Q&A with author Hal Clifford

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Mountain rescue: life and death on a rescue team

Q&A with author Hal Clifford

Do young rescuers get too enthusastic?
Are team members all volunteers?
How can I get involved?
A team member responds to the book
Aspen's only one of many excellent rescue teams
I want to climb--where can I learn how?
What are the qualifications for volunteering on a rescue team?
Did I really say that?
Is this book just for mountain rescue volunteers?
How dangerous is rescue work? How did you get involved in it?
How can I get rescue training?
What about the fatal Mt. Rainier rescue this summer?
Should people pay for their own rescues?

Should people pay for their own rescues?
Do you think that the skiers who were "lost" in 1992 should have paid for the rescue? What do you think of imposing a tax or fee for skiers, mountain climbers, etc., who take the risk of backcountry outings? (I'm not trying to be harsh, but it may make people think twice about what they're getting into.)
Cecilia Stewart
Miami, FL
[email protected]

Hal responds: You've managed to go straight to the heart of one of the biggest debates in the rescue community.

I don't think the 1992 skiers of "Miracle in the Mountains" fame should have been charged, for a couple of reasons. People who do rescues are in the business of picking up after others' mistakes--if you don't want to do that, you shouldn't be there. Given that, rescuers would rather pick up after small messes than big ones. Every Mountain Rescue volunteer I've talked to would rather have you call for help when you have a little problem, before it becomes a big problem. And if you think you're going to be billed, you may let little problems become big.

For comparison, look at the ski patrol system in French ski areas. Rescue on the ski slopes there costs money--a couple hundred bucks for a sled ride to the bottom, maybe thousands for a helicopter evac. Many people buy a form of insurance to cover this. But many don't. French ski patrollers handle about one evacuation for every 14,000 skier days. In the U.S., by comparison, where ski patrol services are included in the price of the lift ticket, ski patrollers do an evac for every 1,000 skier days. Are the French skiers that much better? No, I think a lot of them are hobbling down on tweaked knees and ankles, and I don't think that serves the public. I'd expect to see the same thing if people were charged for Mountain Rescue services, with eventually tragic results.

The reason, in my mind, "high riskers" like rock climbers are being targeted for special rescue charges is because they're an identifiable group. At most national parks and forests, it's the day hikers who get lost, and the kids who wander away from picnics who account for most rescue activity. But they can't be so easily identified and taxed. Park managers and others wrestling with this topic are loath to charge a rescue fee, because that takes away their discretionary authority if someone gets in trouble. Right now, a manager can decide not to send rescuers if the weather or other conditions will put those people at unacceptable risk. But if a victim is holding a piece of paper that says he paid for rescue, then he has a contract with the park or forest managers, and they have to rescue them--or risk big legal trouble. That's why I don't think you'll see public agencies trying this sort of direct charge in the future.

Last thought on this topic, and perhaps the most important: If you want to bill people for stupidity after the fact, who is to decide who pays and who doesn't? Would you want to be in the position of deciding that I had done something stupid, and thus should be billed, whereas Joe Blow had simply suffered an act of fate, and should be rescued free of charge?

Better that we all share the burden, just as we do for a fire department that taxes everyone in town, even though only a few homes will burn in one's lifetime.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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