Meeting the Wilderness…prepared.
In today’s opinion article in The New York Times, legendary American climber Jim Whittaker – the first American to summit Everest – wrote a great article reacting to Oregon’s proposed beacon law for people heading into the backcountry on Mt. Hood, Oregon’s tallest peak. The law, encouraged by the tragic deaths of Jerry "Nikko" Cook, Kelly James, and Brian Hall in December on Mt. Hood and the rescue Sunday of three stranded climbers on the same mountain, would require any climber going above 10,000 feet on Mt. Hood to wear an electronic beacon locator to help potential rescuers find them in an emergency.
As Whittaker notes, the law is certainly well-intentioned. In the case of Cook, James, and Hall in December, many rescuers spent many days scouring the mountainsides in adverse conditions, putting themselves at considerable risk. The use of beacons could indeed expedite future rescues and put rescuers at less risk than they are today.
However, a danger lurks beneath the surface here, for both climbers and rescuers. The common ethic in climbing has always been to get yourself out of any situation you get yourself into. It is the notion of self-reliance, and is not simply an aspect of manly machismo with a go it alone attitude. Rather, the ethic of self-reliance is a responsible one, as most accidents don’t take place in nice areas in nice weather – they happen on treacherous terrain, in bad weather, and sending rescuers into these situations inevitably puts their lives at risk, too.
If electronic locators are added into the mix, it threatens to develop amongst climbers a false sense of security: I’ll just go with a light pack, a little bit of food, no safety gear, stove, tent, sleeping bag, or anything else. If I run into a problem, I’ll just activate my beacon, make a quick phone call, and the rescuers will be here soon. This is not a science fiction scenario.
Since cell phones became the norm, and cell service has reached mountainous areas, I have seen a dramatic increase in people going into the mountains ill-prepared, confident in their electronic safety blanket and its ability to get them out of a jam. This attitude is not only irresponsible, but also dangerous, because again it relies on others as the mainstay of safety rather than on one’s own abilities, preparation, and skills.
The same issue is rearing its head on Everest with continued frequency. Each year, we see more climbers heading to the peak on shoddy expeditions. They come with insufficient skill, knowledge, background, and resources to make a safe, self-reliant climb, and thus rely on the big, well-funded expeditions such as those run by International Mountain Guides, Himalayan Experience, and others to help when trouble arises. Most teams do this willingly, but it comes with a cost. In 1999 on Everest, my IMG teammates and I rescued 2 Ukrainian climbers who were in a jam; in 2001, we did the same for 2 Chinese glaciologists, 3 Siberians, one American and one Guatemalan. In 2003, with Russell Brice’s Himalayan Experience team, we rescued 7 climbers.
Really, the Mt. Hood bill can be related to the ethics of life in general. Throughout our lives, we are taught to be self-reliant. Our country is founded upon the ideals of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. We take pride – and well we should – in examples of people who faced difficult times and situations, and had the wherewithal – be it through their own abilities or with the support of teams of colleagues – to persevere, to make do with their resources and avert pitfalls and tragedies. Most of us would be horrified if Kmart could have just pushed a magic button, summoning the financial rescue teams to bail them out of fiscal ill-preparedness.
Certainly, we need to have rescuers. There are situations in the mountains – and in life – which require assistance from others. A societal safety net is a good thing, and a necessary thing at times. But, the ethic should be on self-reliance first, on coming to a challenge prepared, ready to take on the difficulties with skill and resources.