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 Oregon Mountaineering Association
131 NW 4th St. # 258; Corvallis OR 97330
oma@i-world.net
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Paying for rescues

An Editorial From " The New Zealand Press"
02 January 2004

Background - This followed an accident in which a guided party was caught in an avalanche in summer, killing four of the six climbers. Three of those who dies were professional guides.

Tragedy has again struck in the Southern Alps. As the nation celebrated the rescue of two trampers in Arthurs Pass, the grim news came of the Mount Tasman avalanche that claimed four lives. Once more we have evidence of the dangers in the Aoraki-Mount Cook National Park. And once more questions will be posed about how to prevent further fatalities in these iconic but often treacherous mountains, writes The Press in an editorial.

There can be no absolute guarantees of safety in alpine regions. Indeed, this is part of the challenge that attracts climbers and it is reinforced by Wednesday's accident. The avalanche came without warning on a day described as suitable for climbing. Three of the victims were professional guides, suggesting that the party was well equipped and climbing within its limits.

This is not always the case. On numerous occasions those rescued have under-estimated the mountains or are simply ill-prepared. Recently a party of Indonesians thought sand dunes an adequate preparation to tackle Mount Cook. A zest for adventure is admirable, but cannot excuse the stupidity that necessitates costly rescues.

Preventing the foolhardy endangering their lives and those of their rescuers is a tough challenge but one that must be tackled. The numbers wanting to test themselves against the mountains will be boosted by images of alpine grandeur in The Lord of the Rings films. It is timely that Conservation Minister Chris Carter has sought a report on how other nations deal with searches for the foolhardy.

Two possible solutions should be ruled out. A sole reliance on education as a deterrent has demonstrably failed. No amount of advice will sway an irresponsible minority from their ventures. Then there is ACT MP Stephen Franks' tough-love view that people must make their own choices, even if it lands them in strife. This could work, however, only if people realised that they might not be rescued – but leaving someone in the lurch is not the Kiwi way.

Powers to stop adventurers who do not have a minimum of experience or equipment – including a beacon locator – might be considered. This would be contrary to the principle of open access to national parks and might seem draconian, although it is no more coercive than demanding motorists wear safety belts. The real difficulty would be enforcement, given the size of our parks. It would be akin to trying to physically prevent boaties casting off without life jackets.

Another idea is to compel adventurers to pay a bond or carry insurance to defray the cost of a rescue. Perhaps this might work for organised expeditions, but this also would be difficult to enforce as a general policy. Besides, those who are ill-prepared, and more likely to require rescuing, would be the very people who did not adhere to such a policy.

A different type of financial sanction would be cost recovery when a reckless climber or tramper requires rescuing. This has not been the norm in New Zealand, although the hapless Indonesian climbers were asked to pay $2800 towards the cost of extricating them from Mount Cook. This approach has merit for the most inane adventurers, but carries the risk of dissuading others from summoning help when they require it.

Whatever means is used, curbing ill-considered outback ventures is essential, and not only to protect idiots from themselves. New Zealand cannot afford to gain an unwarranted international reputation, through avoidable rescues and fatalities, for being a dangerous destination. Tragedies, such as this week's avalanche, will occur, but the message to tourists must be that if they are well-prepared they will normally be perfectly safe.

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