Search and Revenue

Injured mountaineers find themselves in the crosshairs of cost-cutting lawmakers

Jan 8, 2001
Outside Magazine

SIXTY-ONE-YEAR-OLD Georgian climber Lev Sarkisov was not thinking of his pocketbook last June as he cradled his broken ribs. Having taken a 20-foot fall on Mount McKinley's West Buttress route, he watched the approaching U.S. Army Chinook helicopter sent to pluck him from a camp at 14,200 feet. Like the 13 other climbing parties that had to be rescued from McKinley that season, Sarkisov was more concerned with getting the hell off the mountain than with the $13,294 the National Park Service and U.S. Army were spending to save him. But a report commissioned by Congress and scheduled for release this August may have future McKinley climbers checking their credit lines before strapping on their crampons.

Since 1998, when two Brits were choppered off the summit to the tune of $221,818, Alaska Republican Senator Frank Murkowski has argued that evacuating injured climbers from the slopes of McKinley is an unfair burden to taxpayers. Public Law 106-486, authored by Murkowski and signed into law last November, requires the Park Service to suggest ways to recover the costs of emergency evacuations. The new congressional report may recommend that climbers be forced to carry insurance and agree to foot the cost of potential bailouts--which could serve as a precedent for adopting similar practices in other rescue hot spots such as Washington's Mount Rainier and Northern California's Mount Shasta.
Mike Gauthier, chief climbing ranger for Mount Rainier National Park, contends that alpinists on McKinley are being unfairly picked on. Of the 1,200 people who attempt McKinley each year, an average of 11 require assistance, a small percentage of the 5,000 or so recreationists the Park Service extracts from the wilderness every year. "As a group, mountain climbers aren't the most expensive to rescue," says Gauthier, who points out that more money is spent on tracking down lost hikers. Not surprisingly, the idea that climbers should have to foot the bill for their helicopter ride home doesn't sit well with the American Alpine Club. "If people think they're paying for their rescue," says executive director Charley Shimanski, "they tend to delay calling for help."

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