Salvation Comes at a Price
Hefty bills: the scary new trend in rescues
On a warm morning this past April, Scott Mason set off on what was supposed to be a day hike on New Hampshire's Mount Washington. The 17-year-old Eagle Scout packed a bivy sack and some extra clothes and consulted Forest Service rangers about his route. But well into the hike, he sprained his ankle, opted for a shortcut back to the trailhead on a path that was covered in snow, wandered off track, and promptly got lost. He spent three nights out before a rescue team found him.
It was all fairly typical, until Mason got a bill from the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game: $25,000, the largest such tab in state history.
New Hampshire is one of eight states that charge for rescues, and in June legislators had eliminated a cap of $10,000 while also requiring only that a person had demonstrated "negligence." Mason's shortcut had apparently outweighed the fact that, once lost, he'd done everything right, from sleeping in a rock crevice to starting a fire by igniting hand sanitizer. According to Howard Paul, public-information officer at the National Association for Search and Rescue, such laws are increasingly popular, as is enforcement, which has historically been lax. Oregon, California, Hawaii, Maine, Colorado, Idaho, and Vermont also look to charge the rescued in certain situations, despite strong opposition from the SAR community. Charley Shimanski, president of the Mountain Rescue Association, argues that the fear of a bill means "people are less likely to call for help sooner or at all." The likely results: delayed rescue, more serious injury, and a more complicated overall operation.
Your best way to avoid an SAR tab? Don't do anything that might get you labeled as negligent, like straying from designated trails or packing inadequate supplies, since it's the key factor in most states. But if you do get into trouble, don't hesitate to call for help; most states have low maximum charges (Colorado's is $300). And if you get a bill, it's probably best to just pay it, as legal fees would likely be higher. The exception, of course, is New Hampshire, where, at press time, Mason was still fighting an uphill legal battle to reduce his payment. "Other states have a system for calculating the cost," says Jim Moss, a Colorado-based attorney who specializes in recreational law, "but in New Hampshire, the way they decide how much someone owes is extremely arbitrary."