Ham radio is often portrayed as irrelevant. A dying hobby in the age of the cell phone. Ham radio operators know nothing could be further from the truth. One operator who would be the first to back that up is Alden Summers Jones, KC1JWR, from Vermont.
During the Summer of 2020, Alden decided to take a hike with family on the Long Trail in Vermont. Long Trail is the oldest hiking trail in the United States and crosses the highest peaks in Vermont. Like any smart ham radio operator, Alden made sure to bring his HT on the hike as mountainous regions often lack cell phone coverage.
During the hike, Alden suddenly felt lightheaded, and his heart began racing. Then… nothing. The lights when out as he suffered a seizure from low blood sugar. A local EMT was nearby and rushed to Alden’s aid. The EMT pulled out his cell phone but was unable to contact dispatch. There they were, stranded on a mountain with a medical emergency and no cell coverage. Now what?
Ham radio to the rescue
Alden, who regained consciousness, reaches into his bag and pulls out the most hated ham radio known to man — his trusty Baofeng. He put out a call on 146.91 (K1FFK) located at 3,500 ft on Mt. Greylock. The 146.91 repeater is one of the widest coverage mountaintop repeaters on the East Coast.
The emergency call was acknowledged by Ron Wonderlick, AG1W. Another ham named Matthew Sacco (KC1JPU) was monitoring the emergency traffic. After a short discussion with Ron, Matthew went mobile and put himself at the emergency responder staging (parking) area where crews would enter the backcountry wilderness.
“As I arrived at the staging point set up by the Fire Department, I met up with Fire Chief Scott Moore (95-C1) of the Wilmington Fire Department, who was Incident Command. I told him how I heard about the incident and offered my services. I then got to work attempting to make contact with Ron over the 91. We were in a bit of a shadow as far as coverage went from the 91, and my first attempt to make contact with my HT was to no avail. I then went to my truck to try my mobile radio, which also failed to open up the repeater. Running out of options, I went into my radio bag and constructed a roll-up J-Pole out of some 450-ohm ladder line, a short length of coax, and male UHF connector. In that bag I keep some basic soldering equipment and a power inverter for the truck. Once it was constructed and tested, I grabbed my fishing pole from the back seat, put a weight on the end, and cast the weight into the highest branch I could find. I tied the J-Pole to the end of the line and reeled it up about 20′ into the tree with the help of a barrel connector and about another 24′ of coax. I tried that antenna plugged into the back of my mobile radio, and we were up and running! I was then in contact with Net Control!”Matthew Sacco, KC1JPU
With communication established, the next challenge was finding the hiker and choosing the right equipment to get Alden (KC1JWR) off the mountain. Someone on the scene used his cellphone to give Google Maps Plus Code, which first responders converted into a latitude and longitude.
As the rescue team approached Alden’s location, they realized getting an ATV to him for evacuation wouldn’t be possible. They were going to need a helicopter rescue. The ham radio operators on the K1FFK emergency net passed traffic to notify New York State Search and Rescue. As Alden and others waited hours for search and rescue to arrive, he spent time talking about ham radio.
Another hiker worked to clear an opening for the helicopter to lower its rescue basket. The GPS coordinates are relayed through the ham net to the responding helicopter crew. While the rescuers were talking to the helicopter on their radios, they were having trouble making contact through with their rubber duck antennas. So, Alden, who had a better aftermarket antenna for his HT, lent it to the rescuers for better communication.
Alden was first flown to Woodford Mountain for evaluation and treatment and later airlifted to a hospital in Albany, NY. During the flight, Alden again talked to the pilots and the other rescuers about ham radio the value it can have when you need it most.
Neil Van Dyke (N1TNC), the Search & Rescue Coordinator for the Vermont Dept. of Public Safety, was the one who called in Search and Rescue. When asked about the event, Mr. Van Dyke said, “Ham radio was a key part of the incident and played a major role in the rescue”.
What can we learn from Alden’s story?
So many believe ham radio is no longer needed. We have smartphones, right? The truth is our communications infrastructure is incredibly fragile. It can collapse with a moments notice. Furthermore, even in 2020 cell signals don’t cover everywhere.
I lived in Colorado for nearly a decade. I’ve lost count how many times I would rely on ham radio in the Rocky Mountain backcountry for voice or data coverage (APRS) when Verizon and AT&T showed “No Service”.
Keep that radio on 146.520 simplex, scan your local repeaters and keep one ear on your radio if you live in remote areas. I would keep my four element vertical yagi pointed at Rocky Mountain National Park during the summer months just in case a tourist needed assistance.
If you’re going into remote areas yourself bring a radio and some RF gear with you. Consider building a go-bag with some basic ham radio gear if you’re an avid outdoorsman.
You never know when amateur radio could make the difference. In fact, Alden said it best, “Ham radio saved my life last night.”