Paying the bill for stupidity

Policy: Reckless hikers who need rescuing in New Hampshire's White Mountains could be charged up to $4,000 by the state.

February 25, 2000|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

PINKHAM NOTCH, N.H. -- They're putting a price tag on recklessness in the White Mountains.

Tired of rescuing hikers who have more bravado than brains, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department has decided it will bill reckless people who get into trouble and need help.

The policy, begun this season, might appear to fly in the face of the state's "Live Free or Die" motto. But volunteers who risk their lives to pluck the ill-prepared from vicious winter conditions say it's about time.

"A couple of years ago, I would have said, `People will be stupid, but we'll go out and get them and deal with it,' " says Rick Wilcox, a rescuer who can see the White Mountains from his mountaineering equipment store in North Conway. "But enough is enough."

State officials are reviewing a handful of cases to see if the hikers rescued this season were victims of bad luck or poor judgment. A lapse in judgment could cost a person up to $4,000.

"This is not about denying people access. This is not about making money. We're not going to get rich off this," says Col. Ron Alie, who, as head of the department's law enforcement division, coordinates efforts between his officers and the volunteers. "This is an effort to reduce the risk to our volunteers and keep the hiking community safe."

Money collected will go to the volunteer rescue organizations for new equipment, he says.

Getting the reckless to pay for their actions is a growing movement in this country and abroad. A number of jurisdictions in Western states are permitted to recover costs. And Monday, one of the oldest ski resorts in the French Alps filed suit against two U.S. snowboarders who authorities say triggered a small avalanche when they deliberately went off marked trails.

"If you've broken your leg, we're really glad to come out to get you and help you out," says Wilcox, an accomplished mountaineer who has climbed Mount Everest. "Nobody wants to punish people who run into bad luck."

Not everyone is buying into the new policy. Spirited debates have sprung up on hiking Web sites. "I would hope that when someone calls for help on a cell phone, the responding authority advises him/her of the range of services being offered and the cost for each. Perhaps a `wait until morning discount' could be tendered to the less fortunate of the unfortunate," wrote one hiker.

Since 1849, 126 people have been killed on New Hampshire's Mount Washington, known for some of the world's most unpredictable weather and used by alpinists as a tuneup for expeditions in the Himalayas. Rescuers put themselves at risk each time they set foot on its slopes. Albert Dow, a 29-year-old veteran rescuer, died in an avalanche in 1982 while trying to save two ice climbers who had been lost for four days.

Each winter, New Hampshire's newspapers chronicle a handful of harrowing search-and-rescue missions. "Heroic Effort Saves `Stupid' Hiker" was the headline in the Littleton Courier on an article in October about a 60-year-old Maine doctor who was saved near the summit of 6,288-foot Mount Washington seven hours after he called 911 on his cellular phone.

Battered by 90 mph winds and with temperatures in the mid-20s, Bernhoff Dahl was "minutes from death," Wilcox says. Conditions were so terrible that rescuers almost gave up for the night.

Dahl, a veteran hiker, admitted to rescuers that he had underestimated the conditions and had not recovered from knee surgery. When asked at the hospital what he was suffering from, Dahl replied, "Stupidity."

"He could have killed somebody," Wilcox complains. "If conditions are hellacious for you with your cell phone, they're hellacious for us, too. We don't have little S's on our shirts and capes to fly around and get you."

But Dahl's case is not considered the most extreme this hiking season. In January, three young men climbed 3,121-foot Mount Cardigan at night carrying beer and a cellular phone and had to be rescued when they could not find their way down. Two months earlier, a 26-year-old novice hiker from Massachusetts became stranded in blizzard conditions and had to be airlifted from the woods by an Army National Guard helicopter.

"He was as ill-prepared as it gets," Alie told local newspapers. "It's beyond common sense."

Rescue experts say a number of factors are responsible for the increase in risk-taking. Cellular phones and global positioning systems give the inexperienced a sense of security. Advertisements for high-tech advances such as Gore-Tex, fleece and windproof garments fuel that feeling. The emphasis on extreme sports tempts some people to push themselves too far.

Gene Daniell, who dissects hiking accidents for the Appalachian Mountain Club magazine Appalachia, has coined a name for some of these cases: YMIS, or young men's immortality syndrome.

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