Rocky Mountain Rescue tracks down skier triggering false alerts

Back in January, I wrote about how on three separate occasions in December, a personal locator beacon was triggered in the vicinity of Berthoud Pass. These false positives came from the same ACR PLB-300 Microfix (RescueFix) beacon. After the three at Berthoud, the same unit was triggered again twice near Crested Butte. Ultimately, the unit was triggered nine times over a 12-week period between December 11 and February 11.

Members of Rocky Mountain Rescue continued to look for it, and on February 11, they got a break. According to a press release, it was turned on on that date and not turned off. Using equipment, they tracked it as it moved along I-70, indicating it was in a car. The beacon was ultimately tracked to a parking lot in Boulder, where the owner was at a doctor's appointment.

Turns out the owner, a male backcountry skier in his 20s from Fraser, had gotten the unit as a birthday present from relatives who knew he liked to ski in the backcountry and were worried about avalanches. The gift was mistakenly identified as an avalanche beacon, and the owner, who didn't read the directions, had been using it as such, turning it on every time he thought he was in avy zones. He didn't know that he was broadcasting the equivalent of an SOS every time he turned it on.

Having determined that the owner wasn't aware of what he'd been doing, the Clear Creek County Sheriff declined to press charges. The Sheriff watched as the owner registered his PLB.

Noted backcountry skier Lou Dawson, the first to ski all 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado, wrote in his Wild Snow blog, "Perhaps he was so clueless he not only was using a PLB as an avy beacon, but also expecting it to get him dug out from an avalanche with no one else present?" Dawson also notes that as PLBs are sold in greater amounts, it is likely that more false alarms will be triggered, as unregistered units are used improperly, rendering the units ineffective as rescue groups get sent on wild goose chases.

It's no surprise, sadly: Every weekend, on my way to Arapahoe Basin, I see people skiing avalanche terrain off Loveland Pass who have no avalanche beacons, no shovels, no probes, and no clue. Even those who have the gear all too often don't know how to use it, and still depend more on luck than anything. It's time for people to realize the mountains are not  Adventure Land.

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Candace Horgan