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Rescue's rewards

As the Mt. Hood effort shows, people feel the need to help others in peril, even when it's dangerous.

December 23, 2006

THE TRAGEDY OF the Mt. Hood climbing expedition entails two irresistible calls of the wild. One is rare. The other is, fortunately for all of us, pretty common.

The three men who scaled the Oregon mountain felt an urge shared by a small number of outdoors lovers: a pull to pit themselves and their fitness, willpower and logistical savvy against harsh natural elements. Mountain climbing, especially when it involves winter's treacheries, is perhaps the original extreme sport, its sizable risks offset for enthusiasts by that moment when they're literally on top of the mountain.

This time, events -- which look like a combination of injury and unexpected weather -- gave the risks the upper hand. These were experienced mountaineers who may have miscalculated but who certainly understood the dangers and had decided those were worth the challenge and thrill of the climb. It might seem pointless to people who prefer the security of two feet planted on what at least seems to be solid ground (how foolhardy are we to live in earthquake country?), but we all make our own meaning of life.

Calamities like this inevitably lead people to say: Fine, but what about the risk (and expense) of sending search teams up the mountain? Isn't the climbers' sad ending their own responsibility?

Of course it is. Neither the three adventurers nor their families said anything different. At one point, the families asked for a halt in the search because of the risk to the rescuers.

But this brings up the second sort of urge. These situations invariably draw rescuers, paid and volunteer. Look at the number of unpaid ski and mountain patrols and canine search teams, on top of military and other government efforts. No matter what risks the other guy took, no matter how foolish it may look to us or whose responsibility it was, many of us have an innate problem with letting nature best us when it comes to aiding another human. A surprisingly large number of people appear unable to resist the urge to help others, even at risk to themselves.

Maybe that urge doesn't make sense, either, but it still represents the better part of ourselves.

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