Berthoud Pass backcountry.
Berthoud Pass backcountry.
Paul Carroll c/o Flickr.

False Positives: Personal locator beacons gives rescue teams fits

A while ago, I wrote about rescues and who should save you in the mountains. The story arose from an incident on Mt. Hood. One of the overreactions to the deaths of the three climbers has been the idea of mandating that climbers carry personal locator beacons (PLBs) with them when they climb Mt. Hood.

Many professional rescue teams are against the idea of mandating personal locator beacons, as well as the idea of the charging people for rescues. Ultimately, carrying PLBs can become a false blanket of security for those that have them. Further, as a series of incidents in the Colorado backcountry demonstrates, PLBs can cause their own problems.


This first broke at Lou Dawson's Wild Snow blog, and has made the rounds of several backcountry-oriented websites as Alpine Rescue seeks an answer. On three separate occasions, December 14, 23, and 24, in the vicinity of Berthoud Pass, the same ACR PLB-300 Microfix (RescueFix) was triggered on those dates, resulting in the mobilization of SAR teams, including the U.S. Air Force, the Colorado State Search and Rescue Coordinator, the local sheriff, and Alpine Rescue.

Whoever owns the PLB that has triggered the alerts has not registered it online, as they are supposed to. Further, according to the report from Alpine Rescue that has been floating around the Internet, whoever has triggered the PLB has done so sporadically, so the signal has been moving and difficult to track.

After the activations near Berthoud Pass, the same unit was again triggered last week near Crested Butte, between Elktown Cabin and the Gothic Cabin, according to a post by Alpine Rescue's Paul Woodward on 14ers.com.

Whether the triggers have been done because the owner doesn't know how to work the unit, thinks it's an avalanche beacon, or is pranking the SAR community is unknown. At this point, no laws have been broken, and Alpine Rescue is asking for people's help in tracking this individual down so that they can speak to them about properly using a PLB.

In the meantime, as Lou Dawson writes in his post on the incident: "You get thousands or even hundreds of thousands of "emergency beacons" distributed, and due to false positives their usefulness will diminish or outright die unless you provide some sort of accountability or 2-way communication."

Most PLBs, while law requires them to have a registered account, do not require said account to be active to work the unit. It's estimated that most PLBs are not, in fact, registered.

Ultimately, the best defense against needing rescue is still your own judgment. Learn the skills needed to travel safely in the backcountry, and realize that the mountains are not an elaborate amusement park.

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