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Q+A: Mountain Rescue Myths Debunked

In the wake of the recent tragedies and close calls on Oregon's Mount Hood, we examine the common misconceptions regarding mountain rescue in an interview with SAR veteran Steve Rollins.   Reported by Ryan Bradley and Mary Anne Potts
Photographs courtesy of Portland Mountain Rescue

Photo: Rescuer descending Hood


A rescuer begins his descent on Mount Hood's north face.

See incredible Mount Hood search photos >>


Photo: Steve RollinsLast December, storms slamming Oregon's Mount Hood squelched all hope for the safe return of three lost men: Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, Brian Hall, and Kelly James—all were experienced mountaineers. (See photos from the search on Hood)

As the national news media followed the 11-day search (read writer Tim Neville's 
feature article), a variety of questions surfaced: Why had the climbers even been allowed on the mountain, mid-winter, to begin with? Was jeopardizing the lives of search and rescue (SAR) workers worth it? And do taxpayers foot the bill when something goes wrong?

Steve Rollins, 31 (pictured at right), led teams for four days during Portland Mountain Rescue's efforts to find the three climbers. Adventure caught up with the 10-year SAR veteran, who debunked several myths about the process, and its costs.


Read writer Tim Neville's Mount Hood Coverage:

After the Storm: An analysis of the December 2006 Hood tragedy >>

Mount Hood Rescuers Battle to Find Climbers >>

Neville on National Public Radio >>


Previous Adventure Articles on Mount Hood:

The Hero of Mount Hood: Q+A with Rescuer Steve Rollins >>

The Slipping Point: Disaster on Mount Hood >>



Why don't climbers who get in trouble put rescuers lives in danger?
Rollins: People often say to me, "I don't care if those climbers want to throw their lives away, but why do they get to put the rescuers' lives at risk?"

The key thing to understand is that no one forces SAR team members to rescue climbers. Just as the climbers know and accept the risks of their climb, rescuers know and accept the risks of the rescue. We choose to do it; we accept responsibility for our own actions. For me, mountain rescue is as much a sport as mountaineering is. And it's rewarding to be able to help someone out.


What's the real impact on tax payers of SAR efforts?

Rollins: The bulk of the SAR work in the United States is conducted by volunteer rescue groups, usually supported through community donations. For an average rescue on Mount Hood, the primary cost to tax payers is funding the sheriff deputy's time and overtime pay. In Clackamas County, American Medical Response does not charge the county for their services while participating on a search and rescue mission. If military assets, such as helicopters, are used, the time in the field is considered training time for the pilots and crew. It's essentially the same as if these pilots were doing normal training—except that they're getting real-world experience and helping someone at the same time.


Do climbers ever avoid signaling for help for fear of having to pay for it?
Rollins: Yes, this is one of the primary concerns of the search and rescue community. By fearing fines or bills, we're concerned that people may delay requesting rescues, which, in turn, could put them in greater danger and create a more difficult situation for rescuers. We support educating climbers in safe practices as opposed to charging people for rescues.


Wouldn't it just be easier if mountains were closed to climbers when we know
bad weather is setting in?  
Rollins: Conditions on the mountain are very dynamic. Hazards vary with the time of day, aspects of slope, and elevation. Arguably the mountain is always dangerous at some location or another. Being able to manage a system of closing down the mountain would be difficult to enforce.
 
But I'm against this type of regulation on a more fundamental level. By relying on the authorities to close the mountain when conditions are too dangerous, we transfer the responsibility for assessing conditions away from the climber. In turn, we assign it to someone who does not have as much at stake for the decisions being made. I would rather have a climber assess the mountain itself and make an informed decision about their climb than rely on some sign indicating another person's interpretation of the conditions at a particular point in time.


How do you mentally cope when a search turns into a body recovery?

Rollins: My first body recovery was for a climber killed in an avalanche. Going into that rescue, I knew that it was very likely going to be a body recovery, since so much time (several hours) had passed since the person had been buried. Initially seeing the body—the body of a climber who died doing something I enjoyed—was somewhat surreal. I think I dealt with it at that moment by trying to be as professional as possible … just getting the job done and helping to evacuate the deceased. 
 
Once the mission was over, I had some time to reflect on the experience while I was sitting alone on the mountain. The death dominated my thoughts for a few days. As I did more body recoveries, the emotional impact lessened. Now, I'm not immune to having feelings about deaths in the mountains, but I'm probably more aware that death is part of life, and death is something that happens in the mountains.


Are there any other common misconceptions about SAR?

Rollins: Some people think rescue work is glamorous. We discourage these people from joining the rescue team. In reality, most rescue work is very hard, in difficult and relatively dangerous conditions. Sometimes you spend all day in the freezing rain, searching through the forest in an area you don't even feel is a likely area to find the lost person. You're wet, cold, somewhat hypothermic, and then you hear over the radio that the person is found miles away from you. By the time your team gets out of the field and back to the SAR base, the patient is long gone and the pizza is picked over and cold. You grab a slice of what's left, load up your gear, and go home.

If you join a rescue group because you're seeking external recognition or looking for someone to thank you, you're probably better off finding another activity that doesn't require so much time, effort, and personal commitment. After all, at the end of the day when you're wet and cold and driving home without ever meeting the person you worked so hard to help, the only thing you'll have is the knowledge that you did what you did to help a person in need.


Since the December 2006 tragedy on Mount Hood, Oregon legislators have called to pass House Bill 2509, which requires climbers and guides to carry "electronic signaling devices." Is this going to save lives?
Rollins: It's hard to say. Our rescue unit just became aware of this proposed legislation, and we're assessing its potential impact now. 

The first step in solving any problem is to understand what the problem is. For the mission in December, it's unlikely any electronic signaling devices would have saved these men. The main issue with reaching the summit snow cave was the extreme weather and high avalanche conditions–rescuers simply couldn't get to the cave, even if we knew exactly where it was. As for the other two lost men, we still don't know what happened to them. If they fell off the north face, which is the leading theory, then having an electronic signaling device would not have affected the outcome. 

If there were a problem that the sheriff or rescue community felt could be solved by legislation, you can bet that we would be jumping up and down asking for it. However, in this case, the silence is deafening. 

Oregon already has a law allowing the sheriff to fine someone if he or she needed a rescue as a result of being irresponsible. The law cites various actions that are deemed acting responsible (for example, carrying a cell phone). This law seems sufficient and allows the sheriff and SAR community the flexibility to consider rescues on a case-by-case basis. 

The rescue community hasn't even completed its own formal debriefing of the December 2006 incident. What's more, the fate of the two remaining climbers is still unknown. It's hard to believe that we're in a position to understand "the problem" at this stage of the game, so at best House Bill 2509 appears to me to be premature. 

I think the public has an expectation that we can make the world a safer place in which to live through laws and technology. The truth of the matter is that nature will always be bigger and more powerful than man. When people enter the backcountry, they need to appreciate that they're dealing with the laws of nature, which will always trump any legislation our lawmakers conceive.

See incredible Mount Hood search photos >>


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