Who should pay?
DENVER – It happens every year. A skier or climber ventures into the backcountry in Summit County only to get lost or injured. While Summit County Rescue Group, made up of local volunteers, is trained to pluck people from the most harrowing of circumstances, the injured person hesitates to call for one reason – money.”It’s more than just our county that it happens in,” said Mike Schmitt, spokesperson for the rescue group. “We’ve had numerous calls every year where people call 911 and ask if they’re going to get billed.”We’re talking thousands and tens of thousands of dollars that go into rescues all over the country.”While Summit County doesn’t charge for rescues, you will get billed if you are Flight-For-Life’d from the scene by helicopter or you’ve broken a law in the process. Even then, your rescue is free; it’s the incidentals that add up.In Utah and Colorado, Schmitt said, many counties charge individuals for their rescues, including fees for helicopter use and personnel time. But a new study by the American Alpine Club, based in Golden, argues that state laws allowing climbers to be billed for their own rescues are misguided.The report, to be released Thursday and provided to the Associated Press, says American mountaineering deaths and injuries are declining, even though the number of climbers is increasing.Hikers, hunters, boaters and swimmers all require more rescues than climbers, the study says.The 7,000-member American Alpine Club plans to use the report to lobby against fee-for-rescue legislation and to counter negative publicity surrounding spectacular mountain accidents.”Over the years we’ve come to see a pattern emerge – that after a major climbing accident, there was media coverage that painted climbers as risk-taking daredevils who put tremendous costs on the public and risk on the rescuers,” said Lloyd Athearn, deputy director of the club and author of the study.He called the 2002 crash on Mount Hood in Oregon “exhibit A.”Three parties of climbers were near the summit of the 11,240-foot peak when the top group tumbled into the others, and nine people plunged into a 25-foot-deep crevasse. Three died and three were seriously injured.
Remarkably, all six crew members survived the crash of the Air Force Reserve helicopter that was attempting to pluck injured survivors from the mountainside.Five states – California, Hawaii, Idaho, New Hampshire and Oregon – have laws allowing agencies to charge for rescues under certain circumstances. But none of the states has ever billed a climber, Athearn’s study says. Oregon’s law was passed more than six years before the Mount Hood tragedy.Climbing rescues cost less than many people realize, Athearn said. The military doesn’t charge to help out because it considers the rescues as a training opportunity, and most mountain search and rescue teams are volunteers who don’t expect to be paid.Who does pay for it?It’s the taxpayers, ultimately, who fund most search and rescue teams across the country. A state statute in Colorado mandates that all search and rescue teams work under the direction of the local sheriff, who helps set a budget for the teams.Summit’s rescue group is a part of the Mountain Rescue Association (MRA), of which Schmitt is a board member. The MRA helps evaluate search and rescue teams and, in case of any litigation against a rescue team, the MRA would help give the team credibility.But Schmitt says, in his own opinion, the taxpayers should be the one shouldering the burden for someone who has been negligent.”You can look at the fire departments,” Schmitt said. “They are funded by the cities they work for. Who pays for that? It’s the taxpayers. It falls into play with a lot of things like that. We’re no different than fire departments, police departments and EMTs.”And, Schmitt wondered, if search and rescus up on the bill? Another drawback could be a decrease in state funding, Schmitt said, if they assume search and rescue groups are receiving additional funding. Additional funds could be used for more training and technology upgrades, Schmitt added.
The studyThe study suggests that charging for rescues could actually worsen the danger for climbers and rescuers because some people might put off calling for help.Charley Shimanski, a member of the Alpine Rescue Team based in Evergreen, recalled one Colorado rescue in which the call came in so late that search crews had to grope through darkness to rescue a high-altitude hiker with an injured ankle.When the hiker’s wife was told there was no charge, she said, “I wish I’d have known that. I would have called you a lot earlier,” said Shimanski, the education director for the Mountain Rescue Association, which opposes rescue fees.The Oregon State Sheriffs Association supports Oregon’s fee-for-rescue law as a way to reimburse taxpayers for rescuing people who were unprepared or negligent.”It’s just a tool that’s there. It just doesn’t hurt to have a tool or two in your belt,” said Art Martinak, the group’s executive director.Athearn also cited humanitarian reasons to make rescues free.”Someone is in trouble, you help them,” he said.Gavin James of Farmington, N.M., who was rescued in January after three frigid nights in the mountains of southwestern Colorado, said he doesn’t believe people should be charged for rescue if they made an honest mistake.James had skied outside the boundaries of the Durango Mountain Resort and got lost trying to find his way back. He wasn’t billed, but he said he plans to donate “a whole bunch of money” someday to his rescuers.”From my personal experience, I would have paid any amount of money to get out of the predicament I was in,” he said.- The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Ryan Slabaugh can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 257, or at firstname.lastname@example.orgHighlights from report on climbing accidentsHighlights from a draft of “Climbing Rescues in America: Reality Does Not Support ‘High-Risk, High-Cost’ Perception,” a report scheduled for release Thursday by the American Alpine Club in Golden:– Climbing deaths peaked in 1976 at 53, according to “Accidents in North Amen rican Mountaineering,” the club’s annual compilation. Climbing injuries peaked that same year at 210.– The number of climbing deaths has remained relatively constant while the number of climbers has risen dramatically.– In 2003, the National Park Service reported that rock climbing and mountaineering ranked below day hiking, backpacking, motorized and nonmotorized boating and swimming in the number of rescues required.– Climbing rescues cost somewhat more on average than other types of rescues, but climbers “provide greater volunteer support and pay more directly to offset rescue costs than do virtually all other recreational groups.”– At Yosemite National Park, a popular climbing destination, climbing rescues cost $456,000 from 2000 to 2004. Over the same period, day-hiker rescues cost $762,000 and backpacker rescues $613,000. Backpacking rescues averaged $3,800 each; climbing, $3,100; day hiking, $1,500.
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