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 Oregon Mountaineering Association
131 NW 4th St. # 258; Corvallis OR 97330
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Don't put a price on rescue

Editorial of the Oregonian - 06/09/02

When the costs of mountain rescues grow steep, when you see a helicopter tumble down Mount Hood, it's tempting to snap off the TV news and conclude: Send the bill to the climbers.

Why, after all, should they get the thrill of climbing, and the rest of us get the bill for saving them?

It's nearly always mountaineering accidents that start these arguments. Never mind that climbers are responsible for a tiny share of search and rescue costs -- 3.6 percent of all National Park Service rescue costs in the year 2000. Never mind that much more is spent every year rescuing hikers, boaters, hunters, and even swimmers. Mountain rescues are spectacular, they're usually televised, and most of the people watching at home couldn't imagine themselves lying in a tangle of ropes in a crevasse at 10,000 feet. It's easy to conclude: Bill'em.

It's not that simple. All over the world, governments, rescue organizations and climbing groups have struggled with ways to allocate search and rescue costs. In the Alps, Swiss authorities require mountaineers to buy climbing insurance for rescues. The insurance, however, has led to a false sense of security -- the number and severity of accidents and rescues in the Alps has greatly increased. Making payment for rescue explicit has actually encouraged more risky behavior.

Many American climbers already carry limited rescue insurance. Members of the American Alpine Club, the nation's largest organization, and the Portland-based Mazamas have group policies that provide rescue insurance up to several thousand dollars per climber. That won't pay for the $9.3 million Pave Hawk HH-60 helicopter, but it's often enough to cover the costs of the mostly volunteer groups that do most mountain rescues.

Search and rescue experts almost uniformly oppose charging for their services, even in cases of negligence and stupidity. They believe charging could delay requests for help, leading to worsening injuries, weather or other conditions, and ultimately to more difficult, dangerous rescues.

Rescue insurance also can create a "duty to rescue," posing more risks for rescuers. If climbers pre-pay for rescue, they expect it on demand -- even when the weather is bad, or nightfall close.

Oregon's search and rescue authorities have rarely used a law that allows them to charge up to $500 to rescue people who get in trouble due to negligence. The U.S. Coast Guard never charges anyone, not even the two millionaires who crashed their hot air balloon attempting to circumnavigate the globe. That left taxpayers with a $175,000 bill.

It's hard often to tally up rescue costs. The Air Force Reserve and the Oregon National Guard rescue units that deployed helicopters on Mount Hood are military units that must train constantly for various rescue scenarios -- including mountain rescues -- so they are prepared to rescue downed military aircraft and damaged ships. Their costs are billed to a training budget whether time is spent in training or on real-life rescues. All taxpayers, not just climbers, have a stake in their training.

Nearly everyone at Mount Hood during the recent rescue was working as a volunteer. Portland Mountain Rescue, which led the recovery, had 18 volunteer members on site. They paid for their own gas, mileage and time off from work. American Medical Response, an ambulance company, had 11 volunteers with its Reach and Treat Team, which it operates as a community service.

We're open to creative ideas about spreading the burden of rescue costs. But once you begin charging fees or requiring rescue insurance, where would you stop? Should every fisherman on the Columbia River, or every other port in Oregon, have to show proof of rescue insurance before leaving the dock? Should every overdue hiker or cross-country skier who prompts a search get a bill in the mail? Every snowmobiler? Every hunter?

It's better to leave well enough alone. No one yet has come up with a better system than what the Pacific Northwest already has: committed, well-trained volunteer rescuers backed by military pararescue teams that get valuable training out of every rescue.

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