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Share rescue costs via user fees


Wednesday, June 5, 2002




The tragic spate of deaths and dramatic rescues on two Northwest peaks last week has spurred suggestions that those who need rescue in public parks pay a greater share of the cost. After fear for the people on board, the sight of a $10 million government helicopter tumbling down a mountainside could certainly be expected to generate such a conversation.


Concerns over such costs are understandable, especially when routine maintenance is lagging years behind in national parks and budget woes are forcing some states to consider closing some parks. Perhaps those who take the extraordinary risks involved in wilderness hiking, and certainly mountain climbing, should pick up a larger share of the parks' search and rescue expenses.


There's a logic there, but it goes only so far.


It would, for instance, be a decidedly bad idea to adopt a policy of directly billing climbers and hikers who need search and rescue services. The last thing any of the badly injured climbers from Mount Hood or Mount Rainier need is a bill, likely in the thousands of dollars, for services rendered. And do we send a bill to grieving family members of those who died?


An after-the-fact billing approach is not only callous, it could very well prove counter-productive. The desire to avoid paying expensive rescue costs might cause climbers and hikers to wait too long to call for help, risking greater danger -- and ultimately, higher rescue costs.


Another policy non-starter would be qualifications screening for potential hikers and climbers. While it's true that plenty of search and rescue operations each year help hikers and day trekkers who set out ill-prepared and ill-equipped for the conditions, even the most advanced and best-equipped mountain climbers get into trouble.


Another approach would be to privatize the expenses by requiring the purchase of "climbing insurance," like that available in Europe, which would allow reimbursement of the public costs by private insurance companies. That makes sense for climbers taking part in organized expeditions or climbs, but not for the thousands of hikers who clamber independently over the lower elevations.


It's far more reasonable to look at more efficient ways to socialize the cost of search and rescue. Taxation is, of course, the most fundamental way to share the cost of government services across society. A more attractive approach may be to apply the cost to the relevant segment of society by charging a fee to those who hike and climb, simply because they are more likely to need such services.


The current $15 fee to climb Mount Rainier, for instance, is incredibly low. The $150 fee at Denali in Alaska is not only 10 times as much but 10 times more logical. Fifteen dollars seems hardly enough to cover the cost of the paperwork, let alone a reasonable share of the cost of any search and rescue effort. Boosting wilderness backpacking and mountain climbing fees could raise additional funds and provide a subtle safety reminder to those using the parks.


It would be a mistake to eliminate the essential public service concept of search and rescue. There are obligations that government is best suited to handle, like law enforcement and firefighting. Search and rescue is another. At the bedrock of the search and rescue model in this country are the tens of thousands of volunteers who donate their time and expense -- and sometimes risk their lives -- to help people in trouble.


With taking risks on public property comes a public responsibility to pitch in to pay for the help you may need, even if you never need it.

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Somebody PLEASE accurately show the number of dollars spent looking for lost hikers vs. climbing rescues. The key word in the article is in the first line...."dramatic." Yeah, climbing rescues are dramatic and the press is always all over it like a cheap suit. Maybe a percentage of the revenue they generate from their high drama stories (including all sorts of bad information) should help pay.


Also, maybe they could fire all the Larry the Tools, eliminate enforcement of bullshit fees and put their salary towards the costs.


Aren't most rescues involving helicopters military based operations. I don't have much sympathy for them paying, given their HUGE budget that we pay for! Man, those guys are eager to go out on something like this. It's all training for them.


Realistically, high profile mountains like Rainier and Hood are umpteen times more likely to have an accident/rescue and so part of the permit fee could include insurance! I'd pay a higher fee as long as all the gapers did too. Eliminate the fee based on going above a certain altitude and make it inclusive of leaving the parking lot. Not that I'm for any fees like that, but it's the singling out of climbers I don't particularly care for.

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Rescuing recreationalists allows the military/coast guard/whoever to practice their skills and the money to do these rescues comes out of an already allocated training budget. Then when they have to fly some dude with a bullet in his stomach out of a glacier in Afghanistan they got practice with heli evacs from pulling 100 gapers out of Muir Huit after they got chronic smoke inhalation....

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Originally posted by Dru:

they got practice with heli evacs from pulling 100 gapers out of Muir Huit after they got chronic smoke inhalation....

Dru, are all Cunnucks as funny as you? That's hilarious!!! [laf]

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I was once rescued by helicopter. It was not military. They charged me $53. The crutches cost more [laf]


thanks again rescue guys, you were swell and said nice things.


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We have discussed Europe's method of paying rescue. Does any body know what Japan does? It is my understanding that more people die on Fuji than any other mountain...because more people (and more ill prepared gumbies) climb it than any other mountain.


I also heard that Hood has the second largest fatality count in the woirld. Is this true?


On another note; I got to ride up in one of those military helo's when a buddy broke his leg on the upper Coe glacier (Hood). I hiked out to get help. No cell phone. It was very cool and very impressive ( the pilot did a one skid landing on a steep ridge) and I'm very glad it was free...that is the way it should be.


Can you imagine if we charged for fire rescues out of burning buildings. There is really not much difference if the fire was caused by the rescued person falling asleep with a cig in their hand than there is if somebody in the mountains falls asleep when they should be self arresting.


[ 06-06-2002, 08:58 PM: Message edited by: Terminal Gravity ]

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a buddy of mine was telling me that the military helie's just fly around logging air miles when there aren't rescues to be had....they get really bored he said and they are stoked when they actually get to rescue someone and the actual differentiation between the training flights that they would already be flying and the rescues are not that different....granted though that a 10 mill. $$$ heli is a significant cost....but that is not exactly a regular occurence.....

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hey, didn't everyone scream @me a couple of days ago! that's what i was talking about. and watch this- next season hood will have a final mamagent plan. initially they wanted restrict te acess to 25 people per day- for all routes. on the top of that they wanted to set a quota for guided parties. and that number would be in the 25/day. and now a $150 fee for rainier?

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Yes if you require a rescue $150 on Denali and $15 on Rainier is cheap, but this is misleading and incorrect. In fact, the $150 fee the Park service has been charging climbers since 1996 went initially to a $1 million ranger station/visitors center in Talkeetna and then to clean up and ranger patrol expenses. Not directly to rescues. In fact climber rescues account for less than 20% of the overall costs of rescues in Denali Park. Fisherman and hikers top the list. But are they charged any "rescue insurance"? No. The fees paid by climbers are put into a fund that all rescued performed are funded from. Climbers seem to be singled out because of the "dangerous" nature and high-profile rescue procedures of the mountain environment.


On Rainier I have a different opinion. My $15, ( or $25 /year) goes to cleanup costs and ranger patrols, and has, to my knowledge, nothing to do with rescues. So I'll gladly pony up to have my shit hauled off from Muir and keep the mountain clean.


However, on mountains like Adams and St. Helens, the $15 climber fee goes to what? No use other than what is necessary in any other wild and scenic area that's patrolled by ranger personnel (and not charged a fee for). But the "climber fee" helps defray costs of the overall area.


I pay no fees on St. Helens and Adams, but on Rainier and Denali I do. Partly because I'm more likely to be busted, but also becasue there seems to be a use for my $$.

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I'm not sure that the $15 goes into anything othe r than the general fund. Anybody got info that disagrees with that? The climbing patrols are very worthwhile (except the next time a punk on the Muir Snowfeild yells at one of my group about stepping on the rocks, I'm sure that I'll have to clock him), and the cleanup essential, it's just that I don't think the fee goes directly there. I'm tired of the PS complaining about cut budgets, and then thrashing around for solutions and finding climber's fees to be a good, PC target.

When I payed my $150 on McKinley, I gave some thought to spray painting it red. Smoot wrote a great article, many years back, on the extremely low incidence of climber rescues versus "good old boy" rescues. It's stunning when you contemplate the unfairness of direct user fees to climbers, but not to day hikers, etc.

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I think we should charge everyone who owns a boat $150 every time they go out on the water. No, acctually I think we should make all boaters pay for their own rescues. Can you imagion if they started asking drunk boaters to pay the rescue costs of 150 foot coast guard cutter comming to their aid? Not to mention the rescue costs of slinging the crew off of a little boat in the open ocean with a Dolphin (coast guard chopper). I would be willing to bet rescues over open ocean are MUCH more expensive that mountain rescues. The rescue costs on Lake Washington on any given sunny weekend are probably just as high as the mount hood rescue (if you forget about the crashed Pavehawk).

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It may be interesting to note that this editorial was centerplace in the San Jose Mercury New Opinion section this weekend:


Risk and rescue


By Miguel Helft


TWELVE summers ago, I watched in horror as 43 people were swept to their deaths in an avalanche on the snowy flanks of a popular 23,000-foot mountain called Pik Lenin, in what is now Tajikistan. It turned out to be the worst accident in mountain climbing history.


The grim details of the tragedy haunted me for years and remain etched in my mind. But the accident did not stop me from climbing. In fact, that trip was the first in what would become a five-year career as a mountain guide that took me to high peaks in Nepal, Pakistan, Russia and the Andes.


You may think I'm a reckless nut. Likewise, many people think that those who were caught in the tragic accident on Mount Hood on May 30 were foolish or irresponsible. To the non-climbing world, these awful accidents reinforce a perception of climbers as risk-addicted thrill-seekers. And the sight of rescuers endangering their lives -- or a rescue going awry as it did on Mount Hood -- renews calls for charging climbers for the cost of rescues.


There is no question that climbing involves risk. That is why most climbers spend much of their time assessing, and seeking to avoid, risk. In fact, I have never been involved in an activity where virtually everyone is so single-mindedly focused on safety.


Before I ever set foot on a mountain, there were drills on how to set anchors, prevent hypothermia or dehydration. Later came lessons mitigating altitude sickness, assessing avalanche risk and administering first aid.


Countless other pursuits involve balancing risk and safety. Boaters, skiers and mountain bikers balance risk and adventure. Merely setting off on a hike in the wilderness can be risky. There's no precise way to compare the relative risk of these activities. Yet, the number of climbing-related deaths, while not insignificant, is not inordinate. During the 1990s, as the popularity of climbing soared, and tens of thousands of climbers throughout the United States took to the mountains every weekend, an average of 27 deaths were reported each year.


Perhaps because climbing takes place in an unfamiliar environment of cliffs and crevasses, glaciers and extreme weather, it is perceived as far more dangerous than it really is. Commercial gimmicks such as the X-Games and the well-publicized stunts of a few add to that image.


Still, why waste taxpayers money rescuing climbers indulging in their need for adventure? Because charging for rescues would have a string of unintended negative consequences. The most vocal opponents of rescue fees, it turns out, are not climbers, but rescuers.


Charging for rescues would lead stranded climbers to delay calls for help until the last possible minute, increasing the risk to climber and rescue crew alike, says Charley Shimansky, education director of the Mountain Rescue Association, a group representing 3,000 search-and-rescue volunteers.


An alternative, charging climbers as a group through user fees, is inherently unfair. ``The vast majority of rescues we perform are for a kid who walked off a camp site or mushroom pickers who got lost,'' says Shimansky, who is also executive director of the American Alpine Club.


According to 2001 data from the National Park Service, climbers accounted for about 5 percent of rescues, whereas boaters, swimmers and hikers combined accounted for some 70 percent. If one user group gets charged, others should be charged proportionally.


But even fees fairly distributed across user groups present problems. In a recent Wyoming case, the Park Service was sued for allegedly providing an inadequate rescue. The suit was thrown out when a federal judge ruled that the Park Service had no obligation to provide a rescue. Rescue fees would imply the duty to help, and a single jury award for a rescue seen as inadequate could end up costing taxpayers far more.


Finally, the perception that rescues impose huge costs on taxpayers is incorrect. Most ground crews are made up of volunteers. Military and National Guard helicopter pilots are required to perform a minimum number of search-and-rescue operations every year to stay current. If climbers didn't call for help, they would have to incur similar costs with mock rescues.


Some of the worst climbing accidents, such as the one on Mount Hood, happen when too many people, including many inexperienced climbers, converge on the same mountain. Ongoing education by the climbing community and park rangers, along with sensible limits on use, through permits, would go a lot further than rescue fees in saving taxpayer's money -- and lives.

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Ironically the PI ran this story 4 days before their BS editorial. I wonder if they even bothered to read it.


Saturday, June 1, 2002





This week's deaths on Mount Rainier and Mount Hood -- and the related

crash of a $10 million military helicopter -- have rekindled public

debate over whether mountain climbers should be better regulated and

held responsible for rescue costs.


Both are bad ideas, say park officials and climbers, and would neither

make climbing any safer nor rescue operations any more efficient.


"Because of all the media attention given to climbing accidents,

climbers are getting singled out unfairly on this," said Mark Gunlogson,

a vice president of Mountain Madness, a Seattle-based guiding firm.


Taxpayers may grumble, but the cost of rescuing the few climbers who run

into trouble every year is much lower than the cost of assisting many

more people engaging in other outdoor sports and activities, he said.


Mike Gauthier, lead climbing ranger and chief of rescue operations at

Mount Rainier National Park, agreed. Gauthier said climbers make up only

a fraction of the $3 million or so spent by the National Park Service

every year on search-and-rescue operations.


"Most of our costs at Rainier, for example, are for searches involving

hikers," he said.


Elaine Sevy, spokeswoman for the Park Service in Washington, D.C., said

that's true nationwide. The agency responded to 3,619 search or rescue

incidents last year and 1,270 of them involved hikers, Sevy said. Only

202 involved climbers. Swimmers required assistance in 780 incidents and

boaters called for help 495 times.


Even the category of "other," with 540 incidents, beat out climbers.


"More and more people are climbing, including a lot more people who

don't seem to know the risks," Gunlogson acknowledged. "So I'm actually

surprised there aren't more accidents with all the wacky stuff I see

going on."


Climbers are already singled out for the costs of rescue operations at

some of the bigger peaks, such as Rainier and Denali, he said. Climbers

pay $15 at Rainier and $150 at Denali to get their climbing permit,

Gunlogson said, while backpackers pay nothing.


"I don't know any climbers who have any problem with paying the fee," he

said. But if climbers are going to have to pay for their own rescues,

Gunlogson said, so should all the hikers and anyone else who might need

the assistance.


"In the Alps, they require you to buy climbing insurance for rescues,"

he said.


But all that seems to do, Gunlogson argued, is give people a false sense

of security, "which is why they have to do so many more rescues over

there every year."


Gauthier, who last year did a study on the issue at Denali for the Park

Service, said there are a number of reasons why it's best to keep

search-and-rescue operations in the realm of public service. Europe's

experience with the insurance approach, he said, indicates that making

payment for rescue explicit can actually encourage more risky behavior.


A less obvious effect of making people pay the costs of a rescue,

Gauthier said, is that it could alter the legal relationship between the

victim and the rescuers in a disturbing way.


"Right now, we have the discretion of deciding whether or not to conduct

a search-and-rescue operation and how to do it," he said. If a victim is

required to pay for this service, Gauthier said, some might challenge

certain decisions -- such as whether to send a helicopter or when to

send rescuers.


"A guy who gets frostbite and loses a foot might decide to sue us

because we waited two hours for the weather to clear," he said. "We

could end up paying more for lawyers by trying to charge people for the

costs of the operation."


Conversely, Sevy added, some in need of help might not call for

assistance because they are worried about the cost.


"We don't want people in danger to hesitate to call for help," she said.


Even though $3 million sounds like a lot, Sevy said it's "relatively

small" when considered in light of the Park Service's $2 billion annual



"It's about a penny per park visitor -- quite a bargain," Gauthier said.

He noted that the costs of using the military helicopters -- including

the costs of the crash at Mount Hood -- are all factored into the Army's

budget for training and not passed on to the parks.


The idea of regulating who gets to climb mountains is equally

unworkable, according to the experts.


"That will never happen," said Gunlogson. "These are public lands. The

idea that you would have to pass some test to get access to them is



Most park rangers already do a great job of educating climbers when they

apply for the permit, he said. Making it more bureaucratic will only put

climbers and rangers at odds with each other and add costs.


"If we were to screen people and base it on the statistics, we'd

probably only allow novices on the mountain," Gauthier said with a

laugh. "It's usually the intermediate to more advanced users that get in


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There was an interesting article in yesterday's paper here in Central, CA. Last week there were a couple of times that SAR was called for overdue hikers / backpackers and so the question came up about charging. The story was specifically about Tuolumne County SAR, but I am sure other counties work the same way. Seems the main cost is meals for the crews since they are all volunteers. The only time the cost goes high is if a helocopter is needed and the Forest Service has the final say there if the area is a designated wilderness. Any costs (meals or otherwise) are billed back to the county of residence of the person rescued. It is then up to that county to charge or not charge the individual. So far as the reporter could tell, no county charged the person. This seems like a pretty good way to do things since many SARs happen in less populated counties and therefore counties with less money to spend on such stuff. A Navy chopper crashed in the Emigrant Wilderness on a SAR and the Navy picked up that cost. No hue and cry then, so why for climbers?

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