A Summit Technology Can’t Reach
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
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
- From The MountainWorld Blog
A Summit Technology Can’t Reach
By JIM WHITTAKER
Published: March 9, 2007
Port Townsend, Wash.
MOUNT HOOD is Oregon’s highest peak, and given its close proximity to Portland and its relatively unchallenging ascent, more than 10,000 people climb it each year. But after the rescue of three climbers trapped in a canyon during a storm last month and the deaths of three others in December, state legislators have introduced a bill that would require climbers on Mount Hood to carry an electronic signaling device when they’re above timberline between November and March.
This might seem a no-brainer: there are many lightweight, relatively inexpensive safety devices on the market today. Signaling beepers — more accurately called “emergency position indicating radio beacons” — as well as cellphones (which one climber in the February incident used to alert rescuers), global positioning systems and avalanche beacons have all saved many lives and will continue to do so. Mandating such equipment, however, does not offer a quick and easy solution to the problem of those in distress. In fact, reliance on technology often creates new dangers, not only to climbers but also to rescuers.
The technology has made it easier to rely more on search-and-rescue personnel, and less on skill and knowledge. For example, as cellphones have become common, well-equipped and trained hikers have used cellphones to call for rescue, although in hindsight they could have descended on their own.
In these cases, the high-tech devices wasted rescuers’ time and cost taxpayers huge sums of money. (Under Oregon law, climbers can be charged only $500 to cover rescue costs, yet the local sheriff’s office in the December rescue attempt reportedly spent more than $5,000 a day for more than a week.) One can envision a similar effect with locators, which send out a distress call with the pull of a cord, if they became mandatory.
The accidents on Mount Hood remind us that nobody can move in a severe mountain storm, not even a rescuer. Sending a distress call could result in rescuers being sent out into a life-threatening situation for no good reason, which is why most rescue workers oppose the law. And waiting for rescuers summoned by beacons can be more deadly than moving on.
It is better to plan your own way off the mountain first. A climber should begin every expedition assuming that that he could be trapped in a blizzard, even if the weather looks perfect and he is in a well-monitored area like Mount Hood. Conditions can change very fast. Climbers should be prepared to wait days for a storm to pass. With plenty of extra food, stoves with enough fuel to melt snow for a week, snow shovels to dig caves, and a warm sleeping bag and pad, a stranded climber can change his situation from life-threatening to exhilarating.
Good climbers understand that while reaching the summit is optional, getting off the mountain is mandatory. The storms on Mount Hood and Mount Rainier here in Washington can be just as severe as those on Mount Everest and K2. Once a storm on Mount Rainier, also a popular climb, kept me buttoned down for five days. Beepers, even if they had existed then, would have been worthless; we survived because we were prepared.
Mind-set is the most important factor, especially as interest in the sport booms and more inexperienced climbers take on challenging mountains. The last thing we want to do is create a situation where climbers feel that if they carry a locator, a rescue is guaranteed.
This is what I fear the Oregon bill would do. It creates too much potential for a nonprofessional climber to be cocky, to take risks he otherwise wouldn’t and to fail to pack well and otherwise be self-sufficient. Skills like being able to interpret signs in the weather, assess the danger of avalanches and rescue a companion from a crevasse are vital to a safe climb, and they cannot be replaced by an electronic device. Viewing technology as a quick fix is more likely to cause tragedy than prevent it.
Nature is what it’s all about. Mountains are truly cathedrals, and everyone should experience the high country. Through climbing, we can learn about gravity, rock, snow, ice, storms — and about ourselves. Most important, though, we need to meet the wilderness on its own terms. Laws and locators cannot replace careful attention, knowledge and personal responsibility.
Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Mount Everest and a former president of the REI outdoor products cooperative, is the author of “A Life on the Edge.”