A Littleton, Colorado, radio amateur and mountaineer was happy to have his hand-held transceiver along on May 17 after he slipped and fell from an icy ledge in Berthoud Pass while snowshoeing. Summits On The Air (SOTA) enthusiast Brad Byland, WA6MM, said he’s been climbing and mountaineering for many years now and never before came this close to “a possible life-ending disaster.”
“I’m doing fine,” Byland told ARRL this week. “I didn’t get hurt…only bad wind and sunburn on my face! My daughter says my geeky hobby — ham radio — saved me from my dangerous hobby — climbing and mountaineering!”
Byland said that while this was his first climb in the Berthoud Pass area, he was never “lost,” as some media accounts reported. He had prepared to climb Mount Flora — which would have been his 29th SOTA peak — by studying maps and others’ trip reports, plus he had his iPhone with GPS, a compass, and his radio along.
“[T]hings went smoothly until about 12,700 feet,” Byland said, at which point, with visibility deteriorating, he decided to turn back. “It wasn’t long before I was in a total whiteout,” he recounted. “The ground is white, the air around me is white, and I had no perception of direction and elevation. My iPhone GPS was of no use as I couldn’t read the display. I pulled out my compass for navigation.” Byland said he knew the basic heading he should follow along the ridge, and he proceeded.
“A short time later I had a strange feeling I was floating in air. I didn’t realize I was falling until I landed on my back on a snow filled ledge about 20 feet below a cornice,” Byland continued. “I was quite surprised and amazed I suffered no injuries.”
But he was essentially “stuck,” and, while his snowshoes remained on, he was not able to climb back up, due to the overhanging nature of the cornice. “I needed to wait for better conditions,” he concluded. “After about an hour I decided to make a call for help, as I knew it would take time for a rescue party to mobilize and find me. Spending the night would probably not end well, and I might have had to take on significant risk to attempt a self-rescue.”
Byland said he’d programmed his radio to a few local mountain repeaters, he was able to quickly contact another ham, “and the rest of the story unfolded with my eventual rescue.”
While well equipped for his situation, he remained on the ledge for 4 or 5 hours. “I was in good spirits,” he said, “and I can’t tell you enough about how comforting it is to have another person on the radio keeping me informed of the rescue process. I didn’t feel so alone on that ledge.”
Byland thanked the Alpine and Grand County Search and Rescue members who got him off the ledge. “Words alone cannot express my feelings of gratitude for the work you do and the countless hours you invest in this service,” he said. “My donations to both SAR groups are forthcoming.”
He also expressed his gratitude to the hams who picked up his distress call and quickly notified authorities. “The outcome would have certainly been different without their help,” he said. “I particularly want to thank Alpine SAR ham radio operator Mike, KC0CNT, who spent countless hours with me exchanging vital information during the rescue operation.”
In retrospect, Byland said, he should have taken another route or hunkered down and waited for better visibility before descending.