We’ve taken that stance because we never want to have someone in need not call us because of the cost,” Tanner said. People have hobbled out of the mountains severely injured or even hidden from search and rescue teams because they feared a rescue’s cost.
“We don’t tally that cost,” said Tanner. “We are a volunteer organization and that’s what it’s about.”
Search and rescue expenses in Wyoming are absorbed by the counties in which the rescues occur and then are reimbursed by the state’s Search and Rescue Council. Each purchase of a hunting and fish license contributes to the search and rescue fund.
In Colorado, 25 cents from every purchase of hunting or fishing licenses, habitat stamps, boat, snowmobile and off-highway vehicle registration goes into the state search and rescue fund. In addition, anyone can purchase a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue card ($12 for five years or $3 for one year) to help fund search and rescue activities.
The New Mexico Search and Rescue Act of 1978 mandates that search and rescue operations be conducted by the State Police with help from civilian volunteers without charge to the lost and found.
If, however, a rescue involves medical evacuation, an ambulance or hospitalization, there will be a bill. Some travel insurance policies cover search and rescue. Most do not. With this in mind, GEOS, the emergency-response outfit in Houston, also offers search and rescue and Medevac insurance to cover additional expenses.
You also might get a bill if you’ve intentionally or recklessly (lots of latitude in those definitions) endangered yourself and the rescue team, skied out of bounds at a resort, broken the law or are a habitual SOS button pusher. Charges are tallied at the discretion of the rescuing organizations.
Do people abuse the SOS button?
Of course. Everyone in the backcountry hears stories of people being rescued for nothing more then being tired or wet or hungry or cold, or for minor injuries. Having an SOS button handy can give a false sense of security to the unprepared and inexperienced.
Still, the number of accidental or false alarms is low, according to Thompson. GEOS works closely with manufacturers and responders, “educating users about when they should activate the device, what they should do upon activation and avoiding accidental activations. The latter includes audible signals from the device to alert the user that an SOS has been activated.”
Pinedale is a small enough town that those not directly involved in my search and rescue mishap probably knew someone who was. I felt as if all eyes were upon me when I resupplied in Ridley’s Market.
I was the guy who accidentally pushed the button.
My friend Ric felt that, at the minimum, I should have to do community service. As for me, I’ll make sure to file a hike plan at the beginning of a trip and stick to it. I’ll continue to use my inReach. I’ll just treat it with a little more caution. Now that I know it works.
This story was updated Dec. 28, 2018 at 5:22 p.m. to correct the type of devices that use the Iridium network.