Be safe, be prepared!



Within the last 18 months two Fenn treasure hunters have died. Both searchers died in or near the Rio Grande River requiring extensive search. It took six months to find Randy Bilyeu and several days to find Pastor Paris Wallace.

I have worked in search and rescue all my life. I flew rescue choppers, C130, worked and commanded a Rescue Coordination Centre and investigated rocky mountain climbing accidents. I have also been trained by the military in survival. I have also conducted extensive emergency beacon research and helped to develop commercial products. I am currently studying enrolled in a Space Science Masters program where my thesis is entered around new technology for distress beacons.

I have shared my SAR experience with fellow searchers and promoted safety and provided tips to help them stay safe, but more importantly to survive while searching for the Fenn Treasure. Many searchers only carry a cellphone in the rocky mountains. Rescue centers have used many technologies encorporated in cell phones that have helped narrow down a search, such as sector/triangulation of cell tower pings and embedded GPS technology. It is possible to also use airborne sensors to find a cellphone but the cellphone must be turned on and have enough battery power.

There are several reasons why cellphones are a poor choice of survival equipment in the rocky mountains. The number one reason is they are unlikely to be in line of site with a cell tower because the mountains, canyons and crevices shield its signal. The batteries do not last very long especially when the cellphone is not in contact with a cell tower. The other reason is it very vulnerable if it is immersed in water. If you carry a cellphone, while in the mountains or especially near water, ensure it is in a waterproof container, a double Ziplock bag may suffice if it is protected by something that will prevent puncture.

Those are just a few of the reasons why one must be armed with a satellite based distress beacon. I have conducted significant research in this area and the international standard is a 406 Mhz personal locator beacon (PLB) However, it is only a one-way communication device and must be manually activated. The signal should last for a week under normal temperatures and also has a 121.5 MHz homing signal. Rescue personal will be notified within 1.5 hours of activation often sooner if visible with a geostationary GOES satellite. These beacons can often be rented just asked the local park ranger or outleter prior to planning your trip.

If you desire more performance it would be advisable to carry a satellite tracking device or a satellite telephone because it provides two-way communication. The SPOT/Global Star system is not as reliable in the mountains (especially heavily treed areas) and would not be recommended for Fenn treasure hunters. An Iridium based system such as Delorme InReach or Solaradata is the best. I use the Solara Field Tracker 2100 because once activated it will display your location to within 10 feet anywhere in the word within one minute of activation. It also allows self-rescue and text communications to loved ones when out of cellphone range. It will leave a trace of your track (breadcrumb trail) incase you were unable to manually activate it ,which helps SAR personal significantly locate you if you are reported overdue. The Delorme model is similar but designed for recreational use, is connected to a 24/7 emergency response centre and is coupled with GPS navigation.

Remember once activated, it takes time for rescue personal to get to you, they don’t pop out of the sky the minute you push that "help" button! Plan to spend the night before being rescued ,especially if weather is questionable or near night fall.

Of course one should not rely on distress beacon technology alone. I provided a detail list of safety tips here. The main points are the following:

  1. Always take survival gear and food with you that will allow an overnight stay.

  2. Leave a detailed plan of where you are going each day and when you will check in.

  3. Know your limits, don’t take chances and use common sense.

  4. Study weather patterns, geography, environmental hazards.

  5. Do not search alone!

I have witnessed first hand how “gold fever” can affect an otherwise normal person’s rational thoughts. No one is immune, so set your limitations ahead of time and don’t search in the winter!


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