Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The fall-out from Mount Hood

It's intriguing to watch the debate over whether climbers on Mount Hood should be required by law to carry a personal locator beacon. At first glance, it seems like a no-brainer. A small, light-weight satelite transmitter can be rented for just a few bucks and guarantee if something unexpected happens that rescuers will be able to find climbers, or at least their bodies. But here's the thing. This proposal by the Oregon legislature is almost universally dissed by mountaineers.
According to the AP, climbers who showed up to voice their disapproval at the capitol warned the locator requirement would foster passivity among climbers who get into trouble and activate the beacons.
"They will wait for a rescue, and not do enough to rescue themselves," said Leslie Brown, a spokeswoman for Access Fund, a national mountaineering group.
But more than that, it seems to me that the idea is just plain distasteful to climbers. After all, part of the joy of going out into the wild is severing the ties of civilization. Edward Abbey said "Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread."
Cell phones have made severing the ties harder. A locator beacon would add another binding thread. Perhaps there will eventually be a debate about how communication corridors like cell phones and GPS technology do the same thing to wilderness as transportation corridors, i.e. roads.
Can one exist with the other? I don't know.
On the other hand, civilized folks who pay their taxes and don't recklessly go into topographically dicey, road-deprived areas have a very good point when they gripe about the cost of finding and retrieving lost wilderness travelers. Maybe someday society will decide that you must enter and exit the wild at your own risk. This seems fair. Harsh, but fair.
But can the civilized folks who pay their taxes and don't recklessly go into topographically dicey, road-deprived areas resist the urge to bring a straggler back to the fold. After all, that urge is what humanity, and civilization itself, is based on.


Fall Out Boy said...

That's retarded logic from the mountaineers. It is like saying that if the same mountaineer has a cell phone that gets a signal he'll call 911 every time he runs out of GORP.

Just put the beacon in your pack. If you pull a nut on the 5th turn and are in some serious trouble (note: I mean 'serious' trouble) somebody can fish your ass out. That easy.

Whoops, sorry guys...I have to 7-Eleven is out of Cool Ranch Doritos and I have a cell signal...time to call 911. I doubt somebody that loaded up with crampons, ice-axes, -60 degree sleeping bags, a 10-seaon tent and knows what they are doing is going to make that call. A ballsy rookie might, but wouldn't you rather the ballsy rookie survived instead of becoming a frozen statistic?

Also, last time I checked you don't have to turn on a locator beacon. Turn it on when all hope runs out. They are going to have to send a chopper for you anyhow....might as well give them an idea of where to look rather than searching for days in futility. Like carrying an avalanche beacon so people know where to dig. Surprising the writer (Dave) wouldn't think that as well.

kdean4 said...

Okay, this whole thing REALLY bugs me. Let's forget for a moment that I live in Mississippi where I believe I am correct in saying NO ONE has ever died on a climb.

I am, however, a registered nurse and my thoughts go to the rescuers.

Why should some climbers' "wilderness experience" be more important than doing anything and everything possible to improve safety for the folks who have to go in and risk their lives because joe mountaineer was too macho to have a beacon???

C'mon, respectful to those who dig you out...let them at least know where to look!

jonesing for vertical said...

Glad I checked in to offer a mountaineer perspective. The argument against mandatory locator beacons turns on two issues.

First, having to carry a locator beacon changes the nature of climbing. Part of the adventure, the point of going after all, is the sense of solitude and self-reliance required. I can accept that non-climbers don't get that, but it really is important. I know people who carry their cell phones on backpacking trips "for emergency purposes". I've also seen a hiker on the Wonderland Trail (Mt. Rainier) call home from his campsite. Why even bother to backpack?! Personally I leave the phone behind and perfer to go places where the phone would be dead weight if I DID carry it.

The second, and more salient argument for those taxpayers, is: why pick on us? Every time someone looks systematically at time and money spent on rescue operations, climbing-related rescues are a small part of it. Far more hikers, hunters, snowmobilers, ATVers go missing every year and require SAR ops. Mountain rescues certainly look spectacular, and definitely require specialized skills. However, mountaineers are also among those most likely to volunteer for SAR teams, bringing wilderness and climbing skills to all sorts of rescues.

fall out boy's comment about the rookie is especially naive. Look at the Alps, where professional mountain rescue teams pluck skiers and climbers from their adventures gone bad. People haven't stopped getting injured or dying; they just do it on more spectacular ways, figuring the helos with the white cross on them will come to bail them out of trouble. Give people backup and they come to expect it. In this country the climbing ethos has always been self-reliance. MAYBE a rescue team will come eventually; assume you're on your own.

As a climber I see this as a cynical ploy by politicians who want to give the appearance of caring about taxpayer money, while studiously avoiding any efforts to lean on the real users of rescue funds and efforts. Climbers are a relatively small group, so it's relatively easy to say "we gotta do something about the expense of these climber rescues" and carefully skirt the fact that 90% of rescue funds went to fish hikers and hunters out of the woods when they get hurt or lost.

Fact is any of us who venture out into the woods have the risk of getting lost, breaking something, or guessing wrong about the weather. It's not just a climbing issue, so either tell all backcountry venturers they need a beacon (I can't wait to see THAT firestorm!) or accept that there are a lot more backcountry users at risk than just mountaineers and sometimes you're going to have to go find some of them. Or don't come, if that's the price of solitude.

Phil Anderson said...

As someone who has climbed worldwide, including on Mt. Hood up several different routes, including winter, and has set foot on all of it's glaciers, I'd like to offer a local perspective from a voice of experience:

First, Mt. Hood is the only mountain in the world this locator device is being legislated for. But it's not the most climbed, the most dangerous, or most deadly. The far more difficult to climb and dangerous Mt. Rainier in the same Cascade range has no such requirement.

This past winter's high profile accident with Brian Hall, Jerry Cooke, and Kelly James was very dramatic, but a locator unit would not have saved them. SAR knew almost exactly where James was, but couldn't get to him because of the conditions. It's also almost certain that Hall and Cooke fell to their deaths long before SAR were even trying to reach their last known position.

As a previous person noted, there are far more SAR missions for hunters, fishermen, skiers, hikers and boaters than climbers. Why isolate climbers?

Taxpayers do not pay for "expensive" SAR efforts. All of the climbing SAR teams on Mt. Hood were made up completely of volunteers. These same SAR groups are universally opposed to mandatory locator units. The military helicopter trips are also not directly related to taxes. The military makes many training exercises all the time, and uses this experience as part of their own SAR training for rescuing their own in times like war.

Requiring rescue rarely puts SAR in objective danger. SAR personnel are highly trained and organized - you should see them operate. They know what they are doing, and do not put themselves in harm's way. If it risks their own lives to rescue someone, they pull back and wait until it's safer. No trained SAR personnel have ever been killed in any rescue attempts on Mt. Hood.

Mandating locator unit usage would be impossible to legislate, and expensive to implement. Several thousand climbers attempt Mt. Hood each year. There are three part-time, seasonal only, USFS climbing rangers on Mt. Hood. They are overworked as it is, often checking and reporting on climbing conditions on various routes, checking avalanche danger, and other work. There is no possible way these guys could patrol the entire mountain checking on every single person to make sure they have a locator unit. It would take 50 full-time Rangers to do this.

Additionally, this flies in the face of inalienable rights set forth in the US Constitution. The Government doesn't exist to tell people how they can, and can't live their lives. Where do you draw the line on protecting people from themselves? Who is going to determine what that protection is?

There already is a law in Oregon on this issue. It states that if you require a rescue due to unsound reasoning, the State can fine you between $500 and $5,000 for your actions.

Thersites D. Scott said...

I'm with Phil's comment below. As a member of two mountain rescue units (Portland and Eugene) who frequently participates in rescues on Mt. Hood, I'm opposed to mandating PLBs -- and I don't know even one mountain rescue volunteer who supported that law. Main reasons: they will result in more stupid calls (by underscoring some people's belief that they're entitled to rescue -- "I've got a blister! Pull the PLB!"); they'll encourage some people to take more risks because of a false sense that the PLB makes them safer (they usually don't; for instance, that huge rescue effort on Hood last winter was stymied by rescuers' inability to reach even the climber whose location they knew, due to weather); and folks who don't carry PLBs (due to cost, hassle of renting -- they're not readily rentable like MLUs are, etc.) will delay calling for help because they're afraid they'll get into trouble, meaning their ultimate rescue is likely to be more dangerous to me, and their chance of surviving will be decreased.

Should people carry PLBs voluntarily, and use them responsibly? Absolutely. And I'm all in favor of good government regulation. But the rescue community doesn't like this one.

P.S.: It's true, by the way, that rescues cost taxpayers very little. The field personnel are volunteers; the military LOVES the training (they'd be flying mock missions for those hours anyway, and the real thing prepares them better for combat); and search and rescue is one of only two things that Oregon sheriffs are obligated to do by law (the other being to maintain a county jail); everything else is extra, and I don't have much problem paying a deputy to do the job that, by law, is his primary duty.

My $.02 in case another law like this rears its ugly head.

Anonymous said...

If you dont want it to be a requirement , fine, just at least make it available to anyone who asks for one.. there will always be someone who would appreciate having one. you dont speak for me... so butt out!!!