Who should save you in the mountains?

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Last weekend, three climbers went up and attempted a climb of Mt. Hood in Oregon. Luke Gullberg was found dead from a combination of hypothermia and minor injuries sustained in a fall. His companions, Anthony Vietti and Katie Nolan, were nowhere to be found, and an exhaustive search was undertaken.

Predictably, as the search for the missing climbers intensified and helicopters were drawn in to help, hand-wringing and moaning about the costs of the rescue and who was going to pay for it escalated.

Newsweek published an inflammatory article titled A Mountain of Bills: Who should have to pay to rescue stranded climbers? The article points out that 130 people have died on Mount Hood since 1896, though it neglects to mention that 10,000 people attempt the peak each year and that most of the search and rescues conducted in the area are not for climbers.

Even worse than the article was the 13 pages of comments attached to it, most of which seemed to reflect the "I've got mine; fuck the rest of you" attitude that has defined our national health care debate. The general feeling was that the climbers had taken it on themselves by doing something risky, so they should pay for any costs associated with their rescue.

In Colorado, rescues are paid for by the Colorado Outdoor Search and Rescue Fund, which is funded by hunting and fishing licenses. You can also purchase a COSAR card for $3 per year to contribute to the fund. The fund covers the costs of airplane and helicopter searches, though it does not cover medical transport by helicopter.

Many armchair critics have proposed that climbers and other "thrill-seekers" like backcountry skiers be required to post a rescue bond, neglecting to realize that we thrill-seekers already pay our taxes.

I do have rescue insurance, which is provided to me through my lifetime membership in the American Alpine Club, located in Golden. However, requiring rescue insurance for climbers seems to be a step toward mandatory rescues. If I'm not rescued in a timely manner and I've posted a bond, do I then get to sue for negligence?

Many SAR people are opposed to the idea of charging for rescues. Most do it on a volunteer basis, such as Evergreen-based Alpine Rescue Team. The National Association for Search and Rescue released a position statement in April 2009 which recognized that fear of being charged for rescue could lead to costly delays and loss of life. It goes on:

"Delays can place SAR personnel in extreme danger and unnecessarily compound and extend the length of the SAR mission. Because of these factors, and to eliminate the fear of being unable to pay for having one's life saved, SAR services should be rendered to persons in danger or distress without subsequent costrecovery from the person(s) assisted unless prior arrangements have been made."

The position of the Colorado Search and Rescue Board is also quite explicit, stating that volunteer organizations should not collect funds for rescue, and further:

"Volunteer search and rescue organizations will actively oppose and disassociate themselves from any effort to enforce collection of expenses from a victim or his family, and from any effort to obtain statutory or other legal authority to do so."

Climber rescues are often high-profile, and easy targets because most people narrowly look at climbing through a cost-benefit analysis defined by their lack of understanding of the rewards climbing offers. Climbing rescues make up a small percentage of the rescues that happen every year in places like our National Parks, which spent $5 million last year on rescues, most of which involve boating and hunting accidents or lost hikers. Rarely are these sorts of diatribes posted when SAR needs to rescue a lost five-year old.

As for the helicopters, they are usually paid for through the military training budget.

Charging for rescues opens up a Pandora's box of issues that are best avoided.

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