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Cell phones leading to more lost hikers

An increasing number of people are getting lost in the Tahoe Basin wilderness these days, and one of the reasons may surprise you. It’s cell phones.

“People are hiking out into the woods with their trusty cell phones, but unfortunately many of them are leaving their brains behind,” said Terry Fleck, the Tahoe Basin Search and Rescue Coordinator with the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department. “A lot of people see the cell phone as their lifeline, I suppose. The days of self-rescue are apparently over. These days, you call 911.”

There is no way to accurately track the phenomenon, but Fleck estimates that this false sense of security is responsible for a large increase in rescue missions in the Tahoe Basin.



“In recent years I’ve found that a lot more people are going out for day hikes,” said Fleck, who has worked in Search and Rescue for 20 years. “Many are unprepared, and can get into trouble. We do a lot more search and rescues than we used to.”

It happened just over the weekend in the Dardanellas Lake area, near the Alpine County-El Dorado County line. Two women headed off for a hike clad only in bikinis, with their hiking gear consisting solely of a cell phone. The women became lost in the woods and called for help. They spent the night outdoors and were rescued the following day.




“People often head out into the woods with nothing but a phone,” said Jim Marino, a volunteer with El Dorado County Search and Rescue. “Suddenly they see they’re in trouble, and they call us.”

Such was the case last month when two young hikers got lost on a trek near Pyramid Peak.

“Instead of coming down through Horseshoe Falls, they decided to try another route,” said El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department Detective Tim Mazzoni, who coordinated that search and rescue effort. “They got stuck on a cliff and had to spend the night there.

“They had a cell phone, and they made a 911 call to CHP dispatch, who called us,” Mazzoni said. “But the phone didn’t have much range. Then it went dead. We got lucky and found them, and used a National Guard helicopter to get them down. That’s search and rescue in the ’90s; cell phones and helicopters.”

Many times, however, such distress calls don’t go to search and rescue at all.

“Typically they call their friends,” Fleck said. “They call and say, ‘Hey, I’m lost,’ forgetting that people have no way of knowing where they are. Then by the time they call us, the battery is depleted. There have been several times we’ve been talking to someone lost in the wilderness, and all of a sudden ‘click,’ the cell phone goes dead.”

When that happens, said hiker is truly lost. Many people may assume that authorities can track someone who has called them by cell phone, but that is not the case.

“There’s no triangulation system on a cell phone; we can’t trace them,” Fleck said. “Sacramento is getting a system to triangulate positions through cell phones, but there has been no talk of getting such a system at Tahoe.”

On top of that, Tahoe’s topographical challenges make it difficult to get a signal at all.

“The cell phone coverage in the basin isn’t always that great,” said Jeff Michael, a captain with the Lake Valley Fire Protection District. “There are many places out there in the wilderness where you can’t pick up cell service. Heck, there are streets in Tahoe where there’s no cell service.”

This coverage problem is most acute in the Desolation Wilderness area, and in much of the American River canyon.

Fleck estimates that as many as 70 percent of hikers in the basin now carry cell phones. Many, fortunately, also have more practical supplies – such as water, extra clothing, a flashlight and matches or a lighter.

Fleck said that many lost hikers also break another cardinal rule – don’t split up.

“That seems to be the biggest thing that happens when people get in trouble,” he said. “There was a case recently when a guy and a gal got lost in Desolation Wilderness, and for some reason they split up. The gal got tired and left her pack on the trail.

“Sometimes people think that by leaving their gear behind, we can find them more easily. Well, we found the pack, but she wasn’t with it.”

Fleck said that there has not been a fatality among lost hikers “in many, many years. We’ve been lucky in that we’ve found everyone we’ve looked for,” he said.

Kevin Hanna is an engineer with the Tahoe-Douglas Fire District who teaches a successful wilderness safety course for children called Hug A Tree. The title comes from the cardinal rule, in which a lost hiker should find a comfortable spot near a large tree and stay put until help arrives.

“One of the items we carry in our survival kit is a cell phone, but you have to realize that it doesn’t work everywhere,” said Hanna, who hopes that future generations will not be so quick to rely on the call of the wild. “A cell phone can be one avenue (for rescue), but don’t get comfortable with it.”


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