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Jokers On The Mountain

When Politics & Mountain Rescues Collide

By Lloyd F. Athearn

The American Alpine News - January 1997

This article first appeared in Climbing Magazine 163, 1996.
Reprinted in the American Alpine News with permission.

Mountaineering in Oregon changed forever in 1986, when nine students and adult leaders from Oregon Episcopal School perished on Mount Hood during a spring storm. The week-long epic galvanized the public and was a major factor in forever removing the veil of obscurity that for decades had insulated climbers. Practically every climbing accident since, no matter how minor, has attracted reporters and camera crews like a summer barbecue attracts flies. All that was needed was one more major incident before policy-makers began imposing regulations on mountaineers.

Foreboding came over me as I read the paper one March morning last year. Three college students who'd attempted to climb Mount Hood over the weekend were lost. Search efforts were complicated by a late winter storm. "This is it," I thought. "This is the one that finally pushes their patience too far."

By Wednesday afternoon the climbers were found hiking safely down the mountain. From a climbing perspective they had done everything right. They were properly equipped, dug in when the weather got bad, and hiked out when they felt it was safe. Yet they were roundly criticized by the local media for failing to take a cellular phone or a mountain locator unit, an electronic signaling device that can be tracked by rescuers.

In the weeks following the incident, an avalanche of media attention focused on mountain rescues. Practically before the climbers changed out of their wet clothes, the editorial board of Portland's daily Oregonian called for a law requiring all climbers on Mount Hood to use mountain locator units. Then a photo of an Air Force rescue helicopter graced the paper's local section while the headline screamed, "Who gets bill to save hikers? Some say costly search and rescue operations should be paid by climbers rather than the taxpayer." Lost in all the ruckus was an accurate presentation of climbing rescues across the state.

To inject some reality into the debate, I wrote an opinion article on mountaineering rescues that the Oregonian published. The article cautioned policy-makers to look carefully at search and rescue facts before rushing to impose fines and regulations on climbers. Included were national statistics showing that climbing rescues, while highly visible, are quite infrequent relative to rescues of other outdoor user groups. I hoped the article would get the attention of key state legislators before anyone introduced mountain-rescue legislation.

Though I was looking for support for climbers, several lobbyists who read the article felt I was making excuses for people who exercised poor judgment. One, who worked in the House Democratic caucus office, said he thought the facts were compelling, but still saw no problem mandating the use of locator units or making climbers pay for rescues. Even my mother was immune to my arguments.

Sure enough, a few weeks later a bill was introduced in the state legislature. House Bill 3434 made a climber liable for search and rescue costs of up to $5000 if he or she did not carry a mountain locator unit, a cellular phone or a two-way radio. While I knew we, as climbers, faced an uphill battle to convince the public these policies were both unneeded and unfair, I was unprepared for the events that occurred next.

"This bill is about those jokers up on the mountain," announced Representative Bob Tiernan, the House General Government Committee chairman, at the first meeting. I winced. Greg Fritz, the vice president of Portland Mountain Rescue, turned to look at me with an expression somewhere between panic and bewilderment. I hadn't expected an overly sympathetic audience, but neither had I imagined that we would be getting insulted by the committee chair.

Fritz testified about the number of rescues performed by Portland Mountain Rescue (PMR), the relatively small number of rescues involving climbers, and the countless hours of volunteer time contributed by PMR members in rescuing hikers, hunters and other wilderness users.

I was given one minute to outline objections the Mazamas, a 3000-member climbing club in Portland, had about the bill.

Our testimony brought a slightly incoherent, but in any case stinging, response from Representative Bob Montgomery, the bill's sponsor. "I'm a little disappointed that these gentlemen who I've never met before do not support trying [to help] these local governments who don't have much money and are continually closing their jails to recoup some of their money from people who go up there and act like a bunch of fools."

A member of the committee claimed that locator devices were rejected by climbers because they weren't macho. "I mean, how can you go out and wrestle with the wilderness . . . and enjoy it if you're carrying something that is supposed to protect you?" said Representative Jerry Grisham facetiously.

What didn't seem to matter was that even in the county containing the most heavily climbed routes on Mount Hood-regarded by many as among the most climbed mountains in world- only four of the 50 search and rescue cases conducted in 1994 involved mountain climbers. Between 1990 and 1994, only six people died in climbing accidents on Oregon mountains.

The perception that climbing rescues are a financial drain to local governments also is wildly inaccurate. Volunteer organizations such as Portland Mountain Rescue provide the bulk of on-mountain staff at no cost, while helicopter evacuations provided by the Air Force's 304th Rescue Squadron are written off as training missions. As evidence, only one climbing rescue was included on the county's list of its 10 most expensive rescues in 1993, and it was ranked eighth. Meanwhile, far more frequent and costly rescues of hikers, hunters, skiers, swimmers and other outdoor users were not seen by legislators as deserving attention.

Mandating the use of mountain locator units, cellular phones and other technological devices also caused us concern. Both PMR and the Mazamas strongly recommend climbing Mount Hood with the locator units, and I know first-hand the value of cellular phones in mountain rescues. However, technology will never take the place of good judgment.

That day Greg Fritz and I staggered out of the hearing room, dazed. I wracked my brain for answers and came up empty. Gradually, it dawned on me what the problem was: perception.

In politics, it is often said that perception is reality. The years of media-induced drama surrounding mountain rescues had so blinded these legislators that they did not view the issue on its merits. Mountaineering was perceived to be so inherently unsafe that participants, by definition, were irresponsible. Therefore, the participants should be expected to shoulder the financial burden when things went wrong.

This committee hearing clearly was the darkest hour in the fight against HB 3434, but the next three months were also a tour through lobbyist hell as the bill careened through the legislative process, effortlessly bypassing numerous procedural and political roadblocks placed in its way. Just as it looked like we had killed the bill in committee, one of the members most sympathetic to climbers developed a more palatable compromise. The bill expanded user groups liable to pay rescue costs, developed a "reasonable care" standard to determine if rescue costs would be billed, and lowered the maximum fine to $500 per person. Toned down, the bill sailed out of committee, through the House and Senate, and was signed into law by the Governor.

It would be easy to dismiss HB 3434 as a knee-jerk response to one unfortunate mountain rescue incident in Oregon. Combine three overdue and seemingly ungrateful climbers, news organizations ill-informed on outdoor issues, and elected officials intent on making a political statement, and it is easy to see how such a situation developed. At a deeper level, however, the law represents the chasm that separates climbers from our less adventuresome friends and neighbors in the way we view risk. It is a chasm climbers throughout the country must recognize and seek to overcome or we will continue to bear the brunt of regulatory actions.

When assessing risks, people weigh a variety of factors. Is the risk voluntary or involuntary? Is the risk natural or manmade? Is the risk familiar or exotic? The more involuntary, unnatural or exotic the risk, the more we fear it. That is why most people are more afraid of an airplane flight than the drive to the airport, despite volumes of evidence showing driving to be exponentially more dangerous than flying. The same phenomenon holds true for climbing.

As climbers we come to know that mountains are very predictable. We learn that avalanche hazards are a factor of slope topography, snow deposition and temperature, and that mountain weather often follows observable patterns. We take courses and read books to understand and reduce the hazards we face. We spend time out in the mountains, become familiar with them, and do not perceive them to be foreign and inhospitable.

Certainly we are well aware of the risks. No other sport features obituaries of its participants so prominently in its periodicals. But most climbers know that proper skill, equipment and judgment can minimize the risk to such a degree that the possibility of injury or death is far outweighed by the joy and personal growth the sport generates.

Most Americans don't know this, however. They spend little time in the mountains, and consequently have no understanding of them.

The chasm of misunderstanding that separates climbers from the rest of society is wide, but not insurmountable. Through education and political action we can bridge the gap. Get involved. Join a local or national climbing club. Write an opinion article for your local newspaper about a current climbing-related topic in your area. Write to local, state or national elected officials about local climbing access or policy issues. Organize a clean-up effort at a local crag. The more you can do at an individual or group level to show that climbers are a positive force in your community, the harder it will be for policy-makers to treat us as jokers.

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