Ham radio operator says hobby saved his life

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Most ham radio operators who took part in the 24-hour field day event at Sen. Willie Chavez State Park in Belen this weekend were there to have a little fun, test their knowledge and to communicate with others across the country.

But for one of the 54 members of the Valencia County Amateur Radio Association, this annual event meant something different. It was a chance to share with others how his ham radio saved his life.

For the past 20 years, Ralph Clark has been communicating with others through a ham radio. His desire to become an operator was much like many others’ — because it’s a fun hobby.

But last week, his hobby turned into a life saver.

Clark, a husband, father and grandfather, had been on an eight-mile hike on Thursday, June 14, in the mountains south of Magdalena and west of TorC. Even though he is used to hiking alone, this time almost took a near-fatal turn.

“I’ve been trying to hike the 780 miles of the Continental Divide trail here in New Mexico for the past two years,” Clark said. “I do a piece here and a piece there, backpacking it alone. I’m fat and I’m old, and I shouldn’t be out there alone, particularly in New Mexico, where you have to carry a lot of weight because you have to carry a lot of water.”

Clark, who is 80, was down in the Blank Range and had backpacked in eight miles of a 25-mile, two day hike. As he continued his trek, Clark began feeling ill. He was a bit dehydrated, even though he still had an ample supply of water.

“I was weak, and started getting a little confused,” Clark said. “I just didn’t feel very well. I had just sent my wife a satellite message through a spot message that I was OK and I was going to sit there for a while and have some water.”

And that’s when the pain hit — a tremendous pain down his left arm. The first thing he thought — like most would — was a heart attack. That thought made it worse, he said.

It was about noon, it was hot and he was getting a little desperate.

“I wasn’t doing well, so I pulled out my hand-held ham radio,” Clark said. “There are ham radio repeaters on top of the mountains. I hit into a mega link, which is about 20 stations around New Mexico which are all connected together.”

While he was able to connect, Clark wasn’t sure anyone was going to be listening. But they were. Luckily, several people were monitoring, and, luckily, he was able to communicate with them.

“They got on and coordinated someone to get me,” Clark said. “They were passing the information back and forth, such as to come in from the north.”

While he was able to talk to his fellow ham radio operators and able to tell them his coordinates, the search was a little more difficult for his soon-to-be rescuers. The medical transport helicopter sent from Socorro didn’t have the necessary equipment on board to locate the Albuquerque resident.

At times, Clark said, the whole ordeal became frustrating because he could see the helicopter fly above, but they still couldn’t locate the elderly hiker.

“They looked for two hours,” he said. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t a rescue helicopter — it was a medical helicopter, and their GPS was off by four miles from where I was. I knew exactly where I was because I had my GPS.

“I could see them out there looking for me,” he said. “I would relay, through the hams, where I was, and they were talking to the state police dispatcher. And then the helicopter pilot had to go up in the air to talk to the dispatcher because if he would go too low, the mountains would block him.”

Time after time, Clark could see the helicopter fly right above him, only to fly away. For hours, Clark continued to talk to his fellow ham radio operators trying to lead his rescuers to his location.

Throughout his ordeal, Clark’s family was listening in the entire time. Before he had pulled out his battery-operated ham radio, he pushed his medical alert button notifying authorities and his family something was wrong.

As soon as they received his alert, they knew what to do. They knew he would be on his ham radio.

His daughter, Ginger Eldridge, of Bosque Farms, his grandson, Justin, who are both also ham radio operators, drove to Clark’s house where they pulled out his radio to listen in.

“I’ll never do that again,” said Eldridge, a former Bosque Farms councilor. “You could hear him getting worse and worse. It was bad. I wish I’d never done that. There’s such a thing as having too much information.”

But for Clark’s wife, Callie, his voice gave her hope.

“For me,” she said, “it was reassuring because I could hear his voice and I knew he was alive.”

(Clark didn’t know his family was listening until he got home.)

Alive he was, but he was still sick and virtually undetectable by the helicopter. After two hours of searching and with little fuel, the helicopter pilot was ready to head home without finding Clark.

But, after catching “something” out of the corner of his eye, the pilot knew he had located Clark and set his bird down. Even though they weren’t rescue personnel, the medical crew hiked two miles and finally found Clark.

“They worked on me for a while, took me to Socorro and then to Albuquerque,” Clark said.

Thankfully, Clark didn’t have a heart attack, just a bad convenience store burrito for breakfast, he said, and he was a bit dehydrated. And that pain in his arm? Well, it was a cramp.

Needless to say, Clark said his ham radio saved his life.

“I think it did,” he said. “If I hadn’t had it with me, I would have tried to pack up and probably would have tried to go on, but at that point, I was a little dizzy and disoriented, and I don’t know what would have happened. I was very, very fortunate.”

When asked if he was going hiking alone again, Clark said he’s already hiked 600 miles of the Continental Divide and he’d like to finish what he’s started.

If it was up to him, he’d go alone again, but the real reason why he won’t is because of his wife of more than five decades.

A week after his ordeal, they went camping and were listening to ’50s music on the radio when he heard a song with the verse, “If you love me half as much as I love you …”

“I know how much she used to worry about me before when I was out there alone; I decided this wasn’t a nice thing to do to someone who I’ve been married to for 51 years,” he said. “So no, I don’t think I’ll go alone again.”

This is one of many stories ham radio operators tell every year at the annual field day event. Most are not as harrowing, but the reasons why they do what they do is because of scenarios such as this.

Cliff Palis, president of the Valencia County Amateur Radio Association, said the idea behind the event is to test ham radio operators’ skills in field conditions — meaning conditions in which no electricity is available. The local participants spend the day contacting as many ham operators throughout the United States as they can, using just their small, battery-powered radios and a few antennas.

Many participants agree that field day activities help prepare operators should they be called upon to keep lines of communication open during some kind of disaster that wipes out power.

“We’re proving to ourselves and to the community that we can provide communication when everything goes down,” Palis said. “It’s good practice, so when we’re needed, we’ll be there.”

There are more than 700,000 ham radio operators in the United States and three million worldwide who share their excitement for wireless communication.

 


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.