False Alarm, Arizona, Grand Canyon

Publication Year: 2010.


Arizona, Grand Canyon

On the evening of September 23rd, rangers began a search for hikers who repeatedly activated their rented SPOT satellite-tracking device. The GEOS Emergency Response Center in Houston reported that someone in the group of four hikers—two men and their two teenaged sons—had pressed the “help” button on their SPOT unit. The coordinates for the signal placed the group in a remote section of the park, most likely on the challenging Royal Arch loop. Due to darkness and the remoteness of the location, rangers were unable to reach them via helicopter until the following morning. When found, they’d moved about a mile and a half to a water source. They declined rescue, as they’d activated the device due to their lack of water. Later that same evening, the same SPOT device was again activated, this time using the “911” button. Coordinates placed them less than a quarter mile from the spot where searchers had found them that morning. Once again, nightfall prevented a response by park helicopter, so an Arizona DPS helicopter whose crew utilized night vision goggles was brought in. They found that the members of the group were concerned about possible dehydration because the water they’d found tasted salty, but no actual emergency existed. The helicopter crew declined their request for a night evacuation but provided them with water before departing. On the following morning, another SPOT “help” activation came in from the group. This time they were flown out by park helicopter. All four refused medical assessment or treatment. The group’s leader had reportedly hiked once at the Grand Canyon; the other adult had no Grand Canyon and very little backpacking experience. When asked what they would have done without the SPOT device, the leader stated, “We would have never attempted this hike.”

The group leader was issued a citation for creating a hazardous condition—36 CFR 2.34(a)(4). (Source: Brandon Torres, Canyon District Shift Supervisor, from an entry found in the Morning Report, October 21, 2009) (Editor's Note: While not a climbing accident, this episode is included to illustrate the misuse of ever more sophisticated and available technologies. We are not seeing a lot of this inappropriate use in the climbing world yet, but we are certainly seeing an increase in the use of cellphones for calling in for rescue help.)