Last month two men and their teenage sons tackled one of the world's most unforgiving summertime hikes: the Grand Canyon's parched and searing Royal Arch Loop. Along with bedrolls and freeze-dried food, the inexperienced backpackers carried a personal locator beacon — just in case.
In the span of three days, the group pushed the panic button three times, mobilizing helicopters for dangerous, lifesaving rescues inside the steep canyon walls.
What was that emergency? The water they had found to quench their thirst "tasted salty."
If they had not been toting the device that works like Onstar for hikers, "we would have never attempted this hike," one of them said after the third rescue crew forced them to board their chopper. It's a growing problem facing the men and women who risk their lives when they believe others are in danger of losing theirs.
Technology has made calling for help instantaneous even in the most remote places. Because would-be adventurers can send GPS coordinates to rescuers with the touch of a button, some are exploring terrain they do not have the experience, knowledge or endurance to tackle.
Rescue officials are deciding whether to start keeping statistics on the problem, but the incidents have become so frequent that the head of California's Search and Rescue operation has a name for the devices: Yuppie 911.
"Now you can go into the back country and take a risk you might not normally have taken," says Matt Scharper, who coordinates a rescue every day in a state with wilderness so rugged even crashed planes can take decades to find. "With the Yuppie 911, you send a message to a satellite and the government pulls your butt out of something you shouldn't have been in in the first place."
From the Sierra to the Cascades, Rockies and beyond, hikers are arming themselves with increasingly affordable technology intended to get them out of life-threatening situations.
While daring rescues are one result, very often the beacons go off unintentionally when the button is pushed in someone's backpack, or they are activated unnecessarily, as in the case of a woman who was frightened by a thunderstorm.
"There's controversy over these devices in the first place because it removes the self sufficiency that's required in the back country," Scharper says. "But we are a society of services, and every service you need you can get by calling."
The sheriff's office in San Bernardino County, the largest in the nation and home to part of the unforgiving Death Valley, hopes to reduce false alarms. So it is studying under what circumstances hikers activate the devices.
"In the past, people who got in trouble self-rescued; they got on their hands and knees and crawled out," says John Amrhein, the county's emergency coordinator. "We saw the increase in non-emergencies with cell phones: people called saying 'I'm cold and damp. Come get me out.' These take it to another level."
Personal locator beacons, which send distress signals to government satellites, became available in the early 1980s, but at a price exceeding $1,200. They have been legal for the public to use since 2003, and in the last year the price has fallen to less than $100 for devices that send alerts to a company, which then calls local law enforcement.
When rescue beacons tempt inexperienced hikers to attempt trails beyond their abilities, that can translate into unnecessary expense and a risk of lives.
Last year, the beacon for a hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail triggered accidentally in his backpack, sending helicopters scrambling. Recently, a couple from New Bruswick, British Columbia activated their beacon when they climbed a steep trail and could not get back down. A helicopter lowered them 200 feet to secure footing.
In September, a hiker from Placer County was panning for gold in New York Canyon when he became dehydrated and used his rescue beacon to call for help.
With darkness setting in on the same day, Mono County sheriff's deputies asked the National Guard for a high-altitude helicopter and a hoist for a treacherous rescue of two beacon-equipped hikers stranded at Convict Lake. The next day they hiked out on foot.
‘Creating a hazardous condition’
When eight climbers ran into trouble last winter during a summit attempt of Mt. Hood in Oregon, they called for help after becoming stranded on a glacier in a snowstorm.
"The question is, would they have decided to go on the trip knowing the weather was going bad if they had not been able to take the beacons," asks Rocky Henderson of Portland Mountain Rescue. "We are now entering the Twilight Zone of someone else's intentions."
The Grand Canyon's Royal Arch loop, the National Park Service warns, "has a million ways to get into serious trouble" for those lacking skill and good judgment. One evening the fathers-and-sons team activated their beacon when they ran out of water.
Rescuers, who did not know the nature of the call, could not launch the helicopter until morning. When the rescuers arrived, the group had found a stream and declined help.
That night, they activated the emergency beacon again. This time the Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter, which has night vision capabilities, launched into emergency mode.
When rescuers found them, the hikers were worried they might become dehydrated because the water they found tasted salty. They declined an evacuation, and the crew left water.
The following morning the group called for help again. This time, according to a park service report, rescuers took them out and cited the leader for "creating a hazardous condition" for the rescue teams.