Lessons of the Mount Hood Tragedy: Who Pays for Search and Rescue?

By the time relentless snowstorms forced rescue crews this week to call off their exhaustive search for two climbers missing and presumed dead on Oregon’s Mount Hood – the body of a third had been recovered earlier – tens of thousands of dollars had been spent on helicopters, airplanes and the salaries of various workers, not counting volunteers, who labored for days in arduous and treacherous conditions. Who should pay for all this? The question is asked after every extensive search-and-rescue operation, and not surprisingly most non-adventurers have a quick answer: The victims, or in the case of the ill-fated Mount Hood climbers, their families. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. As the Mountain Rescue Association, a coalition of 90 mountain rescue teams throughout North America points out, forcing people to pay could make bad situations even worse. “Charging subjects for their rescues can be dangerous for many reasons," MRA President Charley Shimanski says on the association’s Web site. “Often people will delay calling for help when they fear a cost, and in the mountains, that delay in the call for help can increase the risk to rescuers and the subject alike.” The oldest search and rescue association in the United States, the MRA was formed in 1959 at Mount Hood’s Timberline Lodge – an appropriate location considering the 11,249-foot mountain, Oregon’s tallest peak that attracts 10,000 climbers a year, is prone to avalanches and sudden storms. Since 1896 130 people have died on Mount Hood. This week’s tragedy that killed 26-year-old Luke T. Gullberg, 24-year-old Anthony Vietti and 29-year-old Katie Nolan was far from the worst. In May 1986 nine people died during a sudden storm; three years ago a trio perished during a December blizzard. None of these victims’ families, or the thousands of other hikers, picnickers, campers, snowmobilers and skiers who have been rescued over the years has ever been sent a bill. This would not have been the case if Gullberg, Vietti and Nolan, all experienced mountaineers who had scaled Mount Hood numerous times, had been stranded on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. New Hampshire is one of a handful of states that charges for search and rescue. Earlier this year a Massachusetts teenager who spent three nights alone on New Hampshire’s 6,288-foot mountain after he sprained an ankle and veered off marked trails was fined more than $25,000 for the cost of his rescue. Although Scott Mason had been praised for using such Eagle Scout skills as sleeping in the crevice of a boulder and helping starting fires with hand sanitizer gel, authorities faulted him for continuing the hike despite his injury. The teen’s bad luck was compounded by the fact that New Hampshire’s rescue helicopter was busy that day and the state had to borrow one from Maine, adding to the expense. Maine and Vermont also charge for searches and rescues, but by most accounts are less aggressive about collecting than New Hampshire, which passed a fee law nine years ago and is perhaps best known for its motto, “Live Free or Die.” The Oregon-based Mountain Rescue Association is not the only organization opposing such fees. The National Association for Search and Rescue of Washington, D.C., which represents more than 10,000 volunteer and paid professionals, calls such searches and rescues “humanitarian acts,” adding, “Individuals and communities have a moral obligation to aid those in danger, regardless of any legal obligation.” In the mean time, the MRA points out that most rescues cost the taxpayer little or nothing because the majority of services are provided by teams of volunteers. And while mountain climbers get most of the blame, he says, they represent only 4 percent of the rescues, with 82 percent of rescues in parks for hikers, boaters and swimmers. “The typical search and rescue mission is over within a matter of a few hours, and with the vast majority of the work performed by unpaid professional volunteers, the costs are generally very low. In those cases where military aircraft are used, the military simply Charges their costs to training hours that they would have otherwise performed somewhere else,” Shimanski adds. Mountain climbers also are far from the only ones who benefit from such assistance. As the MRA notes, the U.S. Coast Guard spends $680 million a year for search and rescue, assisting an average of 114 people a day, and doesn’t charge for its services. In addition, military aircraft called in to support civilian search and rescue operations log their flights as training time, and use the experience to help in combat. The National Park Service also doesn’t charge for search and rescue, but uses money from entrance fees to pay some $3 million a year to help wayward wanderers. This works out to about 1.5 cents per visitor. National parks that cater to climbers, such as Denali in Alaska, require hikers who don’t use professional guides to pay an additional $15 fee. This makes sense. I also believe climbers must assume more responsibility, and not just financial. As one who appreciates adventure and spontaneous serendipity, I also believe when you venture into treacherous areas in challenging conditions you must be adequately conditioned and equipped. In the case of the ill-fated trio on Mount Hood, rescue workers may have been able to find them if they had been carrying emergency beacons. What were the three climbers doing on Mount Hood in December in the first place? For many people, there is never a good answer to this question, and as author Geoff Powter suggests in the subtitle of his excellent book, “Strange And Dangerous Dreams,” there’s a “Fine Line Between Adventure And Madness.” I agree that some exploits are at best ill advised and at worst suicidal. But one man’s disaster waiting to happen is another man’s derring-do. In their day I’m sure many detractors regarded Ferdinand Magellan, Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong as reckless risk takers. I don’t like to see anybody die at sea, on a mountain or in space, but I’d also hate to live in a world where people never challenged themselves to explore new horizons.

Reader Comments