Friday, February 16, 2007

Should it be the law?

How far should the government go to make sure we're safe in the mountains? Several Oregon lawmakers want to improve the odds of climbers' survival by requiring them to wear electronic locators above 10,000 feet on Mount Hood. Mount Hood is one of the most frequently climbed mountains in the world, and in the past 25 years, more than 35 climbers have died there. Rep. John Lim, chief sponsor, contends that three climbers who perished in December might be alive had they carried the devices, which send electronic signals that can give search and rescue teamsthe precise location of stranded climbers. But many climbers are against it, according to an AP story:
“It’s a very dangerous undertaking, but that’s part of the beauty of it,” Dave Sauerbrey, a leader of the Mazamas climbing group, said of mountaineering. No state requires climbers to carry the devices. Lim says Oregon should be the first, especially in view of the December tragedy. Three out-of-state climbers became stranded atop the mountain in gale-force winds and snow that produced whiteout conditions, setting off a rescue operation that made international headlines. Nine days later, after the weather cleared, searchers found the body of Texas climber Kelly James, but his two companions, Brooklyn resident Jerry Cooke and Texan Brian Hall, are still missing, presumed dead. James was able to make a distress call to his family using a cell phone. But the trio did not carry electronic beacons. Lim said having to carry a beacon shouldn’t be that big a deal to climbers and the requirement would cut the cost of search-and-rescue operations. Lim said that seeing the grief of Jerry Cooke’s mother firsthand convinced him that such a law would be worth it if even one life could be saved. “It will send a strong message to climbers — this may save your life and spare your loved one’s misery,” he said. The climbers have a strong ally in Rep. Scott Bruun of WestLinn, a climber who’s been to the summit of Mount Hood a dozen times. “I don’t see this bill passing,” he said. “This was a tragic accident that happened in an extreme sport. This is a situation the Legislature can’t fix.” Rocky Henderson of Portland Mountain Rescue said his group has taken no stand on Lim’s bill, but he believes that “if you try to legislate so much safety, you lose the adventure.” Missing mountain climbers accounted for only 3.4 percent of the total number of search-and-rescue missions mounted in Oregon in 2005 — not a disproportionate share compared with hunters, mushroom pickers or others who get lost in the wilds, Henderson said. “The Oregon Legislature shouldn’t waste time on something that’s such a small problem in the overall scheme of things,” he said. But a lawmaker who’s co-sponsoring the bill said the climbers “are being a little bit selfish” and the legislation would reduce the risks faced by rescuers at high altitudes. “Those rescuers are putting their lives on the line,” says Rep. Jerry Krummel, R-Wilsonville. “I want to give them all the tools they need to help them save lives. This bill does that.” Jim Whittaker, the first American to conquer Mount Everest, said it’s fine for individual climbers to make a decision to carry a locator, but imposing the requirement would take a lot away from the mystique of climbing. “If you take all of the risk out of life, you lose a lot. You’re removing a personal liberty from somebody who wants to goand explore without having a safety net,” Whittaker said by cellphone from Idaho, where he was on a climbing trip. “You want to go into the wild and enjoy nature and not be followed.” Charley Shimanski of the Mountain Rescue Association, which represents 100 search-and-rescue groups in the U.S. and Canada,said he worries that relying on electronic beacons could give climbers a false sense of security. “They might think, ‘I’ve got this gizmo that tells everybody where I am, so I can take greater risks,’ “ Shimanski said in a phone interview from Evergreen, Colo. He called Lim’s bill an “overreaction” to the December deaths. Even if they had locators, the climbers would have likely died because conditions were so perilous, he contended. Outfitters at Mount Hood have offered locator devices to climbers since the worst climbing accident on record at the mountain — a 1986 expedition in which two instructors from theOregon Episcopal School and seven students died after being trapped by a storm. Portland Mountain Rescue estimates that about half the climbers on Mount Hood carry the devices. Climber Terry Cone, who’s ascended the summit of Mount Hood 84 times, had a locator unit when he fell and broke a leg on a recent climb. He activated the device, but credits his rescue to quick action by other climbers who notified Portland Mountain Rescue. Volunteers climbed to reach Cone at the 9,000-foot level and brought him down on a sled. Cone said he thinks anyone who climbs Mount Hood should be equipped with an electronic beacon — but he opposes making it mandatory. “What are you going to do, have a cop on every corner of the mountain to enforce this?” Cone said. “You cannot legislate this stuff.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

These are very interesting perspectives but in many cases quite ironic. PLBs without question make rescues safer for search and rescue personnel but the SAR organizations quoted seem to either not take a view or stress their concerns that people will take unnecessary risks. The only unnecessary risk is to engage in potentially risky activities without taking advantage of technology that can save your life. Even if those engaging in risky activities don't want to carry a PLB they should consider their family's peace of mind and the safety of those risking their lives to rescue them. There are many documented cases of people rescued who would never go back into the wilderness again without a PLB but no evidence that people are taking additional risk because they have a PLB. All that being said, the best solution that addresses the various concerns and viewpoints equally in my opinion is currently being considered by several states: If you engage in outdoor activities and SAR has to go looking for you, you pay for the cost of the rescue....unless you are carrying a PLB.
Kevin Stoltz