SPOT 911 on the PCT

A hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail near Horseshoe Meadows got hit by Wednesday's weather and pressed "911" on her Spot Satellite Messenger when she became cold, wet, and afraid she would not survive the night (read her account here). In the morning, she sent an "OK" message and hiked to Lone Pine, where she was met by worried family members.

A Search and Rescue operation, meanwhile, had been initiated by her 911 message, and continued on until SAR personnel ran into the hiker in the town of Lone Pine—she hadn't notified authorities she was all right, believing that by sending an OK signal she had "canceled the 911."

PCT thru-hikers tend to travel extremely light in order to cover large distances each day. In this case, the hiker did not have a tent, nor much extra clothing or storm gear. PCT hikers in Alpine terrain should remember snowstorms are possible year-round in the High Sierra. Traveling light has its advantages, but also requires a higher level of experience and resourcefulness should conditions take a turn for the worse.

Probably the most interesting aspect of this story is how it reveals the mindset of the casual SPOT user. The hiker gave little thought to what would happen if she pressed the 911 button, and erroneously believed that by pressing OK afterward, it would undo the 911 message. We teach our children at a very early age not to call 911 without good cause. It seems some people view SPOT 911 calls as somehow different. Would she have dialed 911, for example, if instead of a SPOT messenger she was carrying a satellite phone?

Finally, while it is tempting to focus on this hiker's rather galling failure to notify SAR that she was alive and well in Lone Pine, it would be a mistake to make people reluctant to push 911 on their SPOTs because they're afraid of being subsequently shamed for it. Used properly, SPOT can be a life-saving device. But as we're learning, knowing how and when to use your SPOT isn't always obvious.

Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents

Dan Conger June 8, 2009 at 7:31 pm

If you truly believe you are going to die, please call 911! However, take some time to educate yourself about what can happen in a real mountain range any time of year before you decide to just go for a walk. I'm not suggesting that this young woman was unaware, but we need to be ready for any conditions at any time. No matter what time of year I head into the Sierra, you'll always find my ski parka in my pack. If nothing else, it makes a great pillow.

Andy June 8, 2009 at 7:43 pm

I recall reading someone arguing that the minimum necessary gear in the mountains is highly dependent on your experience level.

It's a good way to think about it. Someone with very little experience can get in trouble even when they're well-equipped. Someone with practically nothing can Man-vs-Wild it if they know what they're doing.

That said, I'm with you -- I want that hardshell in my pack, and enough insulation to spend the night, anytime I'm in the Sierra.