The loss of a climbing party last winter raised a mountain of questions. Namely: What was all the fuss about?

Feb 12, 2007
Outside Magazine
climbing accidents

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THREE CLIMBERS FAILED to return from an ascent of Mount Hood last December, and after two weeks of nonstop news, we knew these things to be true: The mountaineers had been hit by a severe storm; they likely had died up there; and, aside from the media frenzy, there was simply nothing remarkable about the incident.

Before you dismiss me as a coldhearted jerk, and with apologies to the families and friends of the deceased, consider this: What occurred on Mount Hood was a routine mountaineering accident, yet it somehow generated almost 1,000 newspaper articles in December alone, and flooded network and cable news shows with a nearly continuous loop of interviews with tearful kin and stoic rescuers. It was a high-altitude Amber Alert, the facts and spirit of which were neatly summed up by the New York Post's screaming front-page headline: DEATH ON THE MOUNT. By comparison, the search for Sue Nott, one of America's most prominent mountaineers, and her climbing partner, Karen McNeill, of New Zealand, who disappeared on Alaska's Mount Foraker last May, went almost unnoticed by the national media. Google, the last word in what the world cares about, says interest in the Hood incident outpaced the one on Foraker by about 1,000 to one. Similarly, the search for Christine Boskoff and Charlie Fowler, two elite American climbers whose disappearance in China coincided with the search on Hood, faded behind the live updates from Oregon.

To be fair, the Mount Hood incident had a few things going for it. There was the pre-holiday news vacuum. And the nation was primed for tales of domestic wilderness disaster by the search for James Kim—a Californian who took a fatal wrong turn on a family road trip—which had ended in Oregon just days before officials received word that someone was stuck in a snow cave on Hood.

Admittedly, it was refreshing to see mountaineering displace Britney Spears's divorce proceedings in the national consciousness, at least for a few days. But as one week turned into two—and newscasters were forced to fill the air—cracks in the reporting started to show. "I was amazed at the coverage," says Christopher Van Tilburg, an Oregon physician who works on about ten search-and-rescue operations each year and was involved in those on Hood. "I was interviewed by CNN, CBS, local news. But they focused on things like the wind. It's always windy up high."

A few gaffes explaining an alpine accident to the sedentary set were understandable, but soon the sensationalism took over. Many news outlets began questioning the safety of mountaineering itself, as if it were right next to grizzly wrestling on the riskometer. (Here's some perspective: Oregon's Office of Emergency Management has to save mountaineers about as often as it does mushroom pickers—3.4 and 3 percent of rescues, respectively, in 2005. Let's give those chanterelle hunters some personal locator beacons!) ABC's Good Morning America ran a "how to survive in a snow cave" clip, as if the audience might need to build one on the way to the store. Then came the inevitable blowback: Why the heck were these guys climbing in winter? Why should taxpayers foot the bill for the rescue? Fox's Bill O'Reilly brought Outside executive editor Michael Roberts on his show, complained about how his tax dollars were being spent on "thrill seekers," and suggested that Oregon close down Mount Hood in winter.

Bill, you listening? There's a reason this country established the world's first national park, and it wasn't to jump-start the postcard business. Self-reliance in the wilderness is part of our national heritage. We don't need to close trails; we need to encourage more people to use them. As for cost, mountain rescue is a bargain compared with the $730 billion outdoor recreation pumps into the economy each year. And 90 percent of search-and-rescue personnel are volunteers who provide their own equipment and training. When military helicopters are called in, the operations usually double as training missions and are thus covered under existing budgets. Plus, charging victims, as some suggest, would just make people more hesitant to call for help, leading to costlier missions and more deaths.

Can climbing in winter be dangerous? Of course, just like driving can be (12 people died in traffic accidents in Oregon during the 12-day search on Hood). By all accounts, the three men—Kelly James, 48, and Brian Hall, 37, of Dallas, and Jerry Cooke, 36, of New York City—were competent mountaineers. "My concern is that people will think he was some yahoo from Texas who didn't know what he was doing," says James's friend Kevin Knight. "He's been climbing mountains for 25 years and climbed Denali, Rainier, and Aconcagua." Both James and Hall were preparing for Everest.

There was only one thing missing from the breathless coverage on Mount Hood: a real story. No firsthand accounts and—given the 24-hour news networks' appetite for anything, as long as it's happening right now—no chance for perspective. What happened can be summed up in a few short sentences: Three experienced climbers attempted to ascend Mount Hood by a difficult route in a difficult month. A ferocious storm prevented the team from descending and kept search-and-rescue teams at bay. All three men died. "It was just bad luck," says Van Tilburg.

Hidden within those spare details lies real drama, to be sure. But that tale, like so many others, died with the only ones who could tell it. So instead of three-dimensional characters and tough reporting and storytelling—the stuff of true mountaineering classics—all we got was alpine rubbernecking. I'd rather pass on by, without staring.

Oregon S&R in 2005
1. Motor Vehicles**
2. Hiking
3. Wandering***
4. Hunting
5. Boating
6. Suicide
7. Swimming
8. Fixed-wing Aircraft
9. Climbing
10. Mushroom Picking
Percent of Missions*

Out of 566 total*
Includes ATVs and snowmobiles**
Defined as "hiking without a fixed destination"***

Source: Oregon Office of Emergency Management

Filed To: Rock Climbing

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