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The Mountain Locator Unit and Other Emergency Signaling Devices

A variety of emergency locating and messaging devices are available for backcountry travelers as means of signaling for help. These devices include mountain locator units (MLUs), personal locator beacons (PLBs), GPS locating devices (i.e., the SPOT Satellite Messenger), and cellphones.

There is, however, no one perfect device. Each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, not to mention the fact that all electronic devices may fail and aren't a guarantee that rescuers will be able to reach a victim's location in time. These devices are no substitute for adequate preparation and at least one non-electronic backup plan should things go wrong.

The Mountain Locator Unit:

Oregon's Mount Hood is the only mountain in the world on which the MLU is currently used. The unit, which has a long range and long battery life, can be rented for about $5 at most Portland outdoor stores and from the Mount Hood Inn at Government Camp.

The Mountain Locator Unit was designed after a school group of two adults and seven children died on Mount Hood in 1986. The bodies of some of the group were found in a snow cave a day after searchers had passed within fifteen feet of their shelter without noticing them.

The MLU is easy to use but must be manually activated, and a call has to be placed to 911 in order for a rescue to be initiated, because no one is listening for the signal. There are only a few receivers in the state of Oregon, which are stored away. When someone calls 911, those who have the receivers will then activate them. But cell phone service is limited on Mt. Hood and varies widely among providers, not to mention that cell phone batteries don't last long in the cold. And an MLU won't be of any help if the victim is unconscious or unable to pull the cord and there is no one to activate it for them.

MLUs work with line of sight and provide a direction but not coordinates. MLUs do penetrate snow, however, so they will work in a snow cave, but the signal can bounce off of or be blocked by terrain.

Despite those limitations, the Mountain Locator Unit has saved lives on Mt. Hood. Here's a news video, including film taken by the rescuers when they were called out to search for missing climbers one February night during a blizzard with 60mph winds and white-out conditions.

The Personal Locator Beacon:

When activated, a personal locator beacon sends a high-strength satellite signal, which gives law enforcement a broad location of the device. The PLB emits a homing signal, which rescuers follow with the use of a receiver to locate the victim. Newer models provide a complete set of GPS coordinates, and, unlike the MLU, simply activating a PLB initiates a rescue response without a call to 911. PLBs have a shorter battery life than MLUs, lasting 1 or 2 days at most once activated and must be sent back to the manufacturer for battery replacement. The units require an unobstructed view of the sky and registration with the appropriate national authority.

Here's an informative video about MLUs, PLBs and other signaling and GPS tracking devices, presented by the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office and Portland Mountain Rescue.

Related reading:

What is a PLB?

Mountain Locator Unit Can Help, But Doesn't Guarantee a Safe Return

The Use and Misuse of the SPOT Satellite Receiver

SAR Blogs & Mission Episodes (& Update on the Search for Abisha)

Here's a search and rescue website some of you may not have stumbled upon yet. It's called Call Out.

Call Out provides teams across British Columbia, Canada, with small camcorders and tiny helmet cams. Each participating team usually designates one or two of its members as camera operators. When there's a Search and Rescue mission, the camera person shoots as much footage as possible without compromising the rescue operation. Then, if it turns out to be what Call Out considers a good rescue story, their production team meets with the SAR team and the subjects to film interviews, and a short re-creation is often staged to fill in the gaps in the footage.

View Call Out episodes

On Call Out, you can also read blogs by "SAR Advocates," who "share their passion for Search and Rescue whether they are actively participating on a team or not, applying their knowledge and extensive experience to assist the SAR community in meeting the multi-faceted challenges involved in saving lives."
You can follow Call Out on Facebook and Twitter also.

Update on the search for Abisha Ray Mounce:

Several months ago, I posted about this missing person case after being contacted by Abisha's mom, Ingmar, who was spreading the word about her son. Abisha had been missing since October 2007. His vehicle had been found along the Continental Divide Trail, parked at North Crestone Trailhead just north of Crestone, Colorado. An extensive search, both by SAR teams and by a friend of Abisha's, had turned up no clues.

A few days ago, I received this comment from Ingmar on that former post:

"Remains, likely Abisha's, were found last Monday. Thank you all for your SAR service. It is an important thing for us family members of people who go missing"

She referenced the Valley Courier story: Missing Atlanta Man Presumed Dead in San Luis Valley

The Shortest Route Was a Tragic Route

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/CC

In March 2011, Rita and Albert Chretien were driving from Canada to Las Vegas with guidance from their new GPS.  But their trip came to a sudden, unexpected stop on the 19th in the wilderness of Nevada's Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, when their two-wheel-drive van became stuck in the mud on washed-out forest service roads deep in the high country.

According to the Associated Press, the Chretiens had consulted their GPS "to find the shortest route to Jackpot, nestled in Nevada's northeastern corner. If they had typed in the town's name into their GPS from anywhere in the area, the shortest route would have led them off-highway and along possibly a half-dozen different forest service roads only named with numbers. They apparently followed the route into the mountains without question."

Yes, we've heard similar stories before—people following the directions given by a piece of technology without consulting a map or using common sense in the process, allowing themselves to be led into danger and, sometimes, even death. Remember the Nevada couple who got stranded for three days in the Oregon desert after they followed directions from their GPS device? Soon after that, an Oregon couple spent about 12 hours stranded in the Northwest's Cascade Mountains with their 11-month-old daughter. Lucky for them, those stories had happy endings. For the Chretiens, though, theirs appears to be a tragedy.

On Friday, May 6th, 56-year-old Rita Chretien was found barely alive—yes, seven weeks after getting stuck—by a group of hunters on ATVs who themselves had made a wrong turn on the confusing network of Forest Service roads. Her husband, however, is still missing, having set out on foot on March 22nd to walk more than 20 miles to find help, hoping to make it to Mountain City.

Two of the men who found Rita rode nearly ten miles on their ATVs to get cell service and called Elko County dispatchers.

Rita Chretian survived by rationing trail mix and hard candy and drinking from a nearby creek. She lost as much as 30 pounds during that time and would not have survived much longer.

Sgt. Kevin McKinney of the Elko County Sheriff's Department, which is leading the continuing search for Albert Chretian said, "Many of the roads are just washed out, covered from rock slides, and there are deep pockets of drifting snow." 

For more on this story and the continuing search, read:

Canadian Woman Found Alive, Husband Still Missing
Woman Who Was Stranded for Weeks Leaves Hospital
Teams Seek Man Whose Wife Survived Seven Weeks in Bush