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Fallacies of the mountain

Some of the ideas to cut the likelihood of another Mt. Hood tragedy are themselves problematic.

December 27, 2006|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

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

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

"You don't go up there in winter," said Bill O'Reilly on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor," crystallizing many people's view of the matter. "That's insane."

"I'm a big outdoors guy," said O'Reilly, berating an editor for Outside magazine who spoke about winter mountaineering on O'Reilly's Dec. 13 program. "But when I played hockey out on Long Island and the ice was thin, there was a guy standing there saying, 'You can't go on the ice. It's too thin.' "

O'Reilly's solution? "There should be a guy standing on Mt. Hood, Mt. McKinley and all these other places going, 'You can't go on the mountain now. It's too dangerous.' "

In the wake of the Oregon case, in which one man was found dead and the other two are missing and presumed dead, the case might seem obvious for regulations that could avert another tragedy.

But as it turns out, a lot of the ideas offered have been around for a while -- and some are vigorously opposed by those who perform the rescues.

Take the idea of deterring risky behavior by billing the lost for their rescue or, perhaps, making their families pay for recovery of their bodies.

At least five states, including Oregon and California, have so-called charge-for-rescue laws.

But the Mountain Rescue Assn., which represents about 100 volunteer groups in the U.S., Canada and Britain, strongly objects to the concept.

"It's just not a good idea at all," said Glenn Henderson, the association's California regional chairman.

"If people believe they are going to be charged, especially a big charge, they're going to be afraid to summon help," said Henderson, 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.

"We would always rather be called back on a mission," said Henderson, "than get there and find that we're too late."

One common-sense solution to the risks of mountain treks would seem to be carrying a device that allows one to summon help in an emergency.

Cellphones, satellite phones and emergency locator beacons can undoubtedly save lives.

But rescue officials worry that these solutions carry their own danger.

"The problem is, they can really give you a false sense of security," said Charley Shimanski, a former executive director of the American Alpine Club who is a volunteer with Colorado's Alpine Rescue Team.

Some rescue officials refer to this more bluntly as the "Triple-A-card problem" -- meaning that having a call-for-help plan in hand may make a person more likely to take risks.

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

Personal locator devices -- activated by the user in an emergency to send a distress call that can be tracked by satellite -- may 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.

Like so many other forms of high-tech gear, they are likely to get lighter and cheaper as time goes on.

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

When 48-year-old Kelly James of Dallas placed a cellphone call to his family Dec. 10 from a snow cave just below the 11,239-foot summit on Mt. Hood, he already may 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 James died of hypothermia shortly after placing the call.

It is not yet clear what happened to his fellow climbers, Brian Hall, 37, of Dallas and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, 36, of Brooklyn, N.Y.

But based on scattered climbing equipment found near the summit and photographs retrieved from James' camera, authorities believe there is virtually no chance the two are alive.

Hood River County Sheriff Joseph A. Wampler said they may have slipped or been swept off the mountain or buried in an avalanche.

The incident raises the questions 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 minimal gear and food -- cut the margin for error too close.

They set out in relatively clear conditions, but forecasts indicated a storm was on the way -- and by the time of their descent, they were in near-blizzard conditions.

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