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Fallacies of the mountain

Times Staff Writer

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.’ ”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Still, if snow and ice were to be considered a bar to climbing, then Mt. Hood -- as well as Washington’s Mt. Rainier and many other peaks in the Cascades -- might never be open for such recreation.

And though December might seem a treacherous time to climb, the biggest climbing disasters on these mountains have occurred in late spring or summer. On Mt. Hood, seven students and two teachers from the Oregon Episcopal School died in May 1986 when a fast-moving blizzard struck their climbing party. On Mt. Rainier, 11 people were killed in June 1981 when an avalanche buried their climbing party.

Disaster can strike even without a storm. Many climbers have plunged to their deaths in glacial crevasses on clear-sky days over the years.

In the span of two days in late May 2002, accidents killed three climbers on Mt. Rainier and three on Mt. Hood, and six other climbers were trapped in a crevasse on Mt. Hood.

Conditions were clear enough for a dramatic rescue -- but then one of the helicopters slammed into the mountain, a scene captured on live television and broadcast around the world. All six crew members survived; the six climbers were saved by other rescuers.

Despite a surge in activity in recent decades, mountaineering groups say that fewer climbers are getting hurt.

The American Alpine Club, a national organization for mountaineers and rock climbers, said last year that the average number of climbing accidents reported annually had declined from a peak of 168 in the 1980s to 159 in the 1990s and 139 so far this decade; and injuries fell from 146 to 128 to 117 in the respective decades. Average annual deaths peaked at 34 in the 1970s, then dropped to 29 in the ‘80s, 27 in the ‘90s, and 23 so far this decade.

The club also disputed the notion that the cost of rescue operations was exorbitant.

“Most climbing rescues are performed by highly skilled volunteer rescue units who do not charge, or by specialized park rangers whose costs are often subsidized by climbing use fees,” its report last year said, “making climbing rescues less of a drain on taxpayers than other recreational participants” including boaters and hunters.

The Mt. 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,” Shimanski said. 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 cellphones 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.verhovek@

latimes.com


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