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Satellite Phone in the Sierra?

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Satellite Phone in the Sierra?

Postby BSquared » Sat Feb 17, 2007 2:27 pm

I've been talking with my spouse about my doing a solo JMT hike, probably summer of '08, and she's a little worried about me. (Obviously I should never have let her read "The Last Season..."). I was thinking that one way to make it less of an issue might be to rent a satellite phone and check in every couple of days. I saw a guy using one at Red's Meadow when my son and I did the trail in 2004, and it seemed to work as far as I could tell. Does anyone have experience with these in the Sierra? In particular:
  • Am I likely to be able to get a signal most places on the JMT?
  • Are there phones that are reasonably light?
  • How about batteries? Is a fully charged Li-ion phone battery likely to last for two weeks of very intermittent use?
Of course, I'd be delighted for any other suggestions about keeping a spouse calm while her sixty-something husband runs off into the mountains. She's an experienced outdoorsperson herself but doesn't want to go on this trip.



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Postby Rosabella » Sat Feb 17, 2007 10:02 pm

I rented a satallite phone on my JMT trip last summer, and to be honest, I don't think I would do it again unless there were some major improvements in the phones and service.

I rented from the Satphone Store based out of Texas I think, maybe it was Florida. Anway here's the link:

http://www.satphonestore.com/index.cfm? ... ls/rentals

I paid extra for the "lighter" version, which was waaayyy too heavy! I had a lot of problems making and keeping connections. I could understand this happening in a meadow surounded by mountains, but I had to call at least four times trying to keep a connection on Big Horn Plateau ... now, come on... ya just can't get much more open than that!

I had purchased extra batteries, but left them back in the car (again.... way too heavy). I only took the one battery that was in the phone, which probably would have been way more battery power than I would have needed if I hadn't had to re-dial so many times. As it was, I had to "ration" my minutes.

Bruce, "burtonfm", was on the trail about the same time I was and he also rented a satellite phone. I'm not sure what his experience was like, but I was pretty dissapointed.
Last edited by Rosabella on Sat Feb 17, 2007 10:18 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby mountaineer » Sat Feb 17, 2007 10:15 pm

I would recommend just taking a cell phone and finding a high point. Usually, when you cross a pass it is just a short jaunt up to a nearby peak. I have never NOT been able to get coverage by getting on top of a peak or ridge. My wife worries also so I try to climb two peaks a week to check in with her.
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Postby Rosabella » Sun Feb 18, 2007 6:45 am

Actually, Mountaineer, we had both. My hiking partner had brought his cell phone just for the heck of it - it was super-light, and I was carrying the satellite phone. He was able to make a couple phone calls when we were on top of a pass and "not far from civilization"; he was able to make a call from Donahue Pass, which we were really surprised at. But for the most part he was not able to get reception, and he tried on just about every pass.

But he was also not able to get reception on top of Whitney, and it seems to me that I've read on the Whitney Board that some people have. But at that point I think it all depends on the service...Verizon vs. Sprint vs. all-the-rest-of-them.

I'm surpised that any cell-phone service would get in to most of the JMT, at least according to our experience, but maybe if he would have climbed to the top of a peak like you did, Mountaineer, it would have made a difference. I still think it really depends on your service and the location of the towers that support your service.

.... just curious, Mountaineer, which service do you use? If one of the cell phone companies has better coverage over the Sierra area it would be nice to know about it.
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Postby mountaineer » Sun Feb 18, 2007 10:45 am

I have Verizon, I got coverage from the ridge below Graveyard Peak. Also had good coverage from many of the ridges above Mineral King. Got coverage from Mono Pass also. Didn't have it with me in the other areas I've been to. You also have to have a dual-mode phone that picks up analog signals as well as digital. The newer, all-digital aren't as good as some of the older towers that cover the Sierra are still analog. I get a Motorola phone from Verizon that is tri-mode and does really well in the mountains.
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Postby BSquared » Sun Feb 18, 2007 12:54 pm

Thanks for the critical comments, Rosabella. I notice on the web that there are 7-oz. satellite phones available, but apparently not (yet) for rental. Do you remember specifically which phone you rented with what service? Anyway, if the signals are no good, it doesn't make much difference, does it? I wonder how things are likely to change over the next year and a half?

Mountaineer, I really like the idea of climbing a peak every couple of days, but I'm not sure I can handle both that and doing the JMT at what (for me) will be a pretty demanding pace (2 weeks) :( . But it would be really cool to develop a list of peaks that were near the JMT and had class 3 or lower routes on them, just for general reference. I discussed this briefly with AlanK on another thread. Anybody know if such a thing exists already? Maybe if I get tired of grading papers (doesn't take long! ;) ) I'll get out my maps and my R.J. Secor and start on a list.
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Postby Shawn » Sun Feb 18, 2007 1:31 pm

Just a side note about cell phones usage.

All cell services have 911 enabled for emergencies. This means during an emergency you should try dialing 911 EVEN IF your cell phone shows no reception (e.g. zero bars).

Dialing 911 on a cell phone will connect to the nearest cell tower regardless of which service you subscribe to (Cingular, Verizon, etc.). The reception stregnth only shows the signal from the service you are subscribed to.

This could make a world of difference should you become stranded and "assume" by looking at your cell phone that no service is available by merely looking at the signal bars on the phone.
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Postby Rosabella » Sun Feb 18, 2007 3:06 pm

B2 - I upgraded to the 9505(a), and as I said, it was VERY heavy. I rented it for a month to allow for my time on the trail, hanging out in Yosemite for a couple days, and traveling back and forth from Washington State. Besided the monthly rental, there was a "per minute" charge...which is what really pissed me off because I had to pay every time I had to go thru the process of redialing and trying to make a connection.

Shawn, I only just found out about the "911" thing this last Friday - we were having work-related safety meetings all day, and part of it included the Red Cross C.P.R. class. Our instructor said that you can make a "911" call even from a cell phone where the service has been disconected.

* * * * *

So, "The Rest of the Story"... about my satellite phone and calling "911": If you read my JMT trip report from last summer, I had mentioned that I started having chest pains just as we got in to Garnet Lake. I was scared and tried to ignore it but it wasn't going away.

I went thru the typical "denial" behavior... and when I finally called "911" the dispatcher asked what was the nature of my emergency. I said "well, I'm not sure if it's an emergency or not, but could you tell what the symptoms of a woman's heart attach is?" Well, this person got angry and said "this is not an emergency!" and hung up! I was so upset! So then I was really scared... and felt really foolish and was not going to call again! I think he thought I was playing Triva Persuit or something! Anyway, the rest is already in my report.

I never followed up on it and I should have, but beings that I called from a Satellite phone, I didn't even know where the 911 office that answered my call was located. It all ended up OK but at the time I wasn't so sure.
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Postby BSquared » Sun Feb 18, 2007 3:41 pm

Thanks for all the phone details, Rosabella.

What a horrible emergency-call experience! Boy, whoever answered that 911 call needs a whack on the butt, big-time! Could you point me at your trip report again? I suspect I read it (I remember the chest-pain incident), but I'd like to see it again.

Mine from 2004 is posted... oops, I guess it got lost when the board got trashed! I'll repost when I get a chance. I had kidney-stone drama -- not nearly as compelling as chest-pain drama, but pretty darn inconvenient! ;)
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Postby Rosabella » Wed Feb 21, 2007 3:59 pm

Trip Report from last summer:

http://www.highsierratopix.com/communit ... .php?t=939

I'd love to read your trip report from 2004 if you find it. As far as your upcoming trip... Wow! 2 weeks... I'm impressed! I did it in about 3.5 weeks, and it was just real comfortable.

OK, so I have to ask.... Is this the pace that you normally hike, or are there some time constraints? I'm just curious.
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Postby BSquared » Wed Feb 21, 2007 8:03 pm

Whoa, Rosabella, don't be impressed until I've actually done it! I'm not even going to try until the summer of aught eight, and it's looking like a family wedding might even put that off until nine.

In answer to your question, though, I don't usually hike that fast, but I'd like to try it, and I do have constraints. My summers are pretty tight, and a JMT through hike is hemmed in by snow at the early end and the start of school at the late end (I teach in a small college out here). Also, I've never hiked solo for more than a weekend before, and I'm not sure how long I'll be able to maintain my sanity. Finally I really would like to kind of test my mettle and see if I can make 16-mile average days. I've got it all planned out, and at least on paper it doesn't look too bad. My son and I took twenty days in 2004, and we weren't really pushing until the last few.

That said, ideally I'd like to do it in, say, five weeks, if I could find the time and figure out some way to reprovision as often as necessary. A day in Long Meadow, for example, and a day or two to detour to Lake Ediza and Iceburg. A day to spend meadow watching in McClure Meadows, and maybe a day or two to explore Sixty-Lakes Basin... Doesn't that sound nice?
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Postby Phil R » Fri Aug 03, 2007 5:53 pm

FYI, I rented an Iridium cell phone for my trip this summer because I had some special needs. It weighed 13 ounces. With the extra battery and manual I had about 1 lb. total.

It worked great. It connected in seconds and the signal was clear. All my research said stay away from Globalstar and go with Iridium.
People are friendly at 6000 ft...and the higher you go, the friendlier they get.
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