Showing posts with label climbing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label climbing. Show all posts

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?