Friday, May 15, 2015

Comprehensive Overview of Outdoor Communications

It is 2015. We head to the mountains partially to escape technology and the “constant contact” of the smartphone age. We have more communication options in town than ever before. Similarly, we have a ton of options in the backcountry. Just as we carry rain gear when it shouldn’t rain and take first aid classes even though no one should get hurt, we should educate ourselves in the options for both routine and emergency communications. 

Deep in the wild? At least give some thought to effective routine and emergency communication. Here, in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, we carried a satellite modem for voice and text through a smart phone. And we carried battery power to spare. 

First of all, one need not carry any sort of communications. Unless it is expected or asked of you by a specific person, the choice is yours. One can choose whatever level of commitment one desires. While it is a matter of personal preference, there is an ever evolving convention. I like to think of it this way: “What does my mom expect I do?” Now, my mom is just savvy enough to represent convention, in my view. She expects that I carry a first aid kit, that I use my seatbelt, and that I have avalanche training. There are measures available that aren’t on her radar. Those have yet to become conventional, and my mother's ignorance of them confirms that. When it comes to emergency communications, my mother expects that I know where cell signal works, and she expects that I have an “Oh $h17” button I can push if things really go south beyond the cell signal. She likes when I can call from a sat phone, but it isn’t something she expects all the time. With my mom's expectations, that’s where I’d draw the “convention” line. You can choose less in the interest of adventure, and more in the interest of greater margin of safety, but it is all your choice. 

Once you have chosen your method of communication, understand its limitations and make sure everyone involved understands. With modern, one-way satellite communications, for instance, the rule with those out in civilization must be “no news is good news”. Those things do not always work. And those in the field have no way of knowing if it is working. If you are counting on communicating in the event of an emergency with someone who is not a professional emergency dispatcher make sure he or she understands what to do when you send word. I could write an entire article, and may someday, on how to craft, with your loved ones, an excellent backcountry emergency response plan. You can save everyone involved a great deal of stress by clarifying expectations and limitations beforehand. 

Alright, in order of simplicity and utility, as it pertains to backcountry communications, your options. 

  • Cell signal. We all have cell phones. As a backcountry tool your only further responsibilities are to keep it charged (extra, external batteries are available) and to know where you will and will not get signal. This latter objective is problematic at best. Cell providers' maps of coverage are grossly over optimistic. Local knowledge is best. “Line of sight” to cell towers isn’t enough. Strangely enough, when very far from towers, your phone may show full signal but not work at all. Or it can get a text out but not a phone call. Or vice versa. Rumor has it, and I know of no one that has tested this, that you can get a 911 call out when you can’t otherwise make calls or texts. It has to show signal for this rumored trick to work. 
You'd be stoked too if you had just sent a huge couloir in
fresh snow with attendant amazing skiing and complicated
avalanche hazard management. BCA BC Link radios
(shown on Meagan's left shoulder) prove invaluable in
situations like this. 

  • Satellite. There are devices that communicate with aerial satellites which in turn communicate back to the ground. All satellite communication requires a clear view of the sky and experiences at least momentary service blackout. There are three major networks of interest in North America. Iridium is global, and the most reliable for two way communication of all types. Globalstar is less expensive, and works for both one way and two way communication of all types. Its coverage is lesser in the northern latitudes. Finally, the US government has a network of satellites for exclusively one-way, emergency communication. 
    • PLB. Personal Locator Beacon is a generic term for exactly what it sounds like. It is a device carried by a person, that knows your location, and can send a signal. In most contexts, PLB refers to a device that uses the government satellite emergency communication service. The devices are quite small, relatively inexpensive, and the service is free. You can only use a government PLB in an absolute emergency. All that is sent is a distress signal, and the user knows nothing about the receipt of that signal until the proverbial cavalry arrives. The responders do not know whether you are just lonely or if you are on the verge of death. You will be punished for abuse of the service. 
    • One-way communicators. This is the “Spot” device. Using the Globalstar network, these devices can send rudimentary communications out. They cannot receive anything. Depending on the device and the service plan, the user can send preprogrammed messages of a couple types, perhaps a short text message, and an emergency distress signal. The emergency distress signal is similar to that of the PLB, except that it is monitored by a service for which you pay. 
    • Two-way text. The DeLorme InReach device uses the Iridium network to do everything the Spot does, plus two-way texting. 
    • Voice. One can acquire satellite phone service on a wide spectrum of devices using either the Globalstar network or the Iridium network. Most of these satellite phones can also do rudimentary texting, some data, and some have an emergency distress button. 
    • Iridium makes what they all the “Iridium GO”. The GO is essentially a satellite modem for your smartphone. Limited by strength and presence of signal, you can do voice calls, texting, and data. 
  • Radio. “Old fashioned” two-way radio can be used for both routine communication and emergency response. It can also provide reliable and immediate communication between groups or individuals in the field. This latter attribute is especially helpful in backcountry skiing when members of a group may be spread out over thousands of feet, yet would greatly benefit from immediate information sharing. All radio technology can be used to communicate between groups in the field. Communication with the outside world is more problematic and I’ll detail the limitations in each sub-section below. All radio frequencies are regulated by the federal government, but all are legal for use in life or limb emergencies. 
    • HAM. This is the federally licensed amateur radio network. It is exclusively for non-commercial use. One must be licensed to use HAM frequencies, except in an emergency. The community of HAMs is tight, resourceful, and rule-following. They erect and maintain a fairly comprehensive network of signal repeaters that creates a coverage that is at least slightly better than cell phones but less than the coverage of satellite communications. 
    • VHF/UHF. The “Very High Frequencies” and “Ultra High Frequencies" are entirely regulated. Within these frequencies are some HAM stations, some stations used in commercial endeavors like ski patrol and guiding, and some frequencies used in government entities like land management and law enforcement. All are legal for use in emergencies, but negotiating the morass of relevant frequencies is utterly mystifying. 
    • FRS. The “Family Radio Service” is yet another subset of the overall radio band. These frequencies are used by the “talkabout” style radios. Except in very specific venues, usually those with a very high density of outdoor enthusiasts like certain parts of certain National Parks (Denali National Park and the West Buttress climbing route is the best known), these radios are only reliable for communicating within a party. On Denali the park service monitors a specific frequency for emergencies, and broadcasts daily weather on another. 
      • There are countless products on the market that use the FRS channels. Most are, at the very least, confusing to shop for and choose. They are all limited by federal regulation in terms of power and frequencies. The vast majority of options are configured more for novelty use than they are for actual backcountry application. It is theoretically possible to cobble together a set of FRS radios with reliable battery power, weather resistance, ease of use, and an external mic for convenience. But I know of no one that has pulled this off. The far better option is to go with: 
      • Backcountry Access BC Link radios. My buddy, and fellow IFMGA guide Rob Copolillo, has assembled a far more comprehensive review of these radios. Suffice it to say that these radios are, at first glance, nothing revolutionary. However, they take proven technology and wrap it into a very user friendly package. The end result is far more applicable to backcountry travel than anything else available. 


Disclaimer: I work in partnership with both Iridium Satellite Communications and with Backcountry Access. I receive equipment for trial and promotion from both of these entities. I do believe, however, that what they both provide is of high quality and great value, especially in the context of what else is available. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Rock Climbing Gear List, Summer 2015


Yours truly, April 2015 on the first ascent of "Low Flying Supercub" (5.10-), Labyrinth Canyon, UT. Jana Collin photo.
It is the mark of a great ski season when one can feel fully content with the white and slippery by May 1. If I hung up the skis today, I would be stoked with what could be called one of the best ski seasons of my life. Ski season (which, incidentally, isn't fully over. I still have a few big ski missions left) contentment is best gauged by my stoke for rock climbing. Usually the rock motivation is slow to come on. However, with a full and immediate immersion last week on the Wingate walls of the Green River Canyon near Moab, I find myself fully charged up for rock climbing. As mentioned, I'll still do some skiing, as well as quite a bit of alpine climbing, but I'll otherwise switch to rock mode right about now. 

With the change of seasons comes a reassessment of my equipment. Like I've done in the past with winter alpine climbing and skiing (both "normal" and more technical missions), I'll break down here what I carry. In this case, the "list" is far more comprehensive than I would ever carry on any one mission. In other words, from the below gear I will choose a subset. I'd argue that this should serve any climber on any route that isn't on a big wall or in Indian Creek (You'll need some specialized equipment and more cams for climbing in those unique settings). 

Harness, helmet, chalk, and footwear. For shoes, chose the right tool for the job. Clockwise from upper left: Nexxo for super tech. Skip the shiny red ones for now. Running shoes for long approaches. Cruzers for shorter approaches. Addicts for splitter crack cragging and super long approaches (They weigh half what the Astroman does...), Astroman for the long, easy, and/or wide. Those shoes in the middle of the top row are Evolv's new Luchador. These buggers do all that the others don't. They're ridiculously comfy, super precise, with just the right amount of protection for some crack climbing. Near perfection! 



Ropes. A 50m skinny for long routes, a fat 70m for cragging, and a pair of 60m half ropes for weird stuff.


Double set of cams from tiny to medium. I have a set of Camalots and a set of Metolius Master Cams. With one Omega Pacific Link Cam. This gets me basically anywhere. Occasionally, however, one needs tiny or huge stuff. That bundle there in the lower right is the big, tiny, and hexes. Hexes have their place...

Draws. 14 total. Mix of extendable, light draws, and beefier ones for top-roping. Mainly equipped with notchless wire gates, but a couple lockers thrown in there. Also, I have a set of super tiny carabiners for alpine rock routes. 

Other stuff. Clockwise from top left: Couple double length slings. Prussik loop. Belay device. Nut tool. Extra locker holding a knife, rap ring, tibloc ascender, and Micro Traxion hauler. Grigri belay device. Couple extra lockers. 12ft of 7mm cord. Don't ever carry all of this on your harness...


Clothes for big routes where you might get wet. Socks, synthetic pants, synthetic t shirt, synthetic sun/warmth hoody, windbreaker, waterproof jacket, puffy jacket, full-finger belay gloves, warm hat, sun hat. 

Clothing for the less committing and drier days and climates. Socks. Cotton work pants. Shorts,  cotton t shirt, cotton hoody, windbreaker, gloves, sun hat, warm hat. 


Other stuff. 35l pack. 18l pack. Two quarts of water capacity. Sunscreen. Emergency/first aid kit.  Emergency Comms- sometimes as simple as cell phone, sometimes a radio, and often an Iridium GO device. Trekking pole. And a "Wag Bag". There are tons of us out rock climbing. We can't all poop wherever we want to. Sometimes we need to carry it out. Small price to pay to keep these amazing places amazing. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Peru 2015

I've got a whole bunch of cool things going on this coming summer. Most notably, I'll be in Peru in June and earl July and then the Tetons for the remainder of the summer.

In Peru I have three different missions. All are exciting and two of them may be of interest to you.


  • From June 8-28 I am working with my good buddy Josh Beckner and his School for International Expedition Training. We have one spot on this amazing course. Josh has set up an amazing course for the accomplished climber looking to enhance his or her big mountain and expedition skills. I am honored to come along and share what I can with our students. Check out this link for more details, and feel free to contact me with any questions. 
  • From June 29-July 10 I am available for alpine climbing in the Peruvian Andes. You should join me. We could team up with Mark and Janelle Smiley on Alpamayo, or develop our own itinerary. Because I will already be there, our itinerary and logistics are fully customizable. If you have a dream in the Cordillera Blanca, it can't hurt to ask.
  • After July 10, I go on a personal climbing and filming mission with Mark and Janelle. We'll keep you posted!