New regulations might not be answer to climbing tragedies

Some ideas offered after Mount Hood case are opposed by rescue workers

December 28, 2006|By Sam Howe Verhovek | Sam Howe Verhovek,Los Angeles Times

SEATTLE -- As the search for three missing climbers on Oregon's highest peak unfolded on national television this month, many questions hung in the air.

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?

In the wake of the Oregon case, in which one climber was found dead and the others were missing and presumed dead, the case for regulations that could avert another tragedy might seem obvious. But as it turns out, a lot of the ideas offered have been around for awhile - and some are vigorously opposed by those who perform the rescue missions.

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 United States, 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."

One common-sense solution to the risks of mountain treks would seem to be a device that enables climbers and hikers to summon help. Cell phones, satellite phones and emergency locator beacons can undoubtedly save lives. But rescue officials worry that these solutions carry their own danger.

Some rescue officials refer to this more bluntly as the "triple-A card problem" - meaning that having a call-for-help plan in one's pocket might make one more likely to take risks.

Cell phones often don't work in remote areas, and batteries can be vulnerable to extreme temperatures.

Personal locator devices - which are activated by the user in an emergency, sending a distress call that can be tracked by satellite - could emerge as standard gear for climbers. Current models are about the size of a deck of cards and can be bought for a few hundred dollars or rented for a few dollars a day.

But even if the technology works perfectly, the reality is that in mountain disasters, it is sometimes impossible to deliver help even if rescuers know exactly where the problem is.

When 48-year-old Kelly James of Dallas placed a cell phone call to his family on Dec. 10 from a snow cave just below the 11,240-foot summit on Mount Hood, he might have been beyond saving.

On that day and for the next four, severe winds and the risk of an avalanche kept rescue teams and helicopter crews at least 2,500 feet below the summit. An autopsy concluded that James died of hypothermia shortly after placing the call.

It is not clear what happened to his fellow climbers, Brian Hall, 37, of Dallas, and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, 36, of Brooklyn, N.Y. Authorities say there is virtually no chance the two are alive.

The incident raises the question of whether the men should have been on the mountain at all. And whether their plan for a one-day "rapid ascent" - a strategy that places a premium on carrying a minimal amount of gear and food - cut the margin for error too close.

They were climbing in conditions that amounted to a blizzard. They set out in relatively clear conditions, but forecasts indicated that a storm was on the way.

While December seems like a treacherous time to climb, the biggest climbing disasters on these mountains have occurred in late spring or summer.

Despite the accidents, mountaineering groups say that climbing has gotten safer.

The American Alpine Club 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.

The Mount Hood tragedy was far from the typical rescue operation. Many are small and quickly resolved.

"The vast majority of people who get lost or hurt and need help are not mountain climbers," said Charley Shimanski, a former executive director of the American Alpine Club. They are hikers, people out for a long day trek or perhaps an overnight camping trip.

"So really, if you're talking about requiring people to carry cell phones or personal locator beacons, then you really shouldn't be talking just about the thousands of climbers on big peaks," he said. "You should be talking about the hundreds of thousands of people who go hiking."

Sam Howe Verhovek writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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