Search on Mount Hood
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Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Search on Mount Hood


As I write this post, three climbers on Mt. Hood are still missing, last heard from six days ago when one called on his cell phone. Weather conditions are easing a bit, but the going remains difficult, as even expert mountaineers are being turned back by the conditions. Search and rescue personnel are being assisted by helicopters in attempts to locate the missing men.

It is possible that the climbers are still alive, but with each passing day, the odds diminish that they will be found in good condition. From the phone message on December 10, it is likely that the men split up, with the caller inside a snow cave and the other two attempting to descend to seek help. It is a grim situation, to be sure.

I have read commentary about who bears the responsibility for rescue, including the finances. With the exception of Colorado, Utah, and Oregon, which have state laws that allow victims to be billed for the expense, search and rescue (SAR) is provided for free by agencies that specialize in emergency response. There are arguments, pro and con, about the wisdom of billing for SAR: proponents of billing argue that persons would be less likely to take foolish risks if they knew they would be responsible for the SAR bill; opponents of billing hypothesize that a person might not ask for help when needed if he or she became worried about the payment.

The costs for SAR in hostile environmental conditions are not trivial, and go beyond mere dollars. Every time a helicopter is launched, the crew is placed at risk. Rescuers who ski through avalanche country looking for lost persons occasionally get caught in a slide. We are all familiar with tales of heroes drowned who attempted to pull people from icy water or swift currents. Risk is part of the activity, and definitely part of the aftermath of an adventure gone awry.

Having been involved with wilderness medicine for a long time, I know it is way too soon to rush to judgement. We do not know the precise circumstances that led to this particular episode, other than that three climbers got caught in bad weather. At this moment, it doesn't matter whether or not they made mistakes or could have avoided the situation. The fact is, they need help. Do we deny medical care and hundreds of thousands of dollars of resources to persons who smoke cartons of cigarettes and are stricken with lung cancer? How much money do we spend on persons who are addicted to drugs and alcohol? If you eat four cheeseburgers and drink ten Cokes a day, should we leave you alone in the parking lot when you have your heart attack? Let's stop the foolish talk about whether or not there should be a search, and who should pay for it. Rescuers should keep on searching until the men are found, or it becomes pointless to search any longer.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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