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Know the West

Cell phones: Sometimes you need a crutch


Dear HCN,

Because I am currently involved in a heated wilderness debate myself, Christina Nealson's essay about cellular phones in wilderness areas caught my eye (HCN, 8/17/98). In the Grand Canyon where I work, as elsewhere, the debate over what constitutes a wilderness experience and the appropriate role of the federal government in prescribing exacting wilderness criteria upon all who enter rages on and on.

I would like to contribute some additional perspective on this question, gained through recent happenings down here in the big ditch. As purveyors of the modern wilderness experience, where immersion in a primitive environment is commonly seen as a chance for refuge and rejuvenation, Grand Canyon's commercial river outfitters every day face a similar quandary to that described by Ms. Nealson regarding the intrusion of technology in the backcountry. Just where should that line be drawn, and who, by the way, gets to decide?

In the Grand Canyon, we argue about everything. And I mean everything. We argue about whether taking camp cots along is a sellout. We argue about whether or not there should be ice in the cocktails or whether there should be cocktails at all. We argue about the food. Is it too good to really be "wilderness food'? My personal favorite is the great debate over whether or not an oar lock is a mechanical device.

But the one thing we don't argue about is the glaring utility of ready communication with National Park Service medical evacuation professionals in times of emergency. For us, it's not cellular phones (there are no cells covering the Grand Canyon) but two-way radios, and increasingly, satellite telephones.

Earlier this year, in the heart of the Grand Canyon's magnificent backcountry wilderness, a commercial river party was visiting a side canyon when the unthinkable happened. A woman fell, landing unconscious some 40 feet below. It was an accident, the terribly frustrating kind with no explanation and no prevention. It was the kind of accident that makes you feel it in the pit of your stomach, the kind that makes you think with a shudder, "there but for the grace of God ..."

Immediately, first aid was administered, her life was saved for the moment, and a radio was used to contact an overhead airplane. The pilot contacted the air-traffic control center in Los Angeles, which in turn contacted Grand Canyon National Park emergency services. A helicopter with emergency medical technicians was flown in, extracting the injured woman and returning her forthwith to the very maw of 20th-century technological advancement. And thank God for it.

She was flown from the bottom of the canyon to Flagstaff, Ariz., 90 miles away. For the second time, her life was saved as her lungs began filling with blood. Later, because of spinal cord injuries, she was transferred again by helicopter to the appropriate specialized facility in Phoenix, where she later awoke to learn that while she would never walk again, she would have full use of the upper portions of her body and would eventually be able to continue her career as a surgeon.

All told, dozens of skilled, committed people and a vast array of modern technology combined to save this woman's life, winning her a second chance to go on, to remain with her family and friends, colleagues and patients as a part of their lives.

Today, as we pursue wilderness, should the decision be made to turn away all who will not agree, should a similar accident befall them, to remain lying broken on the rocks to die because communication is not at hand due to a regulation? There are many who are willing to impose such a rule. I submit that we can manage wilderness with a more reasonable hand.

Simply put, Ms. Nealson's toys, as she labels the cell phone and the Global Positioning System (GPS), are another man or woman's tools. Who should decide their appropriateness and value or lack thereof in a wilderness setting? Well, wilderness is supposed to be about freedom after all, freedom to make mistakes, it is often said. Freedom also means the ability to have a backup plan which technology can now provide even in a remote wilderness area. In the end, I think we should all be allowed to decide for ourselves the value of packing a cellular phone or a GPS into the wilderness, based on personal beliefs and desires.

For those who share Ms. Nealson's gut feelings about the inappropriateness of cell phones in primitive environments, imagine yourself for a moment alone in the wilderness and a victim of an accident.

As you are lying there dying, thinking about the family members you will never see again, what conclusions would you reach? Would you say to yourself with satisfaction, "Well, this is what I asked for, and I'm happy to be stuck with it'? Or would you perhaps think to yourself, with some despair, "I sure was a smug, arrogant bastard and I really wish I had one of those cell phones right now?"

Cellular or satellite telephones do not change the wilderness. They merely change how some people choose to experience the wilderness. This is a critical difference that provides a guide for determining whether or not government action controlling the activity is appropriate. Do not forget that there are many who would find the presence of Ms. Nealson's .357 substantially more offensive than hand-held technological devices. As Americans, we should all have a right to decide for ourselves which tools or toys we choose to pack in our bags when we go camping.

Mark Grisham
Flagstaff, Arizona

Mark Grisham is the executive director of Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association, Box 22189, Flagstaff, AZ 86002. He represents 16 licensed commercial river runners operating in Grand Canyon National Park.