More GPSes, More Safety?

I’ve been on the edge for several years, but now I finally decided that I need a GPS to work in the mountains. They are relatively cheap and easy to use, and every other mountain enthusiast has one. However, I also began to question, to what extent a GPS will actually increase safety?

There is no question about the fact that a GPS makes navigation easier. Often it is also the only way (together with a paper map and compass) to make a trip possible. This was, for example, the case a couple of weeks ago on a ski-tour over Jostedalsbreen. Without a GPS to check our position reliably, we would not have been able to navigate successfully 50 km over a relatively flat glacier in a complete white-out.

However, in the above example also lies the problem. Before, let’s say 10 years ago, when GPSes weren’t as common as they are today, nobody in the group would probably have had a GPS (now there was at least 4, among our 14 participants). Nor would it have been expected of the guides to have a GPS. As a consequence, I hazard to guess that nobody from the 14 participants would have protested too much, if we had decided to bail, due to the conditions. Now, however, I think it would have been seen as unprofessional. After all, “I and three other participants have a GPS, with which we can easily navigate in zero visibility, why shouldn’t I expect the guides to have one too?”

So, do we now have more or less margin in our navigation than before GPSes were commonplace? For the sake this argument, let’s say that we have the same margin than before – we push through worse conditions only to the extent that our ability to navigate has increased. In other words, we are still equally (un)likely to get lost.

But what about the other risks that poor conditions increase? In bad weather we tend to get cold, wet and tired more easily, and everything in generally just takes longer. As a consequence, our ability to make good decisions regarding everything, not just navigation, decreases. How does a GPS mitigate that? Of course, it doesn’t.

Consider this case from a glacier course two weeks ago: Our goal was to go up Tuftebreen, sleep over at the huts on Steinmannen and come down the next day. The only problem was that the forecast promised a thick and low cloud cover, fog and a lot of wind and precipitation for the next day. In other words, it would most likely be very poor to zero visibility.

One way to get down is the same way you go up, over Tuftebreen, but it requires some visibility, or at least our own tracks from the previous day. Another way to get down is a hard to find path, which most likely would be covered with steep snow fields this time of the year. Alas, if you pick the wrong snowfield it leads to an uncomfortable drop and a sudden stop. The third way to get down is to walk on a compass course all the way to Haugafjellstølen and then get down on the well marked path from there. However, that option requires some 7-9 km of extra walking and a car ride (or another 10 km of walking) to get back to Bergset (where we start). The last option is certainly not impossible and much preferable to the other two options, but considering most of the course participants had planned a 10 h drive for the same evening, it seemed suboptimal as well.

Two weeks ago I did not have a GPS, so it was a rather easy decision to suggest that we skip the overnight stay at Steinmannen and just pack light enough to get down the same day (in good weather). But would I have made the same decision as easily, if I had a GPS back then? Or would I have relied on the GPS-track to walk down the same way we came up on Tuftebreen? Or maybe I would have tried to find the hard-to-find path with the treacherous snow-fields? It is, of course, impossible to know for sure. But I am quite certain that the GPS would have affected the equation in one way or another.

To conclude, I’m not saying widespread GPS usage has dramatically increased the risks we are willing to take in the mountains. But I do think that we need to be particularly aware of the other risks bad weather and poor conditions increase, in addition to the navigational challenges (which we can mitigate with a GPS). In addition, I think it has become more difficult for guides to use bad weather as a legitimate reason to cancel or turn around on a trip. This is again – in itself – fine, as long as the above mentioned other risks are mitigated as well.

So, I’m glad I now have a GPS, but I will continue to ask myself, “what would I do now, if I didn’t have a GPS?” I think that is the only way my GPS will actually increase safety.

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