Can you still call yourself an adventurer if you use a GPS safety beacon?
As the line between civilization and wilderness becomes increasingly thin, do true adventurers still exist?Technology allows climbers to tweet from the top of Mount Everest. Antarctic skiers can instantly upload selfies from the South Pole. Anyone can obtain an inexpensive device with a panic button that allows them to request a rescue from any place on earth, for any reason – adventure’s version of a “get out of jail free” card.In 2007, Spot, a subsidiary of the company Globalstar Inc, introduced a new satellite messenger unit with the catchphrase “Live to tell about it”. The device could communicate three messages – “I’m OK”, “SOS” and “911” – independent of cellular coverage. The first two buttons privately alerted a user’s chosen contacts, and 911 signals were transmitted directly to emergency services.Personal locator beacons and satellite phones existed before this, but Spot made remote communication more affordable and accessible. Now with 250,000 units in service, Spot has facilitated 3,810 rescues worldwide – an average of about one per day.Debates about the device’s use have raged as long as it’s been available. Advocates argue that satellite messengers take the “search” out of search and rescue missions because they help pinpoint exact locations. The devices also alert authorities during the early stages of emergencies, mobilizing rescues soon enough to make a difference. Money and lives are saved when volunteers don’t have to comb the woods looking for a person who went missing days earlier.Critics, on the other hand, argue that money is wasted and volunteers are unnecessarily exposed to danger when people call for help they don’t need. These devices also garner an inflated sense of security, and prompt people to take more risks than they otherwise might.In October 2009, two men and their teenage sons activated their emergency beacon three separate times during a single hike in the Grand Canyon. The first time, the inexperienced hikers panicked when they ran out of water, but declined help from rescues who arrived after they located a water source. The second time, a helicopter was dispatched in the middle of the night, only to find the same hikers who signaled for help because their water tasted “salty”. Another dubious alert arrived the following morning, and rescuers angrily removed the group from the canyon. Thousands of dollars were spent on these erroneous rescue efforts – costs ultimately absorbed by taxpayers. The hikers stated that without the beacon, they would not have attempted the hike.In February, a woman embarked on solo hike in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire. Several hours after Kate Matrosova’s husband dropped her off at a trail-head, she activated her emergency beacon in the midst of a major winter storm. Searchers couldn’t immediately locate her on an exposed mountain ridge before the storm intensified, plunging temperatures to 30 below zero. Wind gusts exceeded 100 miles per hour. By morning, she was dead.Matrosova, 32, had an impressive resume of mountain climbs and cold-weather experience. Before she embarked on her hike, the Mount Washington Observatory had issued a dire forecast: whiteout conditions, wind gusts to 125 miles per hour, and a wind chill factor of 75 below zero. The reason rescuers couldn’t locate Matrosova right away was because hurricane-force winds apparently lifted her from the trail and dropped her several hundred feet down the ridge.Mountaineers often seek out severe weather in the Presidential Range to prepare for bigger mountains, but even the most experienced and well-equipped climbers wouldn’t stand much of a chance in weather that severe.Many questioned why Matrosova didn’t choose to turn around before retreat became impossible. “Maybe she relied a little too much on the technology,” search and rescue volunteer Mike Pelchat told the Boston Globe after the incident. “Maybe she thought she could turn back. But the temperatures, and the wind, got the best of her.”Dangers become less intimidating when safety nets are available. Research has shown that reckless driving increased following the implementation of seatbelt laws. Humans inevitably adjust their behavior to match the perceived level of risk. The result, some argue, is not only a safety hazard. It’s also a moral hazard.According to David Roberts, a long-time mountaineer and author, “(GPS) devices have engendered a radical shift in the concept of adventure. Hikers, skiers and boaters not only expect to be whisked to safety at the push of a button, they regard this luxury as an inalienable right.”Mountaineers aren’t the only ones contemplating the direction of adventure’s moral compass in light of GPS technology. In recent years, adventure races have used locator beacons to track athletes’ progress, and signal for help if needed.Trackleaders.com is an independent business that facilitates race tracking by renting out Spot units and providing the software to broadcast tracks in real time. Online spectators watch their favorite “blue dots” move along maps on courses that can cover thousands of miles, through remote areas of the world. For some races, the SOS button is an important feature, allowing organizers to facilitate fast extractions.“We happily support SOS through Spot when that’s what an event wants,” said Trackleaders co-founder Matthew Lee. “Some of our clients hold races for quite inexperienced participants, and they literally encourage the use of SOS, so we have it fully programmed and tested before the starting gun.”But are these safety nets what adventure racers want? After all, Trackleaders features events that promote themselves as the toughest and most challenging races in the world – events such as the Tour Divide, a 2,750-mile mountain bike race from Canada to Mexico, and the Iditarod dog sled race, a thousand-mile race across frozen Alaska.When the Iditarod first introduced Spot units, some participants expressed aversion. Among those was Alaska musher Danny Seavey, who was lining up for his third Iditarod in 2014.“At the last minute a race judge came running over and attached a GPS Spot tracker to my sled, and told me it had an emergency SOS button I could push if I needed to be rescued,” Seavey said. “I (and many other mushers) told him I’d rather not know that. It’s harder to be tough if there’s an easy way out.”In 2014, a half-dozen Iditarod mushers pushed their SOS button, which rules stipulated was an automatic forfeit from the race. California musher Cindy Abbott activated hers while while driving her dog team through the Dalzell Gorge, a steep and notoriously difficult section of the trail. A dearth of snow created especially hazardous conditions over rocks and glare ice – a “death run” as she described it. She had some close calls, and was frightened, but she and her dogs weren’t injured. Abbott had invested a lot of time, money and energy into her second Iditarod run, and she still isn’t sure why she pushed the button.“I knew I was scratching,” she said. “It was OK. I understand. But I wished they hadn’t had the button on there.”While Abbott wished she could take back her help signal, musher Hugh Neff believed help didn’t come quickly enough after his dog team quit running in 65-mile-per-hour winds.Neff criticized Iditarod management for failing to respond for more than 10 hours, by which time, his girlfriend Nicole Faille wrote, “my guy was on his way out of this world.” Veteran mushers and grizzled Alaskans were critical of Neff’s criticism, questioning why an experienced musher – or anyone venturing into the Alaska backcountry for that matter – wasn’t more prepared to hunker down for 10 hours in a storm.“Even a 911 mission can take hours,” said Robert Pollhammer, race director for the Yukon Arctic Ultra, a bike, ski, and foot race on the Yukon Quest Trail in Canada. “If the weather does not permit, there is no air rescue at all. That is why it is so important to have basic survival skills, enough food, warm clothes and the right sleeping system.”For years, the Iditarod Trail Invitational – the human-powered version of the thousand-mile dog sled race – took a more hardline stance. Cyclists, skiers and runners were explicitly forbidden to carry GPS trackers. “Technology has no place on the Iditarod Trail I love and enjoy,” co-director Bill Merchant wrote before banning the devices, citing miscommunications as the main reason. “I miss the days when we went into the wilderness dependent on our skills and a bit of luck to come home alive.”In 2015, however, the race partnered with Trackleaders to offer optional GPS tracking of participants, under the stipulation that racers used Spot Trace devices, which only track location and do not include an SOS or 911 button. At the pre-race meeting, co-director Kathi Merchant explained that this concession was “for entertainment purposes only”.Spectators who clicked on the tracking page were alerted to the possibility of erroneous data, and warned not to contact race management for any reason. During the 2015 race, three foot-racers and one cyclist encountered a massive snow dump along an especially remote and untravelled section of the Iditarod trail, slowing their progress to as little as 10 miles per day. Meanwhile, temperatures plunged to 45 below, communication was limited to brief satellite phone calls from one racer, and it was all spectators could do to not fret over the glacial progress of blue dots on a screen. Why were they moving so slowly? Were they in trouble? Would they press an SOS button, if they had one to press? Even with limited data, a remote and ungraspable situation became more real.“Through tech tools, pics, audio and blogging, we arguably have more fodder for keeping ourselves enchanted,” Trackleaders’ Lee said. “We can wonder about so many more details. What are the snow conditions like, where are they camping, what are they eating, how often are they stopping? As the windows on adventure have opened, we don’t have to hang it all on the great ‘when’. Yes, the tracking data possess vital statistics, but the mystery lies in the images, the words – the stories.”Where does the mystery lie for adventurers? The athletes battling inhumane conditions on the Iditarod trail had no sense of the worried spectators watching from the warm comfort of their homes. They were just doing what adventurers have always had to do – relying on their own skills, and a little bit of luck, to push through adversity and come home alive.Would they have pushed an SOS button? After the frostbitten and exhausted racers emerged in a village on the Yukon River more than a week later, every one of them said no.Roberts wrote of a “blissful disconnectedness” that has been all but lost in the GPS era. He believes adventurers are spiritually and intellectually poorer without places where they can truly leave everything behind. The mysteries of the wilderness are fading, only to be replaced by the mundanity of modern life. Yes, it’s always better to live to tell about it, but what stories are we telling? Real-time Facebook updates about freeze-dried meals, Strava segments from glaciers in Greenland, blurry phone videos of a summit bid?Others, such as Lee – who himself has finished and won a number of ultra-endurance mountain bike races – believe the rise of satellite communication will continue to bring the spirit of adventure to more people, and that’s a good thing.“No adventurer worth their salt wants to be that guy who scratches all the time,” Lee said. “Like any mental crutches that come along over the maturity of adventure sports, so too will the effect of tracking mature. Folks are already becoming more experienced and sophisticated in its use.”