Monday, December 18, 2006

Lost on Mt Hood

Just got a call from a non climber friend of mine, questioning these fellows lost/dead on Mt Hood. He was inquiring on where those guys went wrong...why didn't they carry a GPS tracking device....could they have done something different and still be alive.

First of all, I admire these guys for attempting this route in the winter. Remember that they were attempting Hood from the north which has only a handful of ascents each year and clearly very few in the winter (in contrast to Hoods south side which has countless ascents up its ski area). It's a solid approach even in the summer...then the final headwall to reach the summit is steep and relatively sustained.

I climbed this route in April of '04 with several buddies including super blind guy, Erik. We were the first party to attempt the north face of the season which was quite a treat. We intentionally bivied (camped) in a partial snow cave right at the base of the headwall...I imagine right were these guys made their primary cave and where the one dead climber was found yesterday.

I have pretty strong opinions about calling for help while voluntarily out in the mountains...attempting a route. This probably comes from my years of working with the National Park Service as a volunteer climbing ranger in the Alaska Range...primarily on Denali (Mt McKinley). Countless times we would receive a distress call from a 'climber in need'. Many times the calls were justified and the party was in significant trouble...however, often times the climber was simply exhausted...too tired to get down.

In my opinion (and many others) the presence of the NPS Search and Rescue team has unintentionally given climbers the hubris to stretch beyond their limitations...knowing that if they get in trouble, one of the best SAR teams in the world will be at their beckon call. I remember getting the call on one occasion from a Japanese climber that had 'broken' his ankle and was stranded up at 18,000 ft on Denali (the 'football field'). After a lengthy helicopter rescue where several rescuer's lives were put at risk, he was carried down to the mountain's basecamp at 7,200 ft and proceeded to walk with ease out of the helicopter and into the basecamp yurt. After some subtle coaxing he admitted that his ankle was mildly sprained....his ailment was actually severe fatigue and he felt that he was due a rescue after paying his Park Service fee prior to his ascent. Obviously this chaffed many of us and cost the taxpayer well over $2000.

That being said, the Denali NPS SAR team as well as SAR teams around the world provide an invaluable service and have no doubt saved countless lives...climbers that did everything in their power to get themselves out of their predicament. Sometimes it appears you just run out of options.

So this leads me to how I answered my buddy's inquiry this morning....

Most seasoned climbers know to enter their objective in a self sustained way...never enter into a situation that you and your team are not capable of getting of, on your own.

Should they have brought a GPS system?...obviously not with the intention of applying it for rescue purposes, only perhaps for route finding or establishing way points to map out later. But in having the GPS or in the case of the cell phone the one climber called from, there is a locator established through satellite communication...a bonus I suppose in carrying these instruments in the backcountry.

These fellows were somewhat experienced in the mountains and appear to have attempted to get themselves out of their dire situation prior to the distress cell phone call. By doing this they exonerated themselves from the 'I can go further than my means, because I know someone will pull me out of the shit if it gets deep' syndrome.

They were trying a relatively challenging route in the winter and unfortunately got hammered by one of Oregon's worst storms in over a decade.

The mountains are ruthless at times and have their own rulebook by which we must play. If we care to throw ourselves into their grasp we have to be willing to slide out of it on our own.

All of that being said, if I lived in the area of Mt Hood I would have been one of the members of that SAR team, hunting and searching for these lost guys...even if in vain...because I know that if I ever go missing...I know that a capable group of selfless men and women would put themselves out there looking for me. That's the creed of the mountains....that's just what you do.

Godspeed to them and all of the folks out looking for them.