Rescuing mountain climbers - and paying for it.

In the wake of the Mt. Hood climbing accident earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times examines several questions around the incident:

Who's paying for all this? Why aren't mountain climbers required to carry emergency locator devices? And what were these men doing on Mount Hood in December?

Regarding payment, Oregon has a chargeback law - but rescue teams typically oppose such laws:

Take the idea of deterring risky behavior by making those who get lost pay for their rescue or, perhaps, making their families pay for recovery of their bodies. At least five states, including Oregon and California, have "charge-for-rescue" laws on the books. But the Mountain Rescue Association, which represents about 100 volunteer groups in the U.S., Canada and Britain, strongly objects to the concept.

"If people believe they are going to be charged, especially a big charge, they're going to be afraid to summon help," said Glenn Henderson, the association's California regional chairman and a rescue volunteer in Riverside. "They're going to try and get themselves out of a jam. They will delay -- and that delay can make the difference between life and death.

A report last year found that the number of climbing accidents is dropping:

The American Alpine Club -- a national organization for mountaineers and rock climbers -- said in a 2005 report that the average annual number of reported climbing accidents declined from a peak of 168 in the 1980s to 159 in the 1990s and 139 so far this decade.

Injuries fell from 146 to 128 to 117 in those decades. Average annual deaths peaked at 34 in the 1970s, then dropped to 29 in the '80's, 27 in the '90s, and 23 so far this decade.

The same report also argues that mountain rescues don't cost much, in comparison to other outdoor emergencies:

"Most climbing rescues are performed by highly skilled volunteer rescue units who do not charge, or by specialized park rangers whose costs are often subsidized by climbing use fees," the report said, "making climbing rescues less of a drain on taxpayers than other recreational participants" including boaters and hunters.

Read the rest. Discuss.

  • Robert Huffman (unverified)

    Here's the problem with refusing to rescue (or charging to rescue) people exhibiting "foolish" behavior in the wilderness: where, exactly, do you draw the line?

    Perhaps we should refuse to rescue competent climbers on a challenging route in winter. Or maybe we should draw the line at climbing any route in the winter. Or maybe we should refuse to rescue climbers, period.

    Maybe we should not rescue people who go on multi-day backpacking trips. Or maybe anyone who taks the risk of going on a day hike. Or foolish snowboarders who wander out of bounds at Mt. Hood Meadows.

    Or maybe we should draw the line at fools who make a wrong turn in the middle of a winter storm. Or maybe at people who allow their autistic child to wander off from the car when they make a road-side stop.

    You get my point: do we really want to go down the route of letting our government define what is and is not foolish or reckless behavior?

  • (Show?)

    I agree that we shouldn't charge for recovery operations, esp. since so many of the rescuers are volunteers, but I also question whether there aren't some safety regulations and fines that might be appropriate. As a letter writer to the Oregonian pointed out we have stiff regulations on water safety (floatation devices, etc.) that are enforced by the coast guard. Many other activities in the wild (fishing, hunting) are regulated in some way. Why not on climbers? - except for the coast guard part.

  • TomCat (unverified)

    I agree that not to attempt rescue ought never to be an option, but a stiff fine in situations where negligence is a major contributor would not be out of order at all.

  • Jess (unverified)

    My opinion is that anyone with a sound mind and consideration for their families peace of mind would have a well planned out path of travel so in instances like this; someone would know exactly where to look. If these men were skilled mountain climbers why didn't they leave a map of sorts behind?

    The point is now moot for these climbers, but there should be some sort of regulations requiring all climbers to carry notification device in case of an emergency.

    I don't agree with there being a charge for these types of cost effective is it anyway and where do you draw the line?

  • Zak J. (unverified)

    What did it cost anyway?

  • Bert Lowry (unverified)

    I don't like the idea of charging for rescue.

    I haven't seen any statistics on the subject, but I doubt many people decide to get lost or have accidents because they believe they'll be rescued. By that argument, people with health insurance should be less healthy than those without because they have no incentive to take care of themselves.

    And I really don't like the idea of adding new requirements (like homing devices) for climbers and hikers. Nanny government is a slippery slope.

  • (Show?)

    There was a letter in the Oregonian the other day that made me angry. It was a response to Steve Duin's column, in which Duin seemed to attempt to bring understanding of something incomprehensible. The column was, as far as I could tell, about as far from judgmental as you can get.

    The letter writer, whose name I forget, apparently disagreed. He was outraged by Duin's arrogance, and said that it's impossible for average Joes to really get what it's like to be a mountain climber, and saying it like it mattered.

    Well, Mr. Letter Writer, consider this. When climbers put us in a situation where we must devote extraordinary resources to rescuing them (or else abandon our humanity), our opinions matter. When their grieving families ask our sympathy, our opinions matter.

    If it looks like they failed to take basic precautions before embarking, you can bet we're going to be interested in learning more about that. If their desire to climb without safety gear could have arisen from a childish disregard for those who might have to haul their frozen corpses off the mountain, we will want to know if that is so.

    It's all very well for climbers to regard themselves as somehow bigger than the rest of society, as long as they're just trading idiotic stories - we all do it, from the Go Fish enthusiast to the American Idol hopeful. But when their pastime of choice frequently makes enormous and unexpected demands of the rest of society, that boyish enthusiasm, or whatever you'd want to call it, starts to look pretty damn stupid.

  • iggi (unverified)

    how can you possibly prove that someone was negligent with their equipment? what about the extra money that would need to be spent to pay for investigators to interrogate the survivors to evaluate whether or not they should pay for their rescue? what's to keep the survivors from dragging it out in the courts and wasting even more tax-payer dollars? who decides where the dividing line between criminal negligence (or stupidity) and an act of nature? do we create a special office for just this task? if so, where's the money going to come from?

    besides, pushing for additional punishment beyond injury, grief, and possible death seems redundant. the costs are just going to increase unless we look at prevention measures rather than punitive reenforcement.

    requiring hikers and climbers to carry GPS is not entirely outlandish - it would save lives as well as money. if you can afford climbing gear, you should be able to afford a GPS or other type of locator device.

  • engineer (unverified)

    Why is it everytime some unusual, unfortunate event occurs there is a knee-jerk reaction which results in those of us who behave responsibly in having to give up some increment of freedom? In light of the Kim event and the now the Mt Hood event there are those who would limit or prevent access to the back-country and the mountains. The vast majority of people who recreate and use the back-country are responsible, aware of the risks and are prepared. But guess what, sometimes bad things happen. Why is it necessary to have the government try to regulate every conceivable risk, especially when those taking the risks are well aware of them (and frankly risk can be part of the allure of the activity in the first place). Part of our identity as Oregonians is that in relatively short period of time you can be in an isolated area, on your own, and have to be responsible only to your self. I would hate to see that freedom taken away in small increments ostensibly to protect us from ourselves. If you want a controlled experience go to Disneyland.
    Thanks for letting me rant!

  • lin qiao (unverified)

    FWIW, I did a small amount of mountaineering and rock climbing years ago, just enough to get acquainted with the basics of mountain/glacier travel to be useful for doing some scientific field work. I realized it was not a hobby I ever wanted to pursue.

    I wanted to comment on the business of emergency locator devices to the extent I understand them. People have got to realize that these devices are not like powerful radio transmitters. They are not like the ELTs (emergency locators) that are carried aboard helicopters, say, which broadcast a signal that can be picked up by satellites. The devices that climbers carry are detectable if a rescuer on the ground has a receiver and is fairly close. This process is not exactly like using a metal detector to look for odds and ends, but it's not far off, frankly. Even if those poor guys on Mount Hood had had "locators", it wouldn't have done much in the particular circumstances that actually arose.

    As for why the climbers climbed when they did: some routes are in fact much safer, in many regards, in winter than summer. There's constant rockfall in the summer but not winter, for one thing. So the idea of closing Mt. Hood to climbers in winter would mean that people either do dangerous (on certain routes) summer ascents, or not at all. (I make no judgment whether that is good or bad.)

  • ws (unverified)

    People here have raised issues of responsibility and accountability in regards to unprecisely known decisions and actions of the departed climbers. Responsibility and accountability are the key attributes to encourage within those of generations to come who will also want to explore our marvelous outdoors.

    In spite of significant climbing experience, the three climbers appear to have made some obvious mistakes; (no heavy jacket, no sleeping bag found with the recovered climber) that left them stranded very near the summit without sufficient ability to survive the cold weather. What reasonable excuse for that thinking can there be?

    It's not exactly realistic to charge people for rescues. You can charge them, but only rich people would be able to afford the expense. The consequences of such a practice would not be favorable to sustaining the accessability of the range of outdoor experiences that currently exists. Insurance would be a whole tangled web in itself.

    Taking greater steps to insure that outdoors enthusiasts develop much higher levels of responsibility and accountability could do much to avoid traumatic incidents like this most recent one on Mt. Hood. Had the climbers been obliged to check in with a live, experienced person before they embarked on their climb, the chances of their having expired the way they did would likely have been far reduced.

    Checking in with a live, experienced person, somebody prepared to study the planned route, determining that the gear meets certain established requirements for the intended experience, would seem to be a reasonably priced, prudent means of avoiding some of the more inevitable mishaps that could be anticipated as a result of not taking such precautions.

  • lin qiao (unverified)

    My understanding is that two of the three lost climbers were quite experienced. Evidently they collectively took the decision (and the associated risk) to travel light so as to make a quick ascent and quick descent in the short interval between two storms. Turned out to be a tragic choice, probably logical by their lights but risky. All we can say now is that is was a tragedy.

  • (Show?)

    I'm a bit surprised by the simplicity of the Mountain Rescue Association's dismissal of "charge back" laws. Couldn't the concerns they raise could be addressed by carefully crafted regulation, rather than just giving up on the idea altogether?

    How about if the law said something like this:

    Climbers who require rescue, but are unable to contact rescuers, will be charged for attempted rescue. If found alive, they will be given the option to refuse services, in which case they will not be charged. Climbers who successfully call for help before an effort is mounted will be exempt from charges.

    Such a system would provide the desired incentive for climbers to call for help as early as possible when they encounter trouble, but would also provide a vehicle for the state to recover money in some cases (like the Mount Hood tragedy.)

    Whether or not my suggestion is the best one, surely the concerns raised above aren't sufficient to despair of finding a reasonable way to pass some costs on to the climbers!

  • TomCat (unverified)

    In response to Iggy, perhaps part of what you said is relevant. Dead people should definitely not be fined.

  • mlwilde (unverified)

    Climbers on Denali have to buy a permit and insurance. If a rescue is required, the insurer pays. Sensible system, IMHO.

  • Bert Lowry (unverified)

    I find it troubling that this idea has even been proposed. Missing climbers isn't a societal problem of any real magnitude; it's an occasional personal tragedy. We're all wound up about it because of the week-long media circus.

    You can't prevent all risk-taking. Nor should you. Freedom to fail is an important part of the human experience.

    And you can't insist that each individual always bear his or her momentary cost to society. It's unenforceable and morally reprehensible. Here's a benign example:

    I was dumb enough to park my car on NW 20th and Lovejoy (where I lived) and left some CDs on the passenger seat. Someone punched the lock on my car and stole the CDs. That was very predictable; I should have known better.

    I had to pay to fix my car and replace the CDs. But, the city of Portland (taxpayers) had to pay to send an officer out to file a car prowl complaint.

    Should I have to pay the officers salary and benefits for that time? Should I have to pay for the support staff and office supplies? I should have known better than to tempt a passing thief with my CDs, right?

    Here's another example: I used to have a neighbor whose kids ate free breakfast and reduced price lunch at school. She didn't have a lot of money and her kids were hungry. How should we make sure she and her kids pay their societal burden?

    Should we charge her outright each month? Should we keep a running tab and demand monthly payments from her kids when they turn 18? Should we also make them pay for the bureaucracy required to track the costs?

    And what do we do if they default? Refuse to feed them until they're current on their payments?

    The upshot is, people will make mistakes, big and small. Sometimes people will get themselves into binds so bad they need help getting out. I don't believe the solution is to examine each situation after the fact and then issue new regulations to prevent anyone from ever doing the same thing again. It's a losing proposition and the cost is too high.

  • aaron (unverified)

    This service is an extra-ordinary response from the government; not like EMS, Fire or Police. Miwilde's post about insurance is a valid and correct way of doing this; how many of us have home owners with flood and earthquake insurance? The last two items protections from extreme and random events that give home-owners comfort knowledge that if those happen they have some extra protection.

  • Pat Malach (unverified)

    What did it cost anyway?

    Proabably a little less than Zach Randolph is paid for playing two hours of basketball.

    Probably quite a bit less than a 30-second Superbowl commercial selling soap.

    Probably less than what the Ducks spent on paint for the new "smellow" helmets. probably quite abit less than it cost to send the team to get clobbered in a bowl game.

    Somehow I think a society that makes those decisions can afford to try and save people's lives.

  • aaron (unverified)


    Those that went on the SAR team looking for these men where for the most part VOLUNTEERS; but what about the services from the government that where use are paid by all of us. If you don't have insurance and someone that hits you doesn't not have insurance--who pays for your medical bills and car repairs? YOU, one way or another; you pay for the accident.

    As well, this is a federal park/forest area; I think that climber should have insurance and something that tells the Forest Service that you, and/or all the members of your team; have the skills to do the climb at any given time.

  • nemo (unverified)

    I bet this would pay for a lifetimes worth of mountain rescues.

  • Mike Schryver (unverified)

    Wow. I couldn't disagree more with most of the posts on this.

    I'm opposed to needing a permit to travel anywhere, including up a mountain. And as far as the cost of the rescue, I imagine that it cost far more to bring all those media people to Mt. Hood, and no one's complaining about that.

    Sometimes these things are the price of living in a free, civil society, and I'd like to see us keep it that way.

  • Chuckster (unverified)

    Didn't the three climbers and their families pay a high enough penalty for this risky climb? Only some kind of sadist would want to fine the estates of these dead climbers.

  • Peter Noordijk (unverified)

    As for the government spending. Isn't that what these services exist for? Do we charge domestic abuse victims for picking the wrong spouses? even if the signs of abusiveness were there? Also I have a Marine friend who sent a bunch of helos from San diego to Arizona to train it cost million dollars just to fly them to do some simulated rescues and other drills. The silver lining to this tragedy is that the national guard crews who participated got real experiences doing real search and rescue for real people in real mountains. For a likely fraction of the cost of a simulation. This is experience that is directly relevent to their missions at war. Plus,we've already paid for these assets, why in heavan's name would we not use them?

  • Mountain Rescue Volunteer (unverified)

    As a Volunteer if would bother me if someone were to be billed for our services. I dont get paid and dont want to be. And if you have to ask why I do this for free. You just wouldent understand.

  • ws (unverified)

    I really understand, appreciate, and admire the rescue work offered by Portland Mountain Rescue and other volunteers. I think what people may tend to forget, is that the population is growing, and with it, numbers of people interested in having adventures such as climbing Mt.Hood, even under the kind of arduous conditions that claimed the lives of the most recent three on Mt.Hood.

    That would logically suggest the possibility, even the likelyhood of an increase in frequency of the kind of rescue called for in the event of a failed challenge, unless greater steps are taken to ensure that those who seek to make such a challenge at least meet some kind of basic reasonable standard of preparation for that challenge.

    Peaks like Mt.Fuji in Japan, because of Japan's population and other factors, have hordes of people trekking up its slopes. Of course Hood isn't that kind of climb, but it's draw is undoubtedly increasing. Having a situation that invites people to set out, virtually without telling anyone, or having to demonstrate to anyone with the capability of knowing, that gear and skills are up to the job at hand is future disasters waiting to happen. But, I guess I'm reapeating myself. Sorry.

  • dj (unverified)

    If we're going to have a real discussion about recovering the true costs of our lifestyle choices, beyond this unfortunate but fairly isolated example, let's start talking about a carbon tax, get real about the subsidies and externalities that pervade our economy and society and change our systems of accounting so that we begin to account for the true environmental and social costs of our choices in addition to the financial costs seem to have partially motivated this thread - because let's face it - we as a society will be (and already are) devoting extraordinary resources to rescuing ourselves, lots of species and the planet if we don't get serious quite soon about significantly reducing CO2 emissions.

    As for compensation, again, let's get real about the accounting - perhaps the estates of these climbers should be compensated for the value of the media frenzy generated by this terrrible event. No doubt that sum would pay for a few helicopters and a bit of Clackamas County overtime.

    Oh, and if you're into risk avoidance - don't use a power lawnmower, stay off of ladders and don't call for pizza delivery (one of the most dangerous occupations in the USA)- all far more dangerous and consumptive of public services responding to incidents than climbing or backcountry travel.

  • byard pidgeon (unverified)

    Seems to me the possible solutions are simple: either help "adventurers" to have an absolutely complete experience by letting them die during their adventures (after all, an adventure is pretty namby-pamby if you know you'll get rescued)...or, require all would-be adventurers to carry insurance to pay for the costs of their rescue or body recovery. Why should either be a problem?

  • (Show?)

    Oregon has the lowest taxes of any Western state. (I'm basing that on the tax reform package Sens. Deckert, Westlund, etc. have put together, I don't have the link handy.) Our schools are abysmally underfunded, we have all kinds of land use trouble ahead as a result of Measure 37, and people with treatable conditions are dying without adequate health care.

    I have sympathy for the climbers and their families. I cried real tears when reading about them in the paper, and watching an interview on TV.

    But this isn't about sympathy, it's about policy. Where do we allocate scarce resources? I'm simply not comfortable taking a "blank check" approach to people who have gotten themselves into trouble, while people with less ability to influence their own destiny are paying the price of inadequate funding every single day.

    What I find most disturbing about this thread is that nobody has been able to answer Zak J's question: What DID this cost? To me, that suggests the answer is hard to find. And that seems like a big problem.

    To take a strong position on either side, without being able to even roughly quantify the costs, strikes me as ridiculous.

  • Robert Huffman (unverified)

    All you folks saying adventurers need to carry insurance still have not answered my initial question: where do you draw the line?

    Do you need insurance to climb a difficult route on Mt. Hood in the winter? Or to climb any route at any time? Or to go on a multi-day hike around Mt. Hood? Or to go on a day hike to Ramona Falls? Or to go on a morning walk above Timberline Lodge on a nice sunny day?

    I imagine that every one of these activities has resulted in a search and rescue operation at one time or another. But the only time anyone gripes about the cost is when the folks being rescued are doing something "risky", where "risky" apparently means any activity they do not understand.

    Maybe we should make everyone carry SAR insurance if they plan on leaving their home any time for any purpose whatsoever.

  • (Show?)

    Robert, I appreciate what you're saying. But I don't think the fact that such determinations are difficult constitutes a reason not to take them on.

    I don't see much value in my digging into your question in a blog discussion. My answers wouldn't mean anything, and they'd be easy to pick apart. And wouldn't be good answers, because as I said above, I don't know the cost of this S&R operation, or what they usually run, or how many we typically have. Or have much expertise at balancing such concerns.

    But somebody should make them on our behalf, and be transparent about the process they use to do so, so that taxpayers and climbers alike can know what they're getting into ahead of time, instead of being forced to react to situations after the fact.

    Just because a decision is difficult doesn't mean it shouldn't be made.

  • (Show?)

    Another thought: as of the writing of Into Thin Air (late '90s), Nepal charged something like $60k to obtain a permit to climb Mt. Everest. Probably more now.

    I don't suggest that we adopt that model. But consider that while mountain climbing on the whole might cost the state of Oregon (not sure about that), it is a revenue generator for the country of Nepal.

    Is it so strange to ask that we seek out the middle ground, and try to make it revenue-neutral here?

  • ws (unverified)

    At least on general principle, I'm opposed to the idea of requiring insurance as a condition to embark on outdoor experiences in Oregon. There is a philosophical perspective in which they have been and should continue to be regarded. These experiences are almost purely optional and voluntary in that most people do them for recreation and not to make a living. Once you set out, you're on your own. That's the way it's been, that's the way it should be, because that's what freedom of the wild is all about.

    People that participate in such experiences do or should know that in the event of a mishap there is no guarantee of any certain kind of rescue. Requiring insurance would change all of that. Persons obliged to carry insurance would then logically be entitled to an expectation of a certain level of rescue effort. Lawsuits might ensue over disagreements about whether that level of rescue was adequately offered.

    Requiring insurance would give big business leverage over the accessibility of such experiences to the range of people to whom they are currently available. Not having it or being able to afford it would give some people pause to consider going on an experience that might be completely within their ability or level of preparedness.

    It's great that so many people are willing to rush to the emotional appeal of rescuing brave adventurers in danger, and we would be well to hope this continues to be the case on those unfortunate occasions that it's called for. From a compassionate and practical standpoint, it makes sense to implement some basic measures that might help mimimize those occasions.

    Do a better job of educating people for the outdoor experience they intend to embark on, and make greater efforts to have participants carefully scrutinized by knowledgeable personel, for preparedness to participate in that experience. This will go a long way to addressing the quandaries posed by easily preventable tragedies in the wild.

  • dj (unverified)

    Mountain climbing does not "cost" the state of Oregon. The outdoor recreation industry is a multi-billion (yes B) dollar revenue generator for this state providing thousands of jobs state wide. Go ahead and segment that market down to "mountain climbing" and the state still benefits tremendously in direct employment, tourism, revenues and indirectly as well. Suggesting that climbing somehow "costs" the state just ain't so.

    The notion that some third party should make decisions "on our behalf" about the merits or risks of a hike or climb is quite paternalistic and troubling. We don't require this for pilots, sailors, hunters, mushroom pickers, christmas tree gatherers, snowmobilers, commercial or recreational fishermen, or any other similar activity that involves outdoor travel or activity or risk. These activities all generate search and rescue efforts. Where is the hue and cry about the "revenue neutrality" of those incidents? If we want to promote revenue neutrality, there are much much bigger fish to fry than this one.

    This whole notion of pay to play/revenue neutrality reminds me of Don McIntire. Pay to play undermines the social contract. Gee, I don't have kids in the public schools. I shouldn't have to pay for those schools. I suppose we could make all public services function like a toll road, but we'd be a poorer and meaner society if we did.

  • Hawthorne (unverified)

    "How much did it cost?"

    How much time does it cost you to take a quick Google of the question before you put it out there? The Oregonian covered this questioned in depth. It's interesting that with all the other examples of waste and corruption around that a few people want to fixate on mountain climbing and the $5000/day cost for a rescue. When you consider the number of mountain rescuse vs. the number of other rescuses they are hardly a blip.

    What is this really about? I don't understand.

  • (Show?)

    Hawthorne, you ask "what is this about."

    For me, this is about a sense of surprise at how willing people are to make broad and emphatic generalizations, without having a basic dollars-and-cents understanding of the factors involved.

    I am not opposed to mountain rescue, or to the attempted rescue of these unfortunate climbers. I firmly believe that people in trouble should be helped. But my opinion really shouldn't matter much, because I'm no expert on S&R or its funding.

    Since you're apparently the expert (capable of claiming that mountain rescue vs. other rescue is hardly a blip) why don't you make a case for your claim? Educate us. I might be convinced by facts, numbers and logic, but not by a dismissive attitude.

  • stephanie (unverified)

    This is an old argument. I lived "up the mountain" decades ago, and we had no lack of adventurous men pitting themselves against our unforgiving mountain in the dead of winter. It's not the monetary expense but the risk to the rescuers that matters--the good people who put their own lives on the line while having no say in the victim's "logical" decisions. No one should be climbing Mount Hood in the winter. Period.

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