An Essay on Wilderness and Communication


Sandy Briggs
This article was first published in the Island Bushwhacker, the newsletter of the Vancouver Island Section of the Alpine Club of Canada, in the late 1990s.

One wonders whether John Franklin or Robert F. Scott would have wished for a two-way radio or a satellite telephone. One is curious about the extent to which any concept of rapid communication and rapid assistance existed in their times. It seems pretty clear that a radio would have saved Ejnar Mikkelsen and Iver Iversen a lonely winter or two in northeast Greenland. Fridtjof Nansen chose to attempt the first crossing of Greenland in 1889 by going east to west because the east coast was so sparsely populated and inaccessible that there would be no question of turning back. These explorers had no two-way radios because the appropriate technology did not exist - a sufficient reason - but one wonders whether instant communication and the ability to call for help would have been more than a little inconsistent with their view of the enterprise at hand. Did they and their society have a higher estimation of the acceptance of responsibility for one’s actions than we have today? If so, was it merely the necessity of the times or was it philosophical independence on a higher plane? Scott wrote in his diary “We took risks. We knew we took them. Things have come out against us. Therefore we have no cause for complaint.”

Even if modern-day explorers, either the big-league kind or the weekend kind, could adopt such a high level of personal responsibility it is fairly certain that not all their family members and friends would be similarly inclined to an acceptance of the fates. Searches will be launched. Rescues will be attempted. Responsibility may be assigned. Someone will pay for it all. This is not an essay about who will pay. I have already written one of those.

This essay is about the carrying of a communication device. There are now several kinds: two-way radio, EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon), ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter), cellular telephone, and recently the Iridium* satellite telephone (the first of several types to hit the market). It is now (almost) possible never to be out of touch with help, but it is quite possible to be out of reach of that help.

There are several questions all wilderness visitors must contemplate when carrying one or more of these devices:
1. Have I taken every reasonable precaution to avoid the necessity of summoning a rescue?
2. Am I about to attempt something that I wouldn’t attempt if I had no communication device? Think very hard about this.
3. How great is my need to summon a rescue now? Will I (merely) be late for work? Will someone die?
4. Do I have the right to expect society to rescue me now? Can anyone realistically help?
5. Would I like to be front-page news? After I make this call, it will all likely be out of my control.

Probably there are some other questions, but those will get us started.

Outdoor writer Mike Randolph has written an insightful commentary on the advent of the Iridium telephone in the December 7, 1998 issue of the National Post (an otherwise gag-inducing collection of formulaic condescending right-wing twaddle). A Nature-based definition of wilderness might be a large tract of land or ocean within which the effects of human occupation or use are small or non-existent. Mr. Randolph offers a different approach: “ It’s just that I’ve always had this idea that possibly the best way to define wilderness is to recognize what it doesn’t have - people, cars, houses, hospitals, and yes, phones.” He writes “And let’s be honest. Psychologically, having a back-up makes an enormous difference. Walking a high-wire with a net underneath ‘just in case’ is one thing. Doing it without the net is something else altogether.” Continuing “Wilderness is not just a physical place where there are rocks and trees and lakes (and bears). It’s the feeling you get when a floatplane pilot drops you off on a remote mountain lake... and says ‘See you in two weeks.’ Only then do you truly understand that when the pilot leaves, he’s really gone, civilization is gone, and you are on your own.”

I would like to touch briefly on a related topic that has more to do with self-rescue. It is always said that users of the mountain backcountry in winter should carry shovels, avalanche probes, and avalanche transceivers (and know how to use them). The thing about avalanche transceivers has reached such a level of near-religious dogma that one is certain to be labelled irresponsible if one skis the backcountry without one, and especially if one is caught in an avalanche without one. It seems as though we have crossed over the line and fail now to understand the purpose of the device. An avalanche transceiver DOES NOT give licence to go where you would not go if you didn’t have one. It just doesn’t!

My point is that a satellite telephone DOES NOT give licence to do things in the wilderness that you would not do if you didn’t have one. It just doesn’t!

The question of whether to carry a communication device (an Iridium phone, say), is complicated by some other factors not yet mentioned, such as legal responsibility and (perhaps) cost. And what if your batteries go dead and your solar panel falls in the ocean, or a fox takes a fancy to your nice sweaty phone case while you’re sleeping? Are you still in the game, or was that your only back-up?

There is little doubt in my mind that all commercial adventure businesses will soon have satellite telephones. For clubs of volunteers I am less sure. I guess it will partly depend on what the insurance companies come to require. Readily available and affordable rescue insurance, like that long-known in parts of Europe, may be a necessary concomitant. For my personal trips I guess I’m on the proverbial fence. For the arctic ski expeditions with John Dunn we have always taken a two-way radio and an EPIRB. Both really do provide a sense of security and denote a recognition of other responsibilities. However, for the present, I will resist carrying any communication devices on my personal wilderness outings, perhaps because, as Mike Randolph writes, “Self-reliance is exhilarating.” I claim this notwithstanding the fact that I initiated a helicopter rescue last summer. Maybe we draw the self-reliance line where we need to in a given set of circumstances. I’m glad to live in a society that considers it morally right and desirable to have ambulances that pick up accident victims from our highways, to have a Coast Guard that plucks the shipwrecked from the ocean, and to have Search and Rescue organizations that will try to help all those stranded or injured in the wilds, whether hunters, fishers, hikers, climbers or victims of an air crash. Let’s not push it though.

Let us be thoughtful and responsible users of the wilderness and of communication devices. If it’s self-reliance we want, let’s make ourselves self-reliable. Let’s learn the appropriate skills and take the right equipment. Let’s learn some first-aid. Let us be responsible, lest someone else start making rules for us.

Sandy Briggs

This essay is meant to stimulate discussion, not pre-empt it. Let’s talk.

* Iridium is element #77. The name comes from the Latin iris, meaning rainbow. It contests with Osmium as the most dense element. It costs in the range of double the price of the telephone of the same name, on a per weight basis.