High-tech gear doesn't prevent mental lapses

May 25, 2009 

The last time the world heard from Gerald Myers, he offered these words in the form of a text message:

"OK, Moving up."

The 41-year-old Colorado chiropractor was at 17,200 feet on Mount McKinley at that moment, according to the SPOT Satellite Messenger service.

The time was 10:50 a.m. May 19 as recorded by SPOT. The device does not record the weather, but the National Weather Service reported conditions at high altitude that would be described as mild by the standards of North America's tallest mountain. The temperature was zero to 5 above, the winds around 25 mph but starting to pick up. Other climbers reported they would be up around 40 or 50 mph by evening.

As the winds were building, Myers started climbing, never to be heard from again.

National Park Service rangers say there are reliable reports of the climber being spotted near 18,600 feet and 18,900 feet on his way toward the 20,320-foot summit. He was reportedly carrying skis. There was some thought he was going to ski down, but park service spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin considers that pretty much just speculation.

"I don't think he's ever skied that kind of terrain," she said Monday.

High on McKinley is not a good place to take the first shot at skiing steep ice either, no matter how much of it has been skied by others.

A lot of extreme skiing has taken place on the mountain with little public notice since back in the 1990s. The Messner Couloir, the Orient Express, the Rescue Gully and the Wickersham Wall have all now been skied.

The Wickersham, rising almost three miles straight up from near Wonder Lake on McKinley's north side, had long been thought unskiable, but Adrian Nature made a descent in 1998 despite a nasty fall near the top that he luckily survived. There have been others since.

There are no indications Myers had the skill necessary to even attempt the Wickersham. Park service officials were, nonetheless, trying to expand their search into that area Monday, mainly because a week of looking for Myers along more likely routes has been unsuccessful.

This is not unusual either. Dozens have disappeared in and around McKinley, the more notable among them fabled Alaskan John Waterman, whose last tracks led into a crevasse field below the East Buttress in 1981, and legendary Japanese Naomi Uemura, who disappeared without a trace on his return from the first solo winter ascent in 1984.

There have been at least three dozen more. The McKinley Massif is huge and rugged.

Easy though it might seem to spot any speck of color in this land of white and gray, it is not. Aerial searches are not nearly so effective as most would like to believe, though they are getting better.

Some of the aircraft now probing McKinley are equipped with photo imaging equipment, and McLaughlin noted those magnified images are showing searchers more than they ever could have hoped to see in the past.

"It's something good to come out of these searches," she said.

Technology gets better and better as part of a constantly evolving process, but it remains in some ways vastly overrated. It still won't help us peek under avalanches or peer into crevasses, and progress almost inevitably brings along with it consequences too seldom and too little considered.

Chief among them might be the individual evaluation of risk.

It is possible we will never know what was going on in Myers' head as he trudged toward McKinley's summit, but I know what goes on in mine when there is some sort of backup handy. It makes me just a little bit less cautious; it makes me just a tiny bit more willing to take risks.

And it doesn't take more than just the tiniest shift in judgment to lead to trouble in the hostile environment that is McKinley.

It's all too easy to visualize Myers making the summit -- his protective little buddy SPOT in his pocket -- and deciding that though conditions look pretty icy, well, because you've carried the skis this far you should at least give the skiing a try.

Sure, you could fall, but the odds are pretty good that you will survive, and that SPOT puts 911 only one push of a button away.

It is possible this is what happened to Myers. It is equally possible it is not.

That is the problem with a lot of this new technology. We know what it does technically; we don't know much about what it does psychologically. It might be making the wilderness safer; it might not.

It might only be appearing to make the wilderness safer. In reality, it could be that whatever we gain technologically we quickly forfeit behaviorally.

Ski helmets might be the best example. The use of helmets on the slopes has gone up dramatically in recent years. The number of fatalities has, however, remained constant.

Many ski safety experts are now advising people to wear helmets but ski as if they were helmetless. Is that possible?

Likewise, if you carry a SPOT device set to signal, "OK, moving up", "OK, but not moving", and "911", is it possible to think like you're not carrying a SPOT? Did SPOT have anything to do with Myers deciding to leave companions behind at the 14,200-foot camp and go for the summit alone?

At least one very experienced Alaska backcountry traveler fears SPOT and similar devices exert powerful influences on the way we think. Bill Merchant, the organizer of the Alaska Invitational -- a ski, mountain bike and running race along the Iditarod Trail each winter -- wants to ban GPS tracking and signaling devices of all sorts from that event because of the potential problems he sees.

As for me, at the moment, I'm just holding out hope Myers is found alive to tell us why he set out for the summit alone and what happened after he pushed that button to signal "OK, moving up."

Why, exactly, did he decide to push it at 17,200? Why did he send no more signals on the way up? Why wasn't SPOT in the tracking mode whereby it would send a signal back every 10 minutes without any buttons being pushed so as to maintain a constant record of his progress?

Meanwhile, how about we all contemplate what the situation might be if SPOT had been in full tracking mode:

What if it signaled Myers had gone over the top and stopped moving halfway down the Wickersham Wall in horrible weather?

Given the number of satellite tracking devices appearing on the mountain, it seems only a matter of time before something like this happens. What do we do then?

One ranger has already died on McKinley in a rescue attempt. Thirty-three-year-old Mike Vanderbeek fell to his death from the West Buttress in 1998 while trying to reach a fallen, 25-year-old climber who, as it turned out, was already dead.

Vanderbeek is among the many whose bodies have never been found. The inquiry into his death blamed "rescue fever" in part for the fatal fall.

Many of those who climb on McKinley, both rangers and others, are prone to heroic tendencies. They want to save lives.

So how might they react if they know someone is in trouble but alive because that 911 button has been pushed?

Could an attempt to make it safer for one only end up making it more dangerous for others?


Contact Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.

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