Hiker safe with help of ham radio

A series of dots and dashes bouncing off the ionosphere Sunday helped save a hiker stranded on Buck Creek Pass east of Glacier Peak.

The hiker who broke his leg used a low-voltage portable radio and Morse code to send out a call to help.

Six hundred miles away in Bozeman, Mont., Robert Williams was testing his ham radio Sunday when he heard the call signal, “W-7-A-U.”

Williams replied and quickly learned, in the dashes and dots, that he was talking with a 62-year-old Corvallis, Ore., man, who had slipped and hurt himself in the high Cascades of Western Washington.

“I just happened to be at the same frequency,” Williams, 65, said Monday. “It’s just a stroke of luck that turned out great.”

Williams called 911 and was connected to Snohomish County search-and-rescue officials. He spent much of Sunday and Monday relaying information including GPS coordinates from the hiker to rescuers.

“It was quite an experience,” Williams said. “I’m just glad that he was a ham radio operator and that I was able to talk to him. It made the difference for him.”

On Sunday, rescue crews reached the man who had set up camp on Buck Creek Pass, at about 6,000 feet just west of the Chelan County line.

He was taken to safety Monday on horseback.

The call set in motion one of two mountain rescues Sunday.

A second team of rescuers went up Three Fingers Mountain after a man there fell about 200 feet on a glacier near the summit.

Including the weekend rescues, search-and-rescue teams this year have now responded to 100 missions, Snohomish County sheriff’s Sgt. Danny Wikstrom said.

Both of the injured men in the past two rescues were well prepared for the wilderness conditions, he said.

“To have that equipment will save your life,” he said.

The man on Three Fingers was hiking with three other people when he fell. His climbing party summoned help, officials said.

On Monday afternoon, he was taken by helicopter off the mountain to Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, sheriff’s Lt. Rodney Rochon said.

He wasn’t able to walk when he was loaded into the chopper, Rochon said. He apparently had sprained his ankle and knee in the fall.

Bad weather Sunday prevented helicopter rescues of both men. Teams spent a night in snow and frigid conditions in the mountains.

Rescuers on Three Fingers used a pulley system to hoist the man off the glacier and onto the trail, Wikstrom said.

Teams then carried the man to Goat Flats, where he was loaded onto the chopper.

Rescuers on horseback reached the man on Buck Creek Pass on Monday morning.

The trail from Darrington was washed out from recent storms and wasn’t passable, so crews approached along the Trinity Trail near Lake Wenatchee, Wikstrom said.

It isn’t the first time amateur radio operators have helped out with an emergency situation, said Allen Pitts, a spokesman for the American Radio Relay League based in Newington, Conn.

The radios work well when other kinds of communication fail, he said.

Ham radio operators were of paramount importance after Hurricane Katrina and when a tsunami ravaged southeast Asia.

Still, it’s rare that Morse code is used to initiate a rescue, he said.

Amateur radio operators used to be required to know Morse code to get a license. That requirement was dropped a few years ago.

Since then, Morse code has actually gained popularity, Pitts said.

“Morse code will get through when no other type of communication will,” Snohomish County Hams Club President Grant Hopper said.

Williams, the Montana man, said he was able to understand the injured man’s code even when his signal became very weak. Voice communication over the airwaves likely would have become garbled or misunderstood.

The man had a low-voltage radio transmitter, which operates on about as much power as it takes to make a tiny Christmas tree light sparkle.

In the right conditions, radio signals can bounce off the Earth’s atmosphere and ricochet thousands of miles.

“A signal like that can skip a long way around the world,” Williams said. “You can talk to Europe or Asia given the right conditions.”

This is the first time Williams has helped someone in danger using his radio.

The rescue likely wouldn’t have been possible if the injured man weren’t a competent radio operator, Williams said.

“My guess is that he was just waiting to hear from somebody,” he said. “I happened to be the lucky one.”

Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437 or jholtz@heraldnet.com.

Learn more about amateur radios

An injured hiker on Buck Creek Pass used a ham radio and Morse code to summon help Sunday. There are about 654,000 licensed amateur radio operators in the United States. To learn more or to take a licensing class, check out the Snohomish County Hams Club at www.wa7law.com or the American Radio Relay League at www.arrl.org.

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