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COLUMN ONE : What If We Ignored the SOS? : High-risk sports have sparked a backlash among frustrated search teams. Park Service, others are considering charging fees or creating ‘no-rescue zones,’ in which athletes would be left on their own.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The forecast warned of a storm, but that did not deter the two climbers aiming to test Yosemite’s mightiest rock, El Capitan. Forecasts frequently err, they reasoned as they zipped on their Gore-Tex. Besides, the weather this May morning was enticingly mild.

They ascended a route called the Nose, climbing 2,000 feet before a cold rain drenched them and turned their down sleeping bags to mush. Clinging to the granite like spiders on a drain spout, the men became hypothermic, their limbs so chilled they could scarcely move. As dusk fell, their screams for help echoed down to the valley floor.

A helicopter landed a rescue team in the mist atop El Cap. Working in darkness, two rangers rappelled 800 feet down the sheer face and saved the pair, who later got a nasty surprise--a $500 ticket from the National Park Service.

These were seasoned mountaineers, rangers said with disgust. They should have known better than to tempt fate and put rescuers’ lives at risk.

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These are trying times in the rescue business. Hungry for thrills and fresh ways to test their mettle, Americans are flocking to high-risk sports as never before--parachuting off peaks, kayaking treacherous white water, diving solo into uncharted sea caves.

Most are cautious and do just fine. But others--hellbent on adventure and fortified by ego or the awesome feats they see in beer commercials--are ill-prepared or overambitious, or make bonehead moves that get them into jams. And some simply encounter bad luck.

Fortunately for those who get into trouble, today’s rescuers can save almost everyone who lives long enough to be found. Innovations ranging from super-trained search dogs to sophisticated radio distress beacons and the fax machine have propelled the art of rescue to impressive heights.

But the soaring costs of such missions--plus the risks that rescuers increasingly must take--have sparked a delicate debate over society’s implicit promise to rescue everyone who gets in a fix.

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“A lot of people are attempting a lot of things for which they have no physical capability, and they expect Big Brother to pick them up when they fail,” said Butch Farabee, a National Park Service superintendent who led a recent re-evaluation of his agency’s rescue policy. “Historically, we’ve done that. But . . . we’re nearing a point where we’ll tell some people that Big Brother won’t always come running when they call.”

The Park Service has announced an experimental program to bill athletes rescued while engaging in certain “high-risk” sports. One day, some park officials say, there may be a list of activities deemed so perilous that those who pursue them will not be entitled to any rescue effort.

Fining some adventurers for “creating a hazardous condition"--the Yosemite climbers, for instance--has become more common. The courts are beginning to hold some athletes accountable for their own safety, rejecting lawsuits that say rescuers were too slow or ill-prepared.

In one landmark case stemming from the death of a climber in the Grand Tetons, a federal appeals court said the National Park Service need not protect people from every possible backcountry hazard or launch a rescue at the first sign of trouble.

Many wilderness lovers applaud such trends and believe that a new rescue philosophy is overdue. Society, some argue, should not have to pay for plucking extreme athletes from danger of their own making.

They also say that our nation’s respond-no-matter-what rescue mentality gives people an improper sense of security in the wilderness and erodes the ethic of self-sufficiency that once marked the outdoor experience. A radical few are pushing for creation of “no-rescue zones,” where people would be on their own in the natural world--come hell or high water.

“We live in a society where people want to experience the benefits of high adventure but then force somebody else to pay the costs when things go wrong,” said Leo McAvoy, a University of Minnesota professor who favors no-rescue zones. “It’s time for some self-responsibility.”

This is not a concept those in the rescue business are comfortable discussing. Rescuers are a hardy, mostly humble lot. Saving lives is their mission, and talk of forcing victims to pay for help--or to save themselves--strikes some as cold-hearted, even barbaric.

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Moreover, many in the rescue family are adventurers themselves and admire the skill of the free climber who scampers up rock walls without ropes, or the blind sailor who tries to cross the Atlantic in a tiny boat. Such endeavors are good for the human spirit, they argue, and should be cheered.

There are also those who are self-described rescue junkies, who live for the next alarm. “It’s the adrenaline, the challenge and the feeling of doing something productive with my skills,” said Keith Lober, a Yosemite ranger who gives his age as 38 going on 14. “If I got paged every day, it wouldn’t bother me.”

However, an increasing number say they resent taking the risks necessary to rescue heedless thrill-seekers--or to fetch their bloodied bodies when they die. Deaths among rescuers are astonishingly rare, but injuries--and stress stemming from the job’s strenuous demands--are routine.

Clacamas County Sheriff’s Deputy Louis Serafin, a veteran rescuer on Oregon’s busy Mt. Hood, accepts such risks as inevitable. But he grumbles about the ballooning crowd of “dummies who get in trouble because they’re macho or out to impress friends.”

“There are a lot of times,” Serafin said, “when you’d like to say: ‘Gee, let’s forget this guy. He got himself in this jam.’ ”

Rescuers do not withhold help from such people, but they do have a code for missions that save the foolhardy--INS, short for Interfering with Natural Selection.

Perhaps the most infamous of recent controversial rescues is the case of the so-called Aspen Seven, who skied into the Colorado high country last February despite avalanche warnings and an approaching blizzard. The massive search that ensued included 12 snowmobiles, two Sno-Cats, two helicopters, two airplanes and a few dozen rescuers on skis--an exhaustive effort that took no lives but cost about $16,000, a painful dent in the Pitkin County sheriff’s meager rescue budget.

Almost before they could thaw their frostbitten toes, the victims were pilloried by locals. An editorial in the Aspen Daily News observed that “anyone with the brain capacity of arctic lichen” would have known better than to ski out in such dangerous weather.

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When the Aspen Seven began talking with Hollywood, things really got ugly.

“When seven yuppies head into the backcountry in the midst of the worst avalanche conditions in 100 years, it looks a lot like arrogance,” said Sheriff Bob Braudis. “It left a bad taste in a lot of mouths.”

Another notorious search was last year’s hunt for famed solo sailor Michael Plant, whose racing sloop capsized southwest of Ireland. Plant, 42, was never found, but it was not for lack of effort. Responding to the sailor’s distress signal, planes and boats scoured 200,000 square miles of ocean in one of the most extensive searches in U.S. Coast Guard history.

The cost--$1.3 million, excluding salaries and lost time--triggered a rash of complaints from taxpayers who called it extravagant. “I draw the line at the Mike Plants of the world who are always pushing the envelope,” one man griped in a letter to the New York Times.

Friends insisted that Plant would not have wanted such an elaborate rescue mounted on his behalf. “Single-handed sailors don’t go to sea with the expectation that there’s a big safety net,” said mariner Rodger Martin, who designed Plant’s boat. On the other hand, “do you ignore a plea for help and just let someone rot out there?”

The Coast Guard--which says it devotes about $440 million a year to rescues--responds that it cannot ignore distress calls. But senior commanders are trying to lighten their rescue burden by shifting some of it to commercial towing services and by prohibiting voyages they deem “manifestly unsafe.”

In one recent instance, a Massachusetts man who wanted to cross the Atlantic in a five-foot boat was blocked by the Coast Guard because his vessel was considered “unsuitable,” said Cmdr. Douglas Perkins. “The idea,” he said, “is to protect people from their own foolhardiness.”

Of all the agencies that answer an SOS, the National Park Service has probably gone the furthest in reassessing its role as rescuer. The subject jumped to the front burner in 1992, after a record number of people--11--died while climbing Mt. McKinley in Alaska’s Denali National Park. Officials also were motivated by a steady increase in rescues throughout the park system. From 1987 to 1991, the number rose 70%, topping 5,400.

Much of the growing burden is linked to the overall rise in park visitation. In fact, the typical victim is not the hang-glider pilot who crashes, but the hiker who wanders off the path and breaks his leg.

But it is the climbers and other extreme athletes, authorities say, whose rescues tend to be the most complex, hazardous and expensive, and there are more of these people pulling on parkas every day.

Innovations in equipment are pushing this trend. There are new gizmos such as the parapente--a hang glider that weighs as little as 13 pounds and can fold up and slip into your backpack.

Alan Ewert, a recreation expert with the U.S. Forest Service, calls the new gear “a double-edged sword,” arguing that it breeds overconfidence and allows “people with less and less experience to get deeper and deeper into the backcountry.”

Some rescuers, meanwhile, perceive a new attitude among athletes that can lead to trouble. J. D. Swed, the chief rescue ranger in Denali National Park, calls it “the summit mentality.”

In the past, he argues, testing one’s grit against the elements was a big part of the mountaineering experience. Now, “the goal is to get to the summit and go back and tell people you were standing on top of Mt. McKinley,” Swed said. In the rush for success, caution may not be a top priority.

The Park Service said it spent about $3 million on rescues last year, but the true price tag is much higher. Rangers involved in a rescue are diverted from other tasks--from campfire chats to wildlife protection. They also must complete many hours of training to stay prepared.

“In the old days, we’d just line up elbow to elbow and walk through the woods,” said Bill Pierce, president of the National Assn. for Search and Rescue. “It was pretty basic--grab a jacket and a few Band-Aids and off you go.”

Today’s tools include computers, infrared-equipped helicopters and a satellite system to detect distress beacons carried by sailors and pilots. There are rescue conventions, seminars and magazines.

As they evaluate each call for help, rescuers say they are careful not to take excessive risks. “If it’s too dangerous,” said Yosemite ranger Lober, “it’s hasta la vista baby.”

Still, every rescue carries an element of peril. Aside from facing physical danger, rescuers often suffer post-traumatic stress caused by work overload or an emotionally wrenching mission, said Yosemite Supt. Michael Finley.

“I’m not happy about putting our people in jeopardy time after time” to go after careless adventurers, he said. “Perhaps someday we’ll define certain activities as so inherently risky we won’t rescue those who choose to try them. It’s hard to make that case in a civilized society, but it’s something we should be thinking about.”

For now, the Park Service is testing another approach that is common in Europe--charging adventurers for rescues. Next year, at Mt. McKinley and Washington’s Mt. Rainier, climbers must buy insurance or pay into a fund to cover rescue costs. If the program works, the concept may be extended to certain parks and sports.

Some mountaineers agree that requiring them to bear some financial burden is reasonable. But some question whether it is fair to single out athletes on the cutting edge of sport. Is the rock climber who makes a mistake, they ask, more negligent than parents who allow their child to wander into the woods?

“Where do we draw the line, and who decides which type of behavior is risky?” wondered Charley Shimanski, executive director of the American Alpine Club, a mountaineering group. “Take the guy who smokes in bed and burns his house down. I call that high-risk behavior. Should we as taxpayers have to pay for that fire?”

While this debate bubbles on, a few wilderness lovers are lobbying for something quite different--the right to not be rescued. In their view, society has become too safe, a place so structured and well-guarded we no longer are free to experience nature on its own terms.

To offer relief, some advocate the creation of “no-rescue wilderness zones.” Government officials see them as a liability nightmare, but supporters say users would be forced to agree before entering that a rescue is not in the cards if things go awry.

“I don’t want to sound macho,” said Minnesota’s professor McAvoy, “but we should have opportunities left for people to experience self-reliance in the total sense of the word.”

Others call such a concept unrealistic, even unwise. Human nature, they note, propels us to help someone in trouble. Could we, in good conscience, ignore victims in need--even if they have marched into a no-rescue zone?

“Personally, I like the idea of no-rescue wilderness because it means you’re committed to taking care of yourself and not putting others at risk,” said Jed Williamson, president of the American Alpine Club. “But will society tolerate that? I don’t think so.”

Indeed, Williamson says we may be heading in the other direction, with parks demanding that visitors carry beacons or other devices to make them easier to find. On Mt. Hood, several recent victims have taken a step down that road, using cellular phones to dial 911.

“There may come a time when you could be saved no matter where you are,” Williamson said. If so, he added, there will be only one thing for the true seeker of self-reliance to do:

“Set off, and don’t tell anybody where you’re going.”


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