Climbing Rescue Rehash

I’m posting some older pieces for my portfolio here. I wrote the following piece in 2002. It was as an Op-Ed for a local magazine (Sports Etc, now Sports Northwest) in the wake of the now infamous failed helicopter rescue on Mt Hood in that same year. However, the controversies discussed here are no further from our consciousness than the next high-profile climbing accident on public lands.

Search and Rescue: Why Climbers Get the Short End and How to Stop It.

The Northwest features a blissful variety, quality and quantity of climbing, unrivaled by few other places on earth. Attendant with that is predictable number of misadventures and mayhem in the hills. This spring was by no means an exception, but the accidents on Mts. Hood and Rainier seem to have drawn more attention to climbing than any other event since the Everest tragedy in 1996.  From all direction came condemnations, assumptions and recommendations, coupled with threats of increased climbing fees, requirements and regulation. The most interesting and lasting of these controversies always seems to be the issue of cost recovery for rescues involving climbers who are seen to be acting with wild abandon in the hills.

Looking at it from a layperson’s perspective, it is easy to imagine where that image comes from. I can still see a scene from Cliffhanger in which a t-shirt and jean-clad Sylvester Stallone hangs from a sheer rock wall by one arm in the dead of winter. Miraculously he clings to an icy ledge in the middle of a storm. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain the absurdity of that scene to people unfamiliar with climbing. I can even recall the Whatcom County Sherriff remarking after a recovery operation on Mount Baker’s North Ridge, “I have no idea what he was doing way over there…there’s way easier ways up that mountain.”

The fact is, done well and armed with modern gear and old-fashioned experience, climbing is a surprisingly safe activity. In 1998, climbers were involved in only 2.9% of all rescues in the National Park System. The remaining 97.1% were hikers, swimmers and boaters, with these categories alone making up 55% of all Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. (

Take a single weekend in June, for instance. Two men were swept into dangerous rapids on the Duckabush River in the Olympics were a large-scale SAR mission ensued, compete with helicopters and ground teams. The apparent victims rode a Wal-Mart-quality raft, wore no life jackets had no knowledge if the river and were not dressed for the 50-degree water into which they were swept. One man for to shore shortly after but the other was washed downstream, out of sight, and presumed dead. He spent the next two says making his way down the river, on foot, to find his friends at their campsite, while SAR teams were out looking for him. That same weekend, a father and son were tragically swept to their deaths over a waterfall near Mount St. Helens on a simple day hike.

In contrast to accidents involving climbers, these sorts of epics and tragedies tare treated with kid gloved and heroic overtures on the evening news. There are no rafting or swimming professionals called to pass judgment on the ill prepared through national media outlets. Absent are the discussions about the need for tighter regulation on the usage of personal flotation devices, raft certification or charging increased fees to people visiting waterfalls. Climbers, however, are renegades with a death wish. If that’s true, what do we call the people that set off down rivers swollen with 40-degree spring runoff in a Wal-Mart raft? Unlucky?

For these reasons, if there is a decision to recover rescue costs, the burden should be spread among all users, and perhaps proportionately by those using said services. As an example, by 1998 estimates, this could add less than two cents per visitor to our national parks. However, behind this seemingly sound conclusion hides the troubling arguments of increased liability and a “duty to rescue” for what would essentially be considered pre-paid rescues. Other concerns spread like cracks in a windshield – each new regulation and fee threatening our right to simply enjoy our public lands.

Instead of legalese, federal regulations or increases in the mismanaged “pay-to-play” theory of our public lands, I’d like to offer up another alternative. It does away with lawyers, courts and congressional oversight, while dramatically decreasing the need for life-threatening SAR missions. This option simply calls for humility, education and individual responsibility. As climbers, we should take the lead in regaining the accountability that has been lost in our finger-pointing world and know and respect the dangers inherent in our activities. We should never, ever go somewhere thinking about outside rescue as an option; a cell phone as our free ticket out of trouble. Every trip should begin with the complete knowledge and confidence that we can get there AND back safely, and under our own power, under all but the gravest situations. Learn from guides or learn from friends. Whatever we do, we should respect the mountains and be honest with ourselves. The great outdoors are full of inherent dangers and, with experience, good judgment and the requisite humility, we can regulate ourselves and keep the challenges as they should be, simply between climbers and mountains.