Communication devices in the mountains

Manuel Tajada lives in the Benasque Valley, Spanish Central Pyrenees. He is passionate about adventure and mountains in many of its disciplines: ski mountaineering, freeriding, mountain biking and trail running. Professionally, he manages sports events with RPM Events, he is technical manager at the Titan Desert MTB Marathon and he has worked as a correspondent at the Dakar Rally, realizing the dream of making a living out of his passion. As a blogger and an active social networks user, he believes hands down that adventure is compatible with technology.

We often head out the mountains carrying our boards and backpacks, searching for the solitude that we can’t find on our daily city lives. We look for the most remote, less crowded or even unknown corner, but it wouldn’t make sense to ignore all the technological development that we have access to these days regarding communication. Being far away from the noise and the crowd is fine, but taking on activities implying danger requires a maximum of security to minimize the risks we are assuming.

Here are a few of the different possibilities available in the market to enable communication with our adventure mates or with the world outside. The most basic of all, that all of us –or most- carry with us is a cell phone; a device that in many cases has become a small multi-tool, camera, GPS, photo editor, a tool to make reservations, which also allows us the make phone calls through a global telephone net. The main problem here is to find good service as we frequently wander through places with bad or no reception at all. The antennae are mostly located in urban areas, far from the mountains.

“Being far away from the noise and the masses is fine, but taking on activities implying danger requires a maximum of security to minimize the risks we are assuming.”

If we are looking at communicating with the rest of the team, if we happen to be apart at some point during a photo shoot or an accident, walkie-talkies, small radio devices with a fixed frequency, allow us to keep communication within a range of a couple of kilometers, depending of the conditions. In this case, the orography of the mountains could be the main inconvenience, limiting the range.

The next step would be radio devices, similar to the walkies, but whose frequency can be adjusted and modified by the user. They use different waves and have a greater reach, allowing us to speak at a much larger distance, even overcoming the obstacles in the terrain. The problem is the national laws regarding their usage, their weight and bulk, and mostly their cost.

In case of an accident, not for random communication, we would ideally use a satellite cell phone. Basically, it works like a GSM, but when we are out of service it allows us to receive and make calls though a satellite net. We should carry this device in our backpack every time we get out on the mountain. In we happen to have an accident and need an emergency rescue, this is the only 100% safe way to contact the rescue service. The main inconvenience would be the high cost of the device and calls, and the weight of the telephone itself, although they have evolved with time, considerably reducing their weight, making it similar to any of the smartphones in the market.

“Over the past few years, the market has released some GPS tracking devices, which allow our relative or friends to follow our route and track our instant position from an Internet connected computer.”

Besides all these communication devices, some mountain refuges can provide fixed radio stations, 2 meter or urban frequency band, or to other communication posts located in non-guarded cabins or mountain bivouacs. But if we can’t access them, communication is impossible.

Over the past few years, the market has released some GPS tracking devices, which allow our relative or friends to follow our route and track our instant position from an Internet connected computer. Many of these devices allow programming a call or SOS message. A few of them, such as Tracmove, can also receive and send calls to a programmed number. These systems are still at its first development stage, and their problem resides on the fact that they work through a GSM card, which depends of the level of service. The route track is saved in case of lack of service, but if we need to make a call, we won’t be able to do it without reception.

Obviously, it makes no sense to carry any of the aforementioned devices if we don’t have enough battery to make them work correctly when we need them. Thus, it is crucial to get out every morning with a maximum load of battery, or with an extra completely charged battery. Being isolated, but having the possibility of communicating at any stage is crucial. We can choose from many different options, and as in many other aspects of our daily life, the higher the price of the device, the more guarantee it will provide. In case of an accident, being able to communicate it as soon as possible will minimize the negative consequences, allowing us to launch the rescue protocol and maybe save the victim’s life. On the other hand, being located from outside will also guarantee that we can be reached through a phone call.

“Being isolated, but having the possibility of communicating at any stageis crucial.”

In case of an accident, we cannot ignore the protocol. We have to make a clear and precise call. First, we need to identify ourselves, and then provide our localization, area and GPS coordinates if possible; finally, we should describe the problem without evaluating it. Most of the times, due to tension, we overreact and overestimate the actual problem.

If you go out splitboarding regularly, if you go out for a few days, if you like to look for technically difficult descents, if your next goal is heading to the remote mountains of India or the rocky couloirs in the Dolomites, you should seriously consider carrying a satellite phone as part of your security equipment.

Solitude is a precious element in our adventures but being connected to the world will increase our possibilities of coming back in case of a problem. Enjoy the mountains and the snow with the certainty of coming back home. A safe splitboarder is a living splitboarder.

“In case of an accident, we cannot ignore the protocol. We have to make a clear and precise call.”

Some examples of devices:

Icom IC V8 VHF Walkie, fixed frequency.

Multi-frequency Motorola TalkAbout TA288 Walkie.

New GPS following device TrackMove TRC 01.

Thuraya XT Satellite Phone, hands down the best on-the-mountain communication.