Many will recall watching the news about the three climbers who died on Mount Hood last December. The story was in the headlines for weeks as search and rescue teams tried to locate the three climbers, often hampered by severe weather conditions. However, many do not know that it almost happened again when three more climbers and their dog went missing on Mt. Hood on February 18, 2007. It was a shock that after three climbers died in the middle of December, there was another rescue mission on the same mountain only two months later. Three members of the climbing party disappeared over an icy ledge and slid down some 500 feet before coming to a stop, while the other members of the group called for help. The three fallen climbers were able to build a snow cave to keep warm during the snow storm while the Portland Mountain Rescue team came to their aid. All climbers, and their dog, were brought down the mountain safely with only minor injuries.
Bill O’Reilly, the host of “The O’Reilly Factor” on the Fox News Channel, has been an outspoken opponent of mountain rescues. On his show, he said, “There was no reason for people to be trying to climb that mountain other than thrill seeking. Rescuers put themselves in danger and the taxpayers have to pay for it.”2 O’Reilly is trying to use the recent events on Mt. Hood to restrict climbing to certain periods and seasons. Rather than presenting possible solutions to this problem, O’Reilly does not understand what draws climbers to these mountains and the actual costs of climbing related rescues. O’Reilly’s argument is unpersuasive due to his false assumptions about climbing in general, and his biased and incomplete data about mountain rescues.
Mountain search and rescue teams are comprised of primarily volunteers that volunteer their time and money to a rescue. Although climbing may be dangerous, the threats to rescuers are very low. Bill O’Reilly claims that the rescuers put themselves in danger in the high profile mountain rescues like on Mt. Hood. That is not the case. According to the American Alpine Club, a premier authority on climbing and mountaineering, rescuer fatalities are rare involving mountaineering and rock climbing rescues. The most dangerous situations causing the most search and rescue fatalities or injuries occurred while searching and/or rescuing lost or injured hikers, skiers, and downed aircraft.5 Rescuers understand the dangers and hazards in any search and rescue operation. But because of their rigorous training, rescuers are able to stay as safe as possible while still carrying out the mission.
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” (John Muir) Climbers fully understand what draws them into the mountains and they are sure of one thing, it’s not always to seek a cheap thrill of being so close to death with every step they take. As Bill O’Reilly stated, “there was no reason for people to be trying to climb that mountain, other than thrill seeking.” Thrill seeking is in the eye of the beholder. To a person that has lived in a large city their whole life, skiing on a bunny hill at a ski resort for the first time will be a huge thrill. But for someone who has spent their entire life skiing, it has become second nature and comes as an enjoyable and relaxing activity. To the outside world, climbing Mt. Hood in the winter would be the biggest thrill imaginable. But to the climbing community it is so much more.
The climbing community understands what draws them to mountains like Mt. Hood. Something special happens when you are on the summit of a mountain, on a rock face, or in the middle of the wilderness. John Muir, an avid environmentalist, conservationist, and hiker had this to say:
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.3
But, Bill O’Reilly does not understand what draws people to climb mountains. Climbing is a way to commune with nature and a way to be a peace with everything that surrounds you.
Mt. Rainier is a glaciated volcano that stands at 14,411 feet in southern Washington State and sees over 10,000 climbers annually. The weather is notoriously bad on Mt. Rainier. The mountain creates its own weather since it is the tallest peak around, creating high winds, snowstorms, and rain in an instant. The average temperature ranges from a high of 7 degrees in the winter to a high of 32 degrees in mid summer. Last summer I had the opportunity to climb and stand on the summit of Mt. Rainier. It took our party two days to reach the summit and on summit day, we spent 12 exhausting hours climbing to the top on less than 4 hours of sleep. We fought our way up the mountain, battling exhaustion, high winds, freezing temperatures, dehydration, and altitude sickness. When we got to the summit, it was one of the most exhilarating joys that I have ever experienced. Even though I could barely stand from exhaustion, being on the summit put everything in perspective. While we sat there contemplating what we just accomplished, I felt a deep peace within me that I had never felt before. All the problems in life beyond the mountain seemed trivial. It allowed me to refocus on what is important in my life. Being on a mountain, in the wilderness, or just in nature changes you for the better. If you talk with any climber that has gone through a similar experience, they will tell you the exact same thing.
The most frequently asked question that people asked me was why? If I could explain to them the feeling of standing on the summit, or the feeling of rejuvenation and new found energy on the drive home, I would. But the thing is, if you have never had an experience like this, then you cannot understand. That is the problem with Bill O’Reilly’s statement he will not completely understand until he does it for himself. Climbing is much more than a thrill. It’s a way to find peace and energy that you never knew you had.
Would I do it again? Despite the blisters, the complete exhaustion, dehydration, sunburns, and sore muscles, I would make that climb again in a heart beat. And so would any other climber. Climbers are attracted to the mountains. They might not know why they are drawn, but they know that when the come off the mountain, they will be a changed person. One has to understand why we climb before they can criticize climbers as thrill seeking junkies.
A large misconception about mountain rescues is the cost. Most people do not realize that search and rescue groups are non-profit, costing the taxpayers nothing. Bill O’Reilly believes that during high profile mountain rescues, the taxpayers are footing the entire bill. A single glance on any search and rescue group’s website will reveal that they are proud to be non-profit organizations. The Portland Mountain Rescue (PMR) search and rescue missions, as well as every search and rescue organization, are coordinated through the local Sheriff's Office. The team is made up entirely of volunteers that give their time and money to every rescue mission. PMR is a non-profit organization that does not receive funding from government agencies. All of their funding results from individual donations, grants, and fundraising. Being a non-profit organization, PMR will never charge for a rescue1. The only costs to taxpayers are for local government organizations, like the local Sheriff’s Office, to oversee the rescue effort. Even though search and rescue operations do cost taxpayers, most of the cost is covered by private funding through the local search and rescue.
During 2003, the National Park Service (NPS) spent $3.5 million on personnel, supplies, aircraft, and vessels for search and rescue operations. The NPS responded to 3,108 search and rescue missions, with an average cost of $1,116 per incident. The $3.5 million spent on search and rescue may sound overwhelming but the search and rescue costs accounted for 0.15% to 0.2% of the entire NPS budget. The search and rescue budget for the NPS is funded by a very small portion of the entrance fee to the National Park System. Every time you enter a National Park, you are funding search and rescue costs.5 Search and rescue operations are not funded by taxpayers, but by entrance fees, private funding, and donations.
Is it fair to place the blame of high rescue costs on climbers alone? Most media coverage is of mountain climbers because these rescues generate the most attention. But what about all of the smaller rescues that occur on a day to day basis? The common held perception is that climbers are a significant drain on the search and rescue services and budget. However, NPS data from 2003 confirmed “that climbing and mountaineering rescues, while highly visible, are less frequent than rescues of perceived lower-risk visitor groups including hikers, boaters, and swimmers.”5 According to this data, climbers and mountaineers accounted for only 5% of all NPS rescues, whereas day hiking accounted for six times that amount. The NPS data shows that climbing, although dramatically and regularly covered by the media, composes only a small percent of all search and rescues.
As shown by National Park Service data, climbing rescues are less frequent than perceived, but the media still argues that high-profile climbing rescues are still expensive to taxpayers. For instance, look at search and rescue operations in Yosemite National Park, an international destination for hikers and climbers. A detailed analysis of search and rescue operations from 2000 to 2004 showed that rescuing hikers and overnight hikers cost more than three times as much as rescuing climbers.5 However, these figures may be skewed because Yosemite has some of the most technical climbing in the world, like El Capitan and Half Dome. A rescue on these big walls usually involves a helicopter and more personnel than is required for rescuing a day hiker. Nevertheless, climbers that are on El Capitan and Half Dome are the most self-reliant visitors to the park, as they carry the equipment and skills necessary for self-rescue, reducing the need for the assistance of search and rescue personnel.
On average, climbing rescues are more expensive but they are not the most expensive. The most expensive rescues are the search for lost persons. A search for a lost person requires a large force of personnel. A lost person can travel a significant distance trying to find their way. Even before they are reported missing, a lost person can travel tens of miles from their last known location. The search and rescue personnel must search an area that is even larger since they do not know the direction the lost person traveled. For instance, if a lost hiker traveled 2 miles east from their last known location, the search and rescue group will have to search 16 square miles, searching 2 miles in each direction around the last known location. This requires a very large amount of personnel on the ground searching for the lost hiker. In Yosemite between 2000 and 2004, of the 10 most expensive rescues, five were day hikers, four overnight hikers, and one was a climber climber. Two of the hiker rescues cost over $100,000 with the most expensive being $123,699 for an unsuccessful search for a lost day hiker. The one climber came in 10th at a cost of $23,264.5 Another factor making climbing rescues less expensive than a search for lost persons is that the climber is usually in a known location. When climbing a big wall like El Capitan, the climbing rangers know where you are at all times since a climber cannot travel very far on a rock face. The same goes for a mountain like Mt. Hood. Although there are many routes on the mountain, climbers will be on the mountain. Having the known locations of the climbers makes search and rescue efforts more efficient by allowing the search and rescue group to go directly to the climbers, without having to perform a large search.
Bill O’Reilly states that all climbers are thrill seekers that put rescuers in danger while taxpayers have to pay for the cost of the rescue operation. Climbers are not thrill seeking daredevils but individuals who take pleasure in being out in nature, returning home with a renewed sense of peace and energy. If a climber, hikers or any person participating in an outdoor sport, gets in trouble, a search and rescue group will help them out of their situation. Although most people believe that the entire search and rescue cost is paid by taxpayers, search and rescue operations are mainly funded by volunteers, fundraisers, and private donations. The only costs to taxpayers are for local government organizations, such as the local Sheriff’s Office, to oversee the rescue. The costs for rescuing climbers are a small part of the total rescue costs compared to all other outdoor activities. Climbers should not be blamed for the seemingly high rescue costs given that lost day hikers and overnight hikers put the largest strain on rescue budgets. People like Bill O’Reilly are not looking at the big picture. Climbers are not the only individuals enjoying the outdoors; there are millions of people that enjoy getting outdoors every year. And for the climbers, it’s much more than just enjoying the great outdoors. As Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, said,
“It’s not the mountains we conquer, but ourselves.”
1. Portland Mountain Rescue website. www.pmru.org
2. BillOReilly.com. O’Reilly Factor Flash. http://www.billoreilly.com/show?action=viewTVShow&showID=1217#2
3. Castle, Alan. The John Muir Trail. 2006.
4. Ross, Winston. “The Price of Survival.” http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17247966/site/newsweek/
5. Athearn, Lloyd, Deputy Director; American Alpine Club. “Climbing Rescues in America: Reality Does Not Support ‘High-Risk, High-Cost’ Perception.” May 19, 2005.