Cell Phones in the Wired Wild West
New Cell Tower in Yellowstone versus the Sounds of Silence
BY QUINCY ORHAI
In an emergency response situation earlier this year, the kind that has become common in southwest Montana, the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team responded by helicopter to Blackmore Mountain trailhead in Hyalite Canyon for an injured skier. The 21-year-old Bozeman resident had fallen into some rocks on the 10,052 foot tall mountain and injured his back, ribs and hip.
The injured skier was skiing with four other companions when the accident occurred. A partner with a cell phone was able to contact the 911 Gallatin County Dispatch Center to report the incident to alert assisting agencies. A command post was quickly set up at the Blackmore trailhead, where personnel from all the organizations staged their rescue effort. As twilight descended on the early spring evening, a helicop-ter then transported members of the Search and Rescue Heli-Alpine team to the summit of the ridge and skied down to offer the injured man assistance and medical aid at 9,600 feet of elevation.
The injured skier was promptly stabilized, then transported by a litter lowered on ropes to an area where the helicopter had landed. He was then flown to the command post, transferred to an ambulance, and taken to Bozeman Deaconess Hospital. The rescue team skied out—an almost perfect rescue that would have gone differently had there been no cell phone in the skiing party.
According to Kevin Brumbach, acting President of the Montana Mountaineering Association, almost everyone agrees that cell phone usage in a dire situation is appropriate and useful for emergency respon-ders. What is not so clear is when cell phone usage in the backcountry becomes inappropriate?
Originally from Idaho, Brumbach doesn’t pack a phone with him when he heads into the backcountry. Although he emphasizes that the Montana Mountaineering Association has no official position on backcountry cell phone usage, he has his reasons for not bringing a “dingle machine” into the wild.
Brumbach believes it is impor-tant to be self-sufficient in the mountains. Cell phones and emergency locator beacons, he believes, create a false sense of security, encouraging people to consider taking routes that would otherwise be considered too dangerous. “Know what you are doing.” Brumbach said. “Be competent, and carry the necessary equipment to get yourself out of any situation you get yourself into.” If you carry a cell phone into the backcountry, he says, “it should be for emergency use only.”
Speaking as an experienced mountaineer and guide, Brumbach believes cell phones are definitely not to be used to get yourself dragged out of the backcountry just because you are worn out, and, in Brumbach’s opinion, cell phone usage to conduct business, use social media, or make social calls is in poor taste, especially if it effects other users’ enjoyment. On the other hand, ski resorts are not wilderness. If people use their cell phones there, it doesn’t bother him.
Al Kesselheim, of Bozeman, another experienced backcountry traveler, also believes cell phones are a faulty security system for wilderness travel, similar to depending on GPS units and not knowing how to read a topography map and compass. He doesn't carry one. Backcountry travelers should be prepared, have a first aid kit, and take their chances, he believes.
“Cell phone conversations are incredibly obnoxious in the back country. It is very annoying to be on a peak, essentially a spiritual experi-ence, and hear someone loudly talking on a cell phone describing their view.”
According to Division Commander Lieutenant Jason (J.J.) Jarrett, Gallatin County Search and Rescue enjoys a unique challenge as the busiest S&R in Montana and probably in all the surrounding states.
“As a community we have become accustomed to hundreds of folks in the backcountry at any given time. We are so used to exploring the real live backcountry in our backyard, that we tend to forget that this is not Central Park. There are a lot of ways to get killed out there, and we need to remember to always exercise caution.”
Asked about the use of cell phones to call for help, Lieutenant Jarrett told us most local area calls for Search and Rescue don’t abuse 911. The local community is very outdoor oriented, and most backcountry calls for help are from locals, either getting lost or hurt. The search and rescue teams enjoy their work and are proud to serve their community. “Frankly, I’d rather get paid to do a rescue on a skier with a broken leg on a remote ridge in the Bridger’s than on a heart attack in a bathroom somewhere.”
Jarrett emphasized that people calling for help are mostly locals in trouble after taking the wrong trail or a wrong turn, getting lost in the dark, or because of a broken leg or other medical emergency. Cell phone use in the backcountry has not created problems for the Gallatin County Search and Rescue. On the contrary, it has saved lives. Gallatin County Sheriff Gootkin has stated: “Have a means of communication with you…notify rescue services by the quickest means possible in case of an emergency.”
Yellowstone National Park, like many of the higher elevation areas of the Backcountry in Gallatin and Park counties, already has widespread cell phone coverage in the high country. The Park, mostly located in Wyoming, but including a sliver of southern Montana, will have more and better cell phone reception soon. Workers are installing a new 100-foot-tall Verizon Wireless tower this summer that will provide enhanced service to Lake Village and Fishing Bridge. The new tower, located next to a buried water tank on a 100-foot rise above the Lake Administrative Area, and 700 feet below the top of Elephant Back Ridge, is the sixth tower in Yellowstone, the first erected in a decade— and a subject of controversy.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, for example, and the National Parks Conservation Association opposed the new cell tower, claiming it will interfere with solitude and views.
A YNP press release from July 23 explains that the new tower will extend 30 feet above the neighboring 70-foot-high average tree canopy, but will not break the skyline views from any popular visitor use areas or roads. “The height will benefit the environment by allowing co-location of additional communications equipment,” the YNP release states, “while avoiding the need to build new towers for additional communication needs in the future.”
Most folks enter the wilderness at least partly to get away from our intensely wired modern world. No prohibitions exist, however, against using a cell phone in the wilderness, and local Search and Rescue operations and the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Department recommend carrying one in the wild for emergency situations. Recognizing then that cell phone’s are here to stay, even in the backcountry, various sources propose the following tips and points of etiquette.
Backcountry Cell Phone Etiquette
• Respect the sanctity and silence of the wilderness, and other folk’s desire for solitude.
• Limit cell phone conversations to the minimum necessary.
• Do not use speakerphone or speak in a loud tone of voice.
• Keep your phone on silent vibration if expecting incoming calls.
• Keep your cell phone off if not expecting incoming calls (saves battery charge too).
• If concerned about being rescued, consider packing a personal locator beacon in addition to a cell phone.
• In situations of grave or imminent danger, don’t delay calling 911 until after dark. Ask for help in a precise, timely manner.
• Before dialing 911, determine your exact location to the best of your ability to facilitate an emergency response.