An Ohio man needed rescue on Mount Washington, and he may get billed for it. But should he?

Mount Washington, N.H. (Wikipedia/Danielc192 photo)

If there is one seemingly unsolvable quandary in the outdoors, it’s whether people who are rescued should be billed by their rescuers.

There are a lot of threads to this narrative. First, search and rescue costs can be expensive – even with volunteers doing most of the work, it costs money to reach remote locations and sometimes fly helicopters to find and extricate distressed hikers and climbers. Many of these rescues happen in rural counties that are strapped for cash as it is. In some cases, they’ll get help from military units (flight time for helicopter rescues goes down as training for the crews involved), but a lot of times you’re also involving county personnel like sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and EMTs who get paid to be out there. Someone must foot the bill at some point.

Federal workers get wrapped up in it, too. As do their resources. They often work alongside state and county rescuers, mostly because the bulk of these rescues are taking place on public lands, and most of those are federally owned.

Some search and rescue efforts that stretch into days, involving air and ground crews, can run up a serious tab.

Another subplot: Those in need of rescue are often at fault for their own predicament. That sounds harsh, but usually it’s true. Dehydrated hikers in the Grand Canyon often underestimate the heat and don’t bring enough water. Alpine hikers and climbers misjudge the terrain, the weather and sometimes their own capabilities in environments that are inherently challenging. Gear junkies sometimes place too much trust in electronic devices that fail when signals are lost, or batteries go dead. Those with emergency locator beacons are, at times, bolder than they’d normally be, either taking greater chances or, in some cases, activating their locators when they are simply tired of the effort.

Given the greater numbers of people who are heading into the backcountry, the costs of rescues are piling up.

This has pushed some states to enact policies that would make rescued parties liable for the costs of their salvation. New Hampshire is one of those states, and a recent story by The Associated Press highlighted one such instance where an overwhelmed hiker might end up getting billed for the trouble.

The hiker, 80-year-old James Clark, was ascending Mount Washington with two of his grandsons when he told them to go on to the summit without him. The younger men did so, then took a different route down, the AP reported. Clark didn’t meet them back at the trailhead, and that’s when search and rescue was called.

“Clark was found Friday immobile in the fetal position with signs of hypothermia hours after telling his two grandsons to go on without him. Clark was treated at a hospital for non-life-threatening injuries and released Saturday,” the AP reported.

Mount Washington and the surrounding peaks can be tricky. Already, two other people died in the area within a week of Clark’s rescue. The mountain is known for having some of the worst weather on the planet. Rescuers said Clark wasn’t dressed for the potential weather extremes seen on the peak, which can be summery and warm at the base and full-on winter conditions on the summit, often with little warning.

That alleged lack of preparation is what might end up being the reason Clark gets socked with the tab.

I’ve got mixed feeling about this. Part of me thinks people should be held accountable for the bad decisions they make. Plenty of information exists, available at your fingertips, that can guide your preparations for the outdoors. Choosing not to be informed is just that: a choice. And in most areas of life, bad choices have consequences. Maybe some of those consequences should hit folks in the wallet. Perhaps a financial incentive would make people more self-reliant, more prepared, and safer.

But my thinking gets turned around when human nature comes into play. It goes something like this:

A hiker gets lost. Or injured. Or something else happens that makes that person think, “I’m in some trouble here.” But before activating that beacon or pulling out the phone for a 911 call, the hiker pauses.

This is gonna cost me. A lot. Maybe I can tough it out.

And then the hiker gets deeper in trouble, maybe irrecoverably.

That’s the fear I’ve heard expressed on forums by people who are part of the search and rescue community. They worry that folks will choose saving money over their own lives when they get in trouble, and that leads to more search and recovery missions instead of search and rescue. Crews will still take risks in recovery missions; they differ in that the ending of a recovery mission is always a mournful one.

As I’ve thought about this, the prospect of saving lives outweighs the irritation I feel about people being dumb. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want people pushing the button on their SPOT device because their feet are tired. I want people to be responsible. But I don’t want people dying in the bush because they were afraid of a five-figure bill coming in the mail.

Will New Hampshire authorities charge Mr. Clark for his rescue? It sounds like they might. But should they? I’d hate to think they’ll be pulling more bodies off Mount Washington because financial considerations won out when a call for help should have been made.

Bob Doucette

Let’s take a deep breath about that rescue on Longs Peak

Longs Peak, Colo., and it's sheer east face. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Longs Peak, Colo., and it’s sheer east face. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

With the summer hiking season getting ready to launch within days, we’ve already been given a reminder of how unforgiving the mountains can be.

On Tuesday, authorities in northern Colorado got word that a hiker had gotten himself stranded on a ledge on Longs Peak’s sheer east face. The hiker, a 19-year-old Canadian named Samuel Frappier, was climbing the peak with a friend when he got separated on the descent. Described as fit but not very experienced, he found himself stuck on a series of ledges called Broadway on the mountain’s east side.

Fortunately, his cellphone had service and battery power and he was able to call for help. A day later, with help from a sizable and very capable rescue team, he was airlifted safely off the mountain. You can read a full story about it here.

As you can imagine, reaction to this story has been the typical mix of the following:

“Thank goodness he made it alive. He’s so lucky!”

“What an idiot. Only fools climb mountains.”

“Please tell me my tax dollars weren’t wasted on this. Send him the bill.”

And so forth. There has also been a lot of speculating about the route he and his buddy chose, the gear — or lack thereof — they had and so on.

So here are some thoughts on this…

Longs Peak is a popular mountain to hike and climb, but it’s not for “beginners.” In terms of Colorado mountains, it is big, complicated and challenging. Though one of the most visited mountains in the state, it’s easiest route is Class 3 and is exposed. Harder routes abound, and the area where Frappier got stranded is on the mountain’s most difficult terrain. Broadway is a ledge on an otherwise vertical face, and the dropoffs are dramatic. It would be easy to see how someone could get cliffed out there, unable to go anywhere without significant climbing gear and experience. The mountain is even more challenging in snowy conditions, which are currently present. So, in short, just because a lot of people hike and climb Longs does not mean it’s an easy endeavor. Act and plan accordingly.

The snowy, exposed and dangerous terrain where this week's rescue took place. (NPS photo)

The snowy, exposed and dangerous terrain where this week’s rescue took place. (NPS photo)

That said, people who climb Longs, or hike and climb other mountains, are not idiots on a march toward their own personal death wish. We’re just folks who like to get outside, challenge ourselves, and eventually reward ourselves with awesome views and incredible experiences that the high country offers. Plenty of people have used hiking and climbing as a way to get fit, and many of us learn a lot about goal setting, meeting challenges, conquering fears and more from the mountains we climb. And here’s the kicker — the vast majority of us are careful, well-prepared, and adequately equipped. We know how to watch the weather. We listen to our bodies. We know when to turn around. And even though we enjoy pushing our limits, we know when to back off. That’s why almost all of us return from our mountain adventures alive and in one piece. You don’t hear about us, because our day hikes up Mount Biesrstadt or climbs up much more serious peaks don’t end up on the news. Why? Because we got home safe and happy, without need of Search and Rescue, expenditure of your precious tax dollars or your condescension.

And let’s put away all that talk about billing people for rescues. Yes, they’re expensive. Rescuers put their lives at risk. And some people get too much false confidence in their gadgets when they go outside. We’ve grown up in an age where we expect someone will help us when we get in danger. But the last thing I want someone in Frappier’s situation is to be thinking, just before dialing for help, is, “Can I afford to be rescued?” A life saved is worth every dime, especially to that person’s loved ones. I think most SAR types would agree.

It should be noted that even the “easy” mountains can be quite dangerous. Bad weather on a walk-up route like Quandary Peak’s east ridge can zap you just as easily as it could on more challenging terrain like what’s seen on Longs Peak. Personal health issues can surface in a bad way when you’re topping 13,000 feet. Rockfall and avalanches happen on all of these mountains. The peaks aren’t Disneyland, so  proper consideration of these factors should be given before venturing out on their slopes. Showing up in jeans, a T-shirt and the kicks you bought at Foot Locker is the opposite of that. If you’re new to this sort of thing, do your homework and ask questions of those who have been there and done that.

The cellphone can save your life, but remember that rescue could be several hours away. Mr. Frappier may have been unwise, but having that phone, swallowing his pride and calling for help was an expert move. Same deal for a couple of New England women who got in over their heads on the same mountain last fall during Colorado’s epic deluge. But the scale of these mountains, and the difficulty of getting anywhere quickly, is something to keep in mind. Even with helicopters and more than two dozen people assisting in the rescue, it took a day to get Frappier off the mountain. Now imagine you’re in an area with no cellphone service, and you’re 200 or more miles away from a major city. That’s the sort of scenario you need to be thinking of, especially if your adventure takes you into, say, the San Juans of Colorado, or the Wind River Range in Wyoming. Educating and training yourself for maximum self-sufficiency can be the thing that prepares you for self-rescue, or at least buying time so you can be found.

There is so much more that can be said on these topics, but I’ll include this helpful link for high country safety instead.

For now, I’d leave you with this: Let’s be thankful this young man made it off the mountain in one piece, and that he learned some lessons. Let’s not forget that we all have likely made similar mistakes, just maybe not as severe and definitely not as publicized. And let’s be careful out there, enjoy ourselves, and keep spreading the word that the outdoors is awesome.

Bob Doucette 

Video: Incredible helicopter rescue on North Maroon Peak

This is pretty amazing footage of a helicopter rescue on North Maroon Peak of a guy who had fallen. I think the man suffered injuries that  allowed him to climb onto the helicopter under his own power, but were still serious enough to merit evacuation.

Regardless, this is some incredible flying skill demonstrated here just below 14,000 feet. Watch and be amazed.