October 21, 2021

Should SAR Leave the Body on the Peak?

A Colorado Air National Guard Blackhawk helicopter
on a mission near Ouray (Ouray Mountain Rescue Team).

Last August, three volunteers from Mountain Rescue Aspen were injured by rockfall on Capitol Peak as they searched for a missing climber.

One was hit by a "micowave-size rock" that smashed into her hip. "She sustained a comminuted femur fracture (broken in three or more pieces), multiple pelvis breaks and a fractured vertebra."

While she was expected to recover, I suspect that she will feel those injuries for a long time, perhaps the rest of her life.

The injured rescuers were airlifted off the mountain by a Colorado Air National Guard helicopter. (The ANG frequently helps out on these situations.)

The climber, a 32-year-old man from Madison, Wisconsin, was left up there. Some of my climber friends on Facebook were deeply disappointed. 

The Pitkin County team told the family it did not see a way to safely recovery the body at this time.

“It was a difficult decision, but we’ve collectively decided to leave Kelly McDermott’s body on the mountain where it currently rests,” [Sheriff's Office representative Alex] Burchetta told CBS4. “We’ve spent the past month or so working on alternate recovery plans and simply were not able to come up with one that provided the level of safety necessary to conduct another recovery mission.”

But how many people should risk their lives to bring down a body? My county's Search and Rescue Group, which is large and active, has done it multiple times. But no one has ever gotten a smashed pelvis in the process. (I realize that the injuried searchers did not know that their missing climber had died.)

It's a different order of magnitude, but many bodies have been left on Everest and other big mountains. One corpse, nicknamed "Green Boots," is a well-known landmark to climbers on the North Face. There may be as many as two hundred others.

There are several intertwined problems here.

Most Search and Rescue people are volunteers. I know some locally. They work hard and pay a lot of their own expenses. Should they climb after corpses, or should friends and family take care of that?

SAR groups are more focused on living people who need help, however. They defend their "no-charge" policies, saying that free rescues save more people. The Colorado Search and Rescue Association states their policy:

The State of Colorado has declared that backcountry search and rescue is an essential service in Colorado.  The Colorado SAR community believes SAR is a service that should be provided to anyone, regardless of ability to pay.  These civic minded volunteers do what they do for many different reasons, including simple humanitarian support for their neighbors and visitors. They enjoy being outdoors, and many of them talk about the personal pride that comes from working as a team to save lives.   SAR teams, in many ways, help sustain the Colorado way of life.  Charging for services, especially in a punitive context, does nothing to further this culture and likely would injure Colorado outdoor tourism. . . .

The Summit County Rescue group tells the story of a young hiker who became stranded on Colorado’s 14,270 foot Quandary Peak. She called 911, but asked the SAR coordinator just to “talk her out of the area,” which was a dangerous, technical part of the mountain. The sun had already set and it was getting cold, but she repeatedly insisted the team should not come to help her. The SAR coordinator finally asked why she didn’t want help, and she replied, “I can’t afford it.” He explained there would be no charge and she finally relented.

There are a few caveats to the no-charge-for-rescue doctrine. First, if you are rescued by a backcountry SAR team, they may call in other resources that do commonly charge for services, such as ambulances and medivac helicopters.  Health insurance plans may offer coverage for these kinds of medical transport.

Colorado charges a fee on hunting, fishing, and all-terrain vehicle licenses that helps to fund Search and Rescue groups. I wonder what percentage of hikers and climbers buy the stand-alone COSAR card. It is a fundraiser, but it is not "rescue insurance."

A recent New York Times article states,

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a surge of inexperienced hikers venturing into the outdoors. And that in turn has increased the pressure on search and rescue teams, as well as the costs. Increasingly, states are looking for ways to penalize people who take unnecessary risks. But some question whether these laws might also discourage people from seeking help soon enough after putting their lives at risk because of an honest mistake.

New Hampshire passed a law in 2008 that allowed it to seek reimbursement if state officials deemed that a rescued person was negligent.

 Colorado's SAR community is resisting this movement, so far.

When I took National Outdoor Leadership School wilderness first-aid classes, one question always bounced around in my head. The instructors always seemed to assume that the helicopter — or the SAR team — would be there when we needed them. But what if they did not come? What happens when they have too many incidents to cope with, "essential service" or not?

Would people be more careful if they knew that help was not just a cell phone call or beacon activation away? 

My neighbors like to say that if a violent crime occurs, the nearest sheriff's deputy is at best twenty minutes away, so you had better have your own Plan B. And we rural volunteer firefighters are not as quick to respond as an urban fire department either. What will you do until we arrive?

Is it fair to ask that of mountain hikers and climbers? 

How would it change things if you went up the mountain knowing that no one—except possibly your friends—would come looking for you if you did not return on time?


Midwest Chick said...

I'm pretty sure that people might not get into situations beyond their skillsets if they didn't think that help was just a phone call away. The hardcore folks might still go for it, but the others might think twice.

As for the body, it's not worth the life and limb of others to bring down. Besides, if you love the mountains, wouldn't that be a fitting resting place?

Peculiar said...

I think one worsening problem with the whole wilderness medicine scene is that WFR/WEMT courses are increasingly catering to industries accustomed to having lots of resources available or on call, e.g. ski areas, jeep tours, camps, colleges in the desert and other not-truly-backcountry affairs. As a backpacker, I often find myself thinking, "Yeah, right." NOLS courses have not been immune to this trend of assuming you'll have lots of equipment and communications, but they still do so much backpacking, I think they stay a little more grounded to those realities than many. (Individual instructors' experiences and styles vary, of course.) Overall, I've found that they're good about acknowledging that supplies may be light and evacs may be slow and tricky.

I often think of the incident 10-15 years ago near Santa Fe where some aspiring heroes flew a helicopter into a developing winter storm to evac a lady with a broken ankle. After they picked her up, they crashed, killing her and several other people. She didn't need a rapid evac, she needed some camping gear and a slow evac the next day. Similarly, I recall an incident in Idaho where many of our clients assumed we were going to call the chop right away and fly the guy out, and had trouble grasping that since his situation was stable and improving, by far the safest and best way to get him to a doctor was to float him down the river like we normally do.

Glypto Dropem said...

Kinda related. I have been in the fire service almost 30 years. We have a saying, "Risk a lot to save a lot. Risk little to save little." Here's our classic Kobyashi Maru type scenario: Version 1... you pull up on the scene of a house fire. There is smoke coming from one window. A mother is on the lawn hysterically screaming that her baby is still inside. So, you find out where in the house, suit up, make entry and do a primary search for the baby. You find no one inside except a small and cute Yorkshire Terrier barking excitedly, scoop her up and take her outside. The woman runs over exclaiming "My Baby! My Baby!!" You walk away shaking your head and go to work on the fire.

Version 2... You pull up on the scene of a fully involved house fire with flames blowing out of every door and window. A mother is outside hysterically screaming that her baby is still inside. Conditions in the house are 0% survivable. You tell the mother you will do what you can and go to work putting the fire out from a defensive position outside. In the charred rubble you find the body of the deceased child. It rips everyone's soul to the core, but only the already dead is the only one(s) dead.

Although firefighting is a dangerous occupation, we do not do suicide missions. Especially to try and save someone that to us is obviously already dead. Our bunker gear and air pack is not an Iron Man suit. If a fire explodes in a flashover or backdraft, our gear buys us mere seconds. That's it. What do you think is going to happen to a helpless child in just their clothing. Same thing in body recovery. While it is nice to be able to give closure to surviving family members, it would be difficult to explain to a grieving wife and children that their hero firefighter Husband and Dad lost his life to try and retrieve a dead body.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Gly[tp Dropem -- I'm on a small rural fire department, smack in the WUI, and we have the "no suicide missions" directivetoo

Chas S. Clifton said...

Peculiar: Everyone should have to read Peter Heller's book The River when it comes to evacuation sagas.

Woody Meristem said...

Having worked for a public land management agency for many years I was involved with a number of searches. Thankfully I retired before every halfwit going into wild country had a cell phone to call for help -- back in the olden days almost everyone who went into wild country knew they'd have to get themselves out no matter if they got lost, sprained an ankle or broke a leg.

I'm a firm believer in charging for rescues. Friends who have hiked and climbed in Europe have said that there's a charge for all rescues but rescue insurance is readily available and, since relatively few people need to be rescued, inexpensive. How I'd like to see the same situation here.