Mules & Smoke: Day 3 (High Sierra) 08-Sep-2020

At 0300 on Tuesday morning, two Yosemite Search & Rescue (YOSAR) personnel (Jake and Erika) reached our camp, after having hiked 14 miles from Virginia Lakes in the dark with headlamps. The PLB had worked exactly as advertised – notifying the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center of our plight; they then notified the closest relevant authority, Yosemite National Park. The YOSAR personnel assessed Aniela (concluding that she didn’t have a head injury), communicated (they had a sat phone) her condition to dispatch, and then waited until morning to decide what to do next. At first light, the decision was made to stabilize Aliana’s arm (we’d later learn that she’d broken her radius and ulna and dislocated her elbow) and walk her out to Tuolumne Meadows. She made it out that day and was waiting to say good-bye to the group when we reached Twin Lakes a few days later.

Jake, Erica, and a well bandaged Aliana start the walk out
Leaving Miller Lake

Once Aliana was on her way out, there was not much for us to do except declare a lay-over day, catch-up on our sleep, and explore around the lake. The packers – Sam in particular – had to spend much of the day rounding-up stock that had strayed while everyone was focused on Ailana. Sam’s cryptic message on the other packer’s sat phone did have the effect of letting Rock Creek know that we needed more help. Thus Tyler and Tristan arrived from Virginia Creek in the afternoon to replace Aliana and take some of the load off Sam and Hunter.

Since it was my PLB that was used, I’d had to stay up to turn it off when YOSAR arrived and verify with them (and the U.S. Air Force) that this was indeed an actual rescue situation, as setting off one of these beacons “just because” is severely frowned upon. Somewhat perversely, a stiff wind came in from the south and pushed the smoke somewhere else, so we had almost clear conditions for the first time in days. I took advantage of this clarity to do a short stroll for the views from the granite outcrop behind our camp, then retreated to our tent to catch-up on some sleep.

Looking east from above Miller Lake
Matterhorn Peak (arrow; climbed in 1983) from Miller Lake
Life growing in granite
Miller Lake
Twig in water
The south end of Miller Lake
Clear water (and not too cold)

After some reflection, The LovedOne and I decided that a business is free to set it’s own policies (within legal boundaries), with the understanding that they have to accept the consequences of those policies. The desire to go “old school” and not carry any sort of comm device is certainly one such policy. To us, such a policy carries with it (particularly in this day and age) a massive, and potentially business ending, liability exposure. If, for example, a client has a massive heart attack on the trail and it takes hours (or days) for help to arrive, we suspect they (or more likely their estate) is going to sue you and your business into oblivion. You’re rolling the dice with every client. But how someone else runs their business isn’t our call – we’re just glad we were able to help-out with our PLB. 🙂

Despite some of the negative reviews we read about PLBs, ours worked exactly as promised. The YOSAR personnel commented how easy it was to find us and how the bulit-in strobe light helped guide them directly to where we were around the lake. The one deficiency these PLBs have is they offer no way to communicate the exact nature of the emergency. Is it imminently life threatening (e.g., heart attack, severe head injury) or just painful and immobilizing (e.g., broken leg)? Do you need a dustoff or can you walk or ride out? To give such details we’d need something like a Garmin InReach Explorer+ or a SPOT-X, both of which are less powerful than a PLB and more expensive in that they require a subscription. But one of these is something to think about having, particularly if we go on any more “old school” trips. 🙄

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4 comments

  1. The refusal to have trips carry some sort of satellite messenger (or water filters) seems to be entirely a case of the pack station’s owner being “old school” and stubborn. Of course, it might be the cost of the units & the subscriptions too. Whether or not he’s ever been effectively sued yet is unclear but it seems like a business-ending liability case just waiting to happen. If I hadn’t had my PLB available, it’s likely our trip would have ended at Miller Lake – with us walking out to Tuolumne Meadows or some such.

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  2. I’m a bit surprised given current day liability the company chose to go without as well. I’ve been carrying the inReach for 7-8 years. I use mine a lot and haven’t had communication issues. My messages are reliably received regardless of location. Makes me wonder if this is a problem with the mini especially if using via Bluetooth. I always do my checkins via the unit. I used the SOS once and found the two way texting essential and work every penny.

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  3. Thanks for this info. A friend used an InReach Explorer+ to communicate with family while hiking part of the PCT in Washington. She found it very useful and didn’t have any issues with making connections – maybe because a lot of that trail is along ridge lines? I suppose – if you can afford it – having both a PLB and an InReach would be your best hedge against not being found/rescued.

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  4. I just came back from 3 weeks on the PCT (Lassen to Donner Pass) and used the Inreach mini for communication (I switched from the SPOT-X). I didn’t have to use it for SAR but needed to communicate with my support re. the fires that were breaking out. I found that texts do not always go through, especially when in a canyon (which occurred frequently) and I learned to use the text feature at ridge points. I talked to INreach after I got back and they assured that the SOS signal uses a different more secure connection. So in case of accident they will get your SOS. I also learned that my “I’m OK” message always came through to my loved ones, but not always with the coordinates attached. I guess there is no perfect system. I’m familiar with your PLB and its secure connection in case of accident. I’m still going to keep using my InReach for now.

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